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It’s not uncommon these days to encounter public disputes captured on video, where no one in the video itself seems interested in intervening. In these social media posts, a question often surfaces: Why is this person more interested in capturing the incident with their phone than lending a helping hand?

The latest incident to echo this: the public spat between a couple and an elderly man who took their reserved seats at a food centre. The couple was later arrested for being a public nuisance following several police reports made, and as if an arrest wasn’t satisfying enough, Lianhe Zaobao and netizens continued to dig up personal information about the couple.

This came after a previous attempt to identify them ended up with the wrong couple being outed.

While the dangers of online vigilantism are now quite clear, less obvious is how this has bred a new, insidious form of apathy. The roots of this can be traced back to STOMP – a citizen journalism site, where anyone can contribute news of any kind.

STOMP began in 2006 as an attempt to empower ordinary citizens, giving them a platform to be heard. It enabled the “public service” of posting pictures of people doing questionable things.

But what started out as entertainment or perhaps a way of pursuing social justice soon turned into righteous witch hunts, pursued with a sense of legitimacy. The fact that submissions used to be compensated didn’t help at all.

By giving a brand name to citizen journalism, STOMP unwittingly gave credibility to online vigilantism. Today, it is now part of culture, and it is not uncommon for someone to say;

“Eh, better not sit on the disabled seat, wait you kenna STOMP then you know!”

While the merits of this are debatable, it becomes dangerous when those who go on online witch hunts do not act with the same vigour or sense of justice in real life.

STOMP has shaped culture with how it has made us think that awareness is action, and that online witch hunts are the same as or even better than taking action in real life. Likewise, sharing and writing masturbatory think pieces and self-righteous comments makes it easy to feel like you have contributed to making the situation better.

The social media generation likes to joke: if no one saw you do it, did it really happen?

But whether it’s taking an OOTD or filming bad behaviour, the joke is a direct extension of slacktivism, a phenomenon that sounds hilarious but is hardly funny irl. We feel more gratified by social media activity than by physically helping someone because the former is visibly validated by more people. Validation equals achievement.

We probably should admit that with all the time we spend on Facebook these days, it’s become second nature to shoot and post rather than to act.

STOMP has made it harder for us to recognise that what we can do online is not always the same as what we do irl.

Local academic Donald Low made a very perceptive point that this Singaporean apathy stems from a low-trust society taught from young to trust the state. He was building upon a memory by fellow Singaporean Perry Tan about witnesses to his father’s accident refusing to help.

But is it accurate to say we don’t care enough to act?

A year ago, a woman berated a deaf and mute cleaner in a food court. According to the woman who filmed the video, no one intervened, not even her. In an ironic comment familiar among the self-righteous, she said she put the incident online so people wouldn’t “turn a blind eye”. The woman involved eventually apologised for her behaviour towards the cleaner.

Through social media, moral outrage is often the biggest action we can bring ourselves to do.

So we obviously do care for the victims, and are not wholly indifferent.

That said, it’s not easy to act irl. In many videos that have gone viral, we see only what is happening. We don’t see those who wanted to intervene but stopped once they saw that someone else had already done so. We don’t see those who froze up; those who would have liked to help but couldn’t.

In an ideal situation, perhaps there would be both those intervening and those filming the incident to help with consequent investigations. It’s only a problem when these incidents are filmed with the intention to sensationalise, distribute, and score social media points. Or when we rush to whip out our phones before pausing to think of what the situation actually needs.

What STOMP and its particular brand of online/citizen journalism has done, is shaped a very narrow view of what social media can be used for. STOMP has made it harder for us to recognise that what we can do online is not always the same as what we do irl.

Essentially, this new apathy is less about being unwilling to help, and more about forgetting that we’re not just consumers (and producers) of social media content.

I won’t deny that social justice rants bring significant awareness to issues, that well-reasoned arguments do educate the masses. Nonetheless, if you talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. In this case, talking impedes us from walking when we believe that talk is all we need.  

Which brings me to the question: would I stand up for the wrongly maligned I fight for on the interwebs with as much passion offline?

I can’t say, because I don’t even have that online vigour in the first place. Which might make me a terrible person irl, but at least I don’t pretend otherwise online.

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