2 weeks into lockdown, a new type of insufferable netizen has spawned on the Singaporean interwebs: the COVID-19 vigilantes, who take it upon themselves to bully suspected violators of public health regulations into compliance, through virtual naming and shaming.
It was with this mission that the SG Covidiots Facebook group was founded. The page has clearly gained traction, with over 20,000 members since its conception just 12 days ago. With its self-described purpose of exposing “Covidiots doing their best to sabo(tage) us all”, members tear into others over the smallest of social distancing infringements, from sitting alone in public spaces to exercising without a mask. These posts are often accompanied by derisive comments accusing the alleged offenders of threatening the national effort to flatten the curve.
Two videos circulating on social media lately have been particularly troubling. In the first, an angry netizen hounds an Indian couple while aggressively insisting that the male partner puts his face mask on. (While Singaporeans have been told they can only remove their masks in public if they are doing vigorous exercise, the couple in the video appear to have only just stopped running. Given that the setting doesn’t appear to be particularly crowded, I personally don’t see the harm in the couple’s actions, especially since it’s usually already extremely uncomfortable to wear a mask in Singapore’s humid weather, let alone right after strenuous exercise.)
In the second, another incensed netizen harasses an Indian man who was walking alone without a mask. The netizen is infuriatingly condescending, patronizing the offender by asking him repeatedly if he is ‘educated’ and intimidating him into apologizing.
What is disturbing is the scorn and hostility that these ‘Covidiots’ face. The level of aggression in most cases is uncalled for – these individuals are painted as enemies of an otherwise socially responsible public, with no regard or empathy for the reasons behind their actions. Some have highlighted, for instance, that the older generation (who comprise a significant majority of ‘Covidiots’ identified online) may not fully comprehend the new safe distancing measures, and that more patience rather than aggression is required in persuading them to adapt to social change.
Even more concerning is the way these posts draw upon and exacerbate existing social divides. Both videos described above, for example, are accompanied by comments that build on existing racist and xenophobic tendencies, with many immediately assuming that the offenders must be foreigners (even though Singapore has a sizeable Indian population) and demanding that they be sent back to their home countries. In this way such videos have become excuses to incite hate and racism.
Far from the heroes that they think they are, members of the self-righteous COVID-19 brigade spark hate and damage social cohesion in exchange for likes and relevancy. These are turbulent times and the world, now more than ever, could use a little more kindness and civility. Social resilience and unity are key to helping communities ride out this storm, and these derive not from this new toxic vigilante culture, but rather from treating people with respect and dignity. Rule-breakers should be held accountable, but there are proper channels beyond online outrage and opportunistic bullying – Singaporeans can, for example, report violators of safe distancing regulations via an app, and allow punishments to be determined and meted out by the relevant authorities. As opposed to open confrontation, an approach of humility and empathy, as suggested by the following Facebook user, could go a lot further in helping us all tide through this crisis.