Online bullies offered to kill my premature baby: Local blogger on cyberbullying

SINGAPORE - Singapore ranks among the top again. But it's not a good thing this time round. You see, Singapore and China top the cyberbullying league in Asia, a recent Microsoft survey has found.

In 2010, it was reported that Singapore ranks just behind the US for cyberbullying incidents per capita. Working on this feature made me think: When did it become okay to pour vitriol on people?

These days, most of us will have some facet of our lives put online for all to see. Our names, likes, photos of what we do or eat, even what we are musing over now occupy bits of cyberspace.

You don't have to camp out on social platforms to get a glimpse of the rampant hate on the Internet. It's so common to find an anonymous keyboard warrior labelling someone, usually a female, fat or ugly, or a netizen calling someone stupid and deluded for supporting a particular political party here, or by virtue of being of a particular race.

Blogger Xiaxue reckons that when it comes to dealing with online nastiness, people should just grow a thicker hide.

I agree to some extent. After all, the act of putting thoughts online is an invitation to read, like or comment.

We interview 3 bloggers who tell us how they fight back and put the cyberbullies in a tight spot:

Don’t mess with my baby

Readers track down her bullies

For weeks, blogger Audrey Ooi's life hung in the balance, as did the life of her unborn baby.

While she was pregnant, the 28-year-old was plagued by pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening condition related to high blood pressure. When she gave birth in August to her son Jude Maximus Tiah - two months premature - she got more than just congratulatory comments.

Two netizens, whom she did not know in real life, left comments on her baby's photos which she posted on social media app Instagram. Calling him an alien, they wrote that they would "pray for his soul", and would go to the hospital he was in to "apply euthanasia", among other things.

Ooi, who blogs at fourfeetnine.com, is no stranger to online criticism, having received countless comments about her height, looks and her motivations for dating hubby Timothy Tiah, a founder of blog advertising community Nuffnang.

The couple attracted global attention when Mr Tiah's wedding proposal video went viral. TV host Ryan Seacrest hailed it as a heartwarming coda to 2012, while singer Christina Perri confessed that it made her cry.

So Ooi usually takes such things in her stride. But it was different this time.

She tells The New Paper on Sunday: "I'm not very superstitious typically, but in this case I was very angry and upset, because saying that you're going to pray for someone's soul implies that he is either dying or has done something very bad."

The Malaysian blogger, who also runs an online shop, is an example of how cyberbullying and harassment affects not only children, but also adults.

The issue of cyberbullying, especially among the young, has been gaining prominence.

A study by Microsoft Corporation states that 58 per cent of children in Singapore aged eight to 17 have been victims of cyberbullying. The global average of this 25-country survey is 37 per cent.

Counsellors The New Paper on Sunday spoke to define cyberbullying as an act of deliberately causing harm to another person using the Internet or other digital technologies.

Ooi, having struggled to deliver her baby safely, did not take the bullies' comments lying down.

Besides telling them to stop their snide comments, she also tracked the bullies down on Facebook, expressed her displeasure on one of their pages and blogged about the incident, including screenshots of their comments. The line she drew? Publishing their real names and photos.

"Their Facebook pages showed that they are from the Philippines, and I reckon they probably came to know about me because the photos of my baby's photo would make it to Instagram's popular page occasionally," she says in a phone interview from Kuala Lumpur. Ooi explains that she wrote the blog post on them, titled "how two girls I don't even know harassed us and our prematurely born baby", to remind people that their actions may cause more damage than they think.

"Bloggers write about their lives and put themselves online, so some may say these attacks are a risk we take. But that doesn't give people the licence to say things that may be potentially very harmful.

"What if my baby had died, imagine the mental anguish I would have gone through, imagining he died because of what they said," she reasons.

Her blog post on the bullies attracted a deluge of support from her readers, which number between 8,000 to 10,000 every day. Netizens began tracking down the bullies and scolded them.

Ironically, the bullies, whom she says are close friends with each other, wrote to her asking her to stop the flood of hate directed towards them.

"Of course, I didn't tell my readers to stop. The bullies wrote those mean comments with their own accounts. People could decide what they wanted to do," she says.

While the traditional way of dealing with bullies may simply be to ignore the barbed words, Ooi says it is easier said than done.

"Everyone says you shouldn't let them (the bullies) know it affects you, but it's hard to do nothing when you're being attacked," she says, adding that there should be more accountability on the Internet.

Asked if she is more wary about exposing her baby to the online world these days, she pauses before saying "no".

