COMMENT: Internet mob 'justice' is no justice at all

A screengrab from the video (left) that got so many netizens up in arms, alongside comments from netizens on the issue and an online petition that was circulated to encourage the firing of the alleged offender from his job.

SINGAPORE — If I could pick the scariest character to dress as this Halloween weekend it would have to be the “internet mob”.

I don’t know how I would pull it off but what I do know is that it’s the most disturbing creature I’ve read about in recent days.

It’s swift to judge its enemies, relentless in pursuing its foes and also sits on such a high horse that it has no issue committing the very same offences it accuses its victims of. Even more terrifying is how it doesn’t confront its prey face-to-face but instead slings poisonous darts from afar, behind the safety of a keyboard.

Over the past week, some of us might have seen this beast in action as netizens reacted in the case of “Ramesh Erramalli versus Condo Security Guard”.

Many netizens immediately made up their minds about the supposed character flaws and nationality of Erramalli, a resident at Eight Riversuites, after watching a video lasting less than 4 minutes of an incident at the condominium in Whampoa in which he hurled vulgarities at a security guard over a parking fee.

Online vigilantes also felt the need to take action in spite of a police report having been filed against the aggressor. This came in the form of racial epithets used to abuse the so-called “foreign talent”, the posting of Erramalli’s private information over social media and internet forums, the alleged harassing phone calls made to him, and a petition calling for his employer JP Morgan to sack him.

Even after Erramalli apologised to the security guard, the internet mob’s bloodlust was not quelled. Many still call for his deportation and even expect him to apologise to “everyone who lives in HDB”, as one commenter put it.

All this hullaballoo over a parking dispute between an arrogant man and an admirably level-headed security guard. In case it hasn’t already been made clear, the Ministry of Home Affairs has said that Erramalli is a Singaporean who came here on the sponsorship of his wife via the the Family Ties scheme.

Having watched the video a few times, the only “facts” I can ascertain from it are that a condominium resident lost his temper over a seemingly unreasonable parking fee levied on guests arriving at the property past a certain time.

Yes, he spoke condescendingly to the guard and even used the “f-word” while yelling at the latter. And while I have my own opinions on the degree to which Erramalli was abusive (I don’t think he was racist in asking the guard if he was Chinese), the decision on whether he should be punished or not is in the hands of the law, not ours.

While angry netizens may argue that their actions have added pressure on the authorities to take the case seriously, they should be wary of not crossing the line themselves. To that end, I would also like to see the parties who “doxxed” Erramalli by maliciously sharing his private information punished – not out of any sense of fairness, but because such vigilantism often misfires and should not be tolerated.

There are sound reasons why Parliament recently passed anti-doxxing legislation.

A convenient scapegoat

The most disturbing aspect of this fiasco has been the vengeful overreactions to the video and the issues that so many netizens appear to have projected onto the matter.

Judging by the online comments, it would seem that the triggering factors were Erramalli’s strong accent – leading people to assume he was a foreigner – and the fact that he mentioned owning a “$1.5 million” condominium unit.

On the former point, I would like to say unequivocally that even if Erramalli was a foreigner, the comments suggesting that his behaviour was representative of all Indian nationals are patently racist. The many calls for a review of our immigration policy based off this single incident are also clearly overblown and I hope they do not reflect an increasingly xenophobic attitude among Singaporeans.

Regarding the reactions to Erramalli’s declaration of wealth, I can only wonder if they stem from bitterness over the rising cost of living and the increasing wealth gap here. Nobody likes a show-off but that in itself is not a crime, and a sense of entitlement is a nasty trait prevalent across all social classes.

And speaking of self-entitlement, it’s ironic that quite a number of commenters felt that they, too, were owed an apology from Erramalli for his apparent slight against HDB dwellers. How they arrived at that conclusion is beyond me but it would be sad if the solution to their grievances is to give everyone a “$1.5 million” condominium because clearly money is not the answer to fixing bad behaviour.

The concerns among Singaporeans regarding the impact of foreigners in our society and the increasing wealth gap are serious issues and should be acknowledged, but it’s never excusable to take out such anxieties on a convenient scapegoat.

On a separate note, the increasing amount of “citizen journalism” involving the videoing of some offence or other, often closely followed by police reports, is an unhealthy trend. While I understand that such material can be used to bring serious offences to light, it’s disturbing to think that we’re policing one another more than ever over petty disputes.

This kind of surveillance culture only promotes a society in which we view one another with constant suspicion and encourages intolerance of anyone who strays from the path of “approved” behaviour. Let’s not become our own panopticon.

You can’t rid the world of a**holes

To put it bluntly, anyone can be an a**hole to another person. It’s not a trait confined to a specific social class, ethnicity or nationality.

And, as we have seen, when online vigilantes here gang up on a target, many end up being a**holes themselves. This is why mob justice is no justice at all because it’s more about vengeance than fairness.

Encounters with a**holes are also everyday occurrences, something I don’t believe society will ever be able to get rid of. So what do we do?

My takeaways from watching the video – which I would probably share with my children if I had them – would be:

  • Don’t behave like Erramalli did. Let’s all try a little kindness, even when we’re in disagreement with one another.

  • Be more like the security guard, who behaved commendably in the face of adversity.

  • Spare a thought for our frontline service staff who have to deal with difficult customers almost every day and treat them with the respect they deserve.

Nastiness is simply a part of human nature and none of us are saints. I fully support punishing those who have a crossed the line into criminal behaviour, but let’s also be willing to forgive minor trespasses.

For those who think they are above it all, I can only hope that you never find yourself on the other end of a smartphone that’s capturing you at your worst.

Related stories

COMMENT: Is it because he’s a foreigner? (He’s not)

Whampoa condo incident: Resident apologises to security officer in person

JP Morgan, employer of resident in condo incident, wants staff to show 'respect and dignity' for others

Tharman: Condo resident’s behaviour is example of ‘sense of entitlement’