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In which I’m blocked from Facebook for… what?

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
In which I’m blocked from Facebook for… what?
Critics of the government and the establishment in Singapore have recently had their Facebook posts taken down. In my case, I was even blocked from posting on Facebook for 24 hours.

The following was first published on 7 July 2016.

I was in the middle of unpacking, surrounded by boxes and garbage bags, when it happened. I stopped to check my phone, and my Facebook app suddenly declared that my session had timed out and that I would be required to log in again.

Huh, weird. But whatever.

The first thing I saw after I keyed in my password was this:

On 4 July, activist and former political detainee Teo Soh Lung wrote a post on her personal Facebook page detailing her most recent brush with the Singapore police. They had interrogated her for hours, then raided her home and seized all her electronic devices, simply because the Elections Department had complained that her Facebook posts on the eve of a by-election was in breach of Singapore’s confusing Cooling-Off Day rules. What’s more, the incident revealed that breaching Cooling-Off Day rules is an “arrestable offence”, which meant that the police didn’t even need warrants to do what they did.

Soh Lung was understandably upset by the whole episode, and was vocal about what she felt was police harassment.

That same day, she received this:

For some reason, Soh Lung’s post about her experience and opinion of the police was deemed in breach of Facebook’s Community Standards. It made no sense – it wasn’t abusive or bullying. It was an important message about police powers and due process; something that all Singaporeans should be aware of and discuss.

I found it ridiculous that her post would be removed. It was suspected that the post had been removed not by an individual at Facebook, but because some algorithm had been triggered by people reporting it en masse. Many felt that it could be the ruling People’s Action Party’s ‘Internet Brigade’: a coordinated group whose job is to troll dissenters and opponents.

I then wrote a Facebook post of my own, detailing how Soh Lung’s post had been removed before reproducing the text in full. I encouraged others to do the same; to copy and paste Soh Lung’s message and republish it on their own Facebook pages so it would be harder for trolls to remove it from circulation.

So when I received my own Facebook takedown notification this afternoon, I assumed that this was the post that had been reported. It was “censorception”, perhaps: the removal of my post about the removal of Soh Lung’s post.

But not only was my post removed, I was also banned from logging into Facebook for 24 hours (at the time of writing, I still have no access):

Thanks to this, I also have no access to other accounts that use Facebook to login: Spotify, Goodreads, etc.

Then things got stranger.

Over dinner, I borrowed my husband’s phone and used his Facebook account to check my page. Surprisingly, the post I had written about the removal of Soh Lung’s post was still available on my page:

I took a look at my Facebook notification again:

Upon closer examination, it was not my post that Facebook had taken issue with. It was the fact that I had shared Soh Lung’s original post. Which is absolutely bizarre, because:

- Soh Lung’s post had been taken down by Facebook on 4 July, which presumably means it disappeared from the feeds of all who shared it. Why find fault with me today, 7 July?

- Why am I being blocked from Facebook when I wasn’t even the actual author of the post; merely someone who shared it? (I don’t even think Soh Lung herself was banned for 24 hours!)

- I was not the only other person who shared Soh Lung’s post; I know other friends did too. Yet I haven’t heard from any of them that they were similarly banned.

That said, Soh Lung and I are by no means the only people this has happened to. Recently, blogger Andrew Loh also had a post – comments he made regarding the Cooling-Off Day rules – removed. Facebook later reinstated the post and apologised, saying it was an accident.

Being blocked from Facebook is a silly thing; seemingly trivial in the scheme of things. But if it is indeed possible for a coordinated group to mass report a post just to remove it from circulation it means that Facebook algorithms can be gamed to silence dissent; a serious thing in a country like Singapore, where there is already so little space for civil society or organising.

The questions remain: how did these posts get removed? Was it an automatic process, or did someone at Facebook really decide they breached the standards? If the latter, what standards were breached? Is Facebook now complicit in online repression?

I reproduce Teo Soh Lung’s original post below:

Police Terror by Teo Soh Lung

These days, my sister calls me every morning just to make sure that I have not been arrested by the police. And my friends call me occasionally to ensure that I am still “free”. My old classmate, Ivy Singh-Lim of Bollywood Veggies, a loyal and vocal Singaporean offered me a safe haven at her farm, assuring me that she would set her dogs on the police if they dare go there to arrest me.