"I've thought about it, and also talked to other bloggers who have newborns.

"The conclusion is that our babies are the biggest things in our lives right now... what makes us most happy.

"So why should we be scared?

Undergrad's blog post on immigration draws comments attacking her looks and intellect, even as a social activist reportedly calls her 'bimbo'

A recent case of cyberbullying has caught the attention of the online community, prompting debate on the definition of free speech as well as its boundaries - or lack thereof.

It began with a blog post penned by 22-year-old undergraduate Jeraldine Phneah, written after studying ahead for a Nanyang Technological University (NTU) course which she is enrolled for.

In her post, she made references to concepts including species survival and resource partitioning and attempted to extrapolate them, proffering suggestions on how the immigration issue here could be managed.

Her post was later taken by fellow NTU student Lim Jialiang and shared on his Facebook profile.

Netizens began mocking Miss Phneah's opinions on Mr Lim's profile, with some comments soon spiralling into racist remarks and personal attacks involving her looks and intellect.

As of press time, Mr Lim's Facebook profile had been removed. Attempts to contact him were also unsuccessful. Miss Phneah says she initially tried to handle the situation on her own.

"I commented on the thread and told him very nicely that I was very hurt by this incident.

"However, he responded with indifference to my feelings and felt his actions were justified," she says in an e-mail interview.

Following the incident, she wrote in another blog post that she felt "terrorised" as Mr Lim had "much more power in terms of friends on his side.".

Feeling victimised, she approached her school for help and as a result, two of his professors spoke to him, says Miss Phneah. After that, Mr Lim apologised on Facebook.

Intending to lay the matter to rest, she wrote a private note to him on the same platform to thank him.

Little did she know that the move would prompt a fresh debate and bigger outcry as he re-posted her note, attracting a flood of comments from netizens who slammed her for going to the school for help.

Of particular interest was one which was purportedly by Mr Vincent Wijeysingha, who used to be part of the Singapore Democratic Party and is currently a social worker.

His comments apparently were: "No, civil society is not easily offended, only some silly self-absorbed bloggers like Jeraldine Bimbo Popiah."

He continued: "Yes, boys and girls, bimbo. B-I-M-B-O. The quality or function of being a totally self-absorbed twit with the intellectual capacity of a popiah and the social grace of a dengue mosquito. Bimbo. B-I-M-B-O".

Repeated attempts to contact Mr Wijeysingha were unsuccessful.

The comments attracted debates on whether there should be more thought to language used in discussions, and whether there was a balance between freedom of expression and what constituted cyberbullying.

Other netizens urged her to grow a thicker skin, as inviting criticism is simply par for the course when expressing an opinion online.

Wrote Ng Yi Shu: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. She couldn't stand the heat. SO there's no point speaking up for her if she refuses to accept that there are differing opinions."

But her beef is not with others disagreeing, but the personal attacks which came with it.

She says: "(Netizens) said that if I am not resilient enough to take sexist (comments), personal attacks, and cyberbullying, I should not voice my views online.

"But if such comments and cyber harassment are accepted, we will have a hostile online culture."

Cyberbullying cases in Singapore

Flamed online? Don't get upset, suck it up

S'pore blogger Xiaxue, often the target of nasty comments, says one must be tougher and ignore the haters online, or fight back She has received her fair share of online vitriol.

Fat. Short. Ugly. Stupid. Prostitute. You name it, blogger Wendy Cheng, also known as Xiaxue, has probably been called it. But Cheng, who has been baring her life on the Internet for the past 10 years, reckons people worry excessively and unnecessarily about the impact of cyberbullying.

Receiving a few nasty comments doesn't mean you're being cyberbullied, she says.

Instead, cyberbullying, by her definition, refers to a big group of people attacking someone, who as a result, feels victimised. Her solution to nasty comments?

"Grow up, and suck it up," Cheng, 29, declares.

"If you can't deal with a few comments on the Internet, how are you going to deal with the other things that life throws at you? "If you let anonymous people on the Internet get you down and depressed, it just shows weakness of character.

"Besides, what can bullies do if you don't let them get to you? That's how it works, isn't it?" she asks.

You could say that Cheng has earned her stripes to make these blasé remarks, having come under fire in the days leading up to last year's by-election for supporting the People's Action Party.

Detractors left comments on photos taken of Cheng and her friends at a PAP rally in 2011, labelling them prostitutes, among other crude insults.

She had never received as much hate as when it came to politics, despite having written about controversial issues in the past, she says.

"People wish death upon me and my family, threatening to hurt me if they ever see me," she wrote on her blog last year. Instead of taking it lying down, she fought back.

Culling photos of her haters via Facebook, she posted them on her personal blog and lambasted them for leaving the rude comments. "I thought it was quite amusing that they didn't conceal their identities, and that it was great to show others who these people (the haters) are," she says.

Cheng maintains she was not emotionally hurt by the comments, but was put off by how male commenters were "demeaning and insulting the modesty of women online".

"My way of dealing with nasty comments is typically to ignore them. Once in a while, I argue back," she says. Despite her resilience, Cheng acknowledges that some things cross the line.

Referring to a fellow blogger who was accused of being a third party in a couple's relationship, she says: "I heard they posted her phone number and address online. That is a bit too much," she muses.

Being a mother has not changed her approach to dealing with online hate.

Cheng, who frequently posts photos and videos of her seven-month-old son online, says she is not afraid of people posting unkind comments about her son.

"If he is affected by it in future, he can always come to me and talk about it. And if they say he's fat, I'll ask him if he really thinks so and if he does, he can go on a diet to lose weight," she quips matter-of-factly.

Cyberbullying cases in Singapore

Do learn to seek help

Counsellors give advice on spotting victims and dealing with the culprits

What is cyberbullying?

Misusing technology to hurt someone through means, including uploading embarrassing photos or videos and writing nasty comments to deliberately harm a person, even if it was done out of mischief

How do you know if someone is a victim of cyberbullying?

Look out for the following symptoms:

  • Withdrawn interaction with family and friends
  • Turns computer off or quickly changes screen when you enter the room Drastic changes in Internet usage habits
  • Marked change in behaviour, beliefs, self-esteem or attitude
  • Significant decrease in academic performance and school attendance

Who is most susceptible?

  • Youths, as they are generally more impressionable and do not have the maturity to discern and realise the Internet is not safe and not their personal space
  • People who have suffered traditional forms of bullying. For example, someone who was physically bullied because he is different from others in terms of appearance, intellect, and so on
  • People who find it difficult to stand up for themselves, are overprotected or do not have friends

What are the most common forms of cyberbullying?

  • Hurtful, irresponsible, derogatory comments or photos posted on social media sites
  • Impersonation - setting up an account in another person's name to post hurtful comments
  • Cyberstalking/harassment
  • Gossip mongering and spreading rumours online

How to seek help:

  • Tell a trusted adult. You don't have to suffer alone
  • Save evidence of cyberbullying incidences
  • Block interaction with the perpetrator
  • Make a police report if it is a case of criminal intimidation

Victims can also visit www.planetcrush.org or call Touch Cyber Wellness at 1800-377-2252, where counsellors are on hand Information provided by Ms Sylvia Ang, senior counsellor with the Singapore Children's Society, and Mr Chong Ee Jay, assistant manager at Touch Cyber Wellness

Cyberbullying cases in Singapore

Don't know your rights?

Are there laws which specifically relate to cyberbullying in Singapore?

No. Laws relating to criminal intimidation, intentional harassment, making threats and so on, which apply in the real world, can apply to the virtual one as well.

How can we move forward? Do you think there should be a law specifically related to cyberbullying?

So far there's been no impetus to have a law specifically in relation to cyberbullying but I am a fan of trying to anticipate issues that may arise before they do.

I think more can be done when it comes to educating people about issues surrounding cyberbullying.

Some legislation is good, but perhaps not in the way we traditionally imagine - one solution would be to have a process for the removal of offensive content promptly, with a focus on protecting vulnerable netizens.

Such processes may not necessarily involve criminal punishment but counselling.

Lawyer Bryan Tan, partner at Pinsent Masons.


Cyberbullies elsewhere

Philippines: Senator files bill to safeguard cyberbullying victims after being one herself

Mocking stories and memes about Ms Nancy Binay and her family circulated as she ran for senator in early 2013.

The US: Teenager jumps to her death after being bullied online

Rebecca Sedwick, 12, jumped to her death in September. News reports say that a contributing factor was online bullying by 15 girls who picked on her for months.

The UK: 14-year-old hangs herself after weeks of anonymous cyberbullying

Hannah Smith was taunted by anonymous cyberbullies for weeks, culminating in her death after receiving messages telling her to kill herself.

Canada: Teen attempted suicide after being raped and bullied

Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, fell into a coma and was taken off life support three days later. After she was allegedly raped, she was called "slut" and received requests for sex.

Cyberbullying cases in Singapore

Get The New Paper for more stories.