Terror has once again struck Singapore. On 21 May 1987, 16 people disappeared at dawn and no one knew where they were till a few days later. You can watch the documentary film “1987: Untracing the Marxist Conspiracy by Jason Soo at the Projector. Today, this fear is again widespread.

I do not know who is in charge of our police. And I do not know who instructed them to terrorise me. All I know is that I have not committed any crime and that the police have no right to seize my properties even though the seizure of computers and mobile phones are their SOP or standard operating procedures. Seizure of electronic equipment has happened to many people, several of them activists. We have Lynn Lee, the filmmaker, Leslie Chew, the cartoonist, Amos Yee, the attention seeking kid who badmouth both friends and foes, Ravi, Kumaran, Roy Ngerng, Jason Chua, the famous PAP IB, Bryan Lim, the hot-head and probably countless others who have not been reported in the press.

BEWARE law abiding people. You may not have committed any crime. But if the police are after your computers and mobile phones, they may one day go to your house or call you up for an innocuous interview at the police station. And when you are there, they can grab you to their police vehicle, drive you home and order you to open your door for them to enter and ransack your house. I am not kidding you. It happened to me and Roy Ngerng. And it can happen to you.

I went to the police station on 31 May, having received a notice to answer the baseless complaints of the Election Department. This department is exceedingly powerful for it is controlled by our prime minister. I am not sure the complaints were lodged at his command but whoever did that must, I assume, must have informed him. The manner in which the notice was delivered to me was to say the least, purposefully intimidating. The police came to my flat at about 9.55 pm on Saturday, 28 May. They left the notice half in and half out of my door. The notice required me to attend an “interview” at 9.30am on Monday. They came to check if I took in the letter two hours later. They loitered in my estate till well past midnight, perhaps to make sure that I did not leave my house.

The police came to intimidate me again at 9.30 am the next day, a Sunday. They rang my door bell but I did not open the door because I was afraid that they would arrest me. I asked what they wanted and a male voice said they wanted to deliver a letter. It was the same letter that I received and I told him so. He wanted to make sure that I attend the “interview” and was helpful in giving me another telephone number.

Dutifully, I turned up at the police station on 31 May. I gave my statement regarding the four postings which the Election Department complained about. I admitted that I was the one responsible for the postings. I denied that I had committed any offence and told them it was my constitutional right to express my opinion on Cooling Off Day. What more do the police want? Charge me in court if they think I have committed an offence. But they did not do that, at least until now. Instead of allowing me to go home, they threatened to seize my mobile phone and then my computer. When I refused to give them my mobile phone, 4 or 5 police officers entered the room and threatened to handcuff me and arrest me while several others patrolled the corridor. I could see them because the wall partition was glass.

I am amazed and ashamed at the kind of police force we have today. Why threaten me, a pioneer citizen, 5 feet tall at most and weighing about 40 kg? Why so many police officers? But then, I should not have been shocked. The coroner’s inquiry of the cause of death of 14 year old Benjamin Lim who committed suicide is ongoing. Four police officers went to his school to arrest him, a 14 year old boy.

Eight police officers, 4 of whom were from the forensic department, came to my house. Why do they need 8 police officers to seize my computers and mobile phone? I did not commit a murder or possess guns. If this is not intimidation by sheer numbers, then what is? Fortunately, my friends were earlier than the police and they could enter my house at the same time as the police. And best of all, they could witness the police seizing my properties.

The police have robbed me of my properties and gravely inconvenienced me. They have mined my data. They have seen and read all my private documents and know who are my friends. They have invaded my privacy. They have committed a crime. I am angry. But where is my recourse? We do not have a national human rights institution which our so called less developed neighbours have – Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar. Where do I complain about my grievances? To the prime minister at his “Meet the People” session? At the 2nd hearing of Singapore’s human rights record at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, the Singapore government said I could do that. But what is the point of complaining to the prime minister about something that he authorised?

This is my Singapore. This is your Singapore. We are a police state. For the slightest irritation, Singaporeans run to the police. But when the police commit a wrong, where do we run to?

#censorship, #facebook, #singapore, #politics, #free speech, #social media