Take Mr Yeo, who once received disparaging remarks from both pro-establishment and anti-establishment camps online. He’s a follower of Facebook page Critical Spectator, which has been painted with the same pro-establishment brushstroke as Calvin Cheng and Wendy Cheng. The page, run by Polish national Michael Petraeus, typically features commentaries on local issues.
Mr Yeo calls his takes “refreshing” and “quite different”, explaining that he “dares to say things that might be more controversial”. He cited a post where Critical Spectator had looked at the COVID-19 outbreak at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
“There was some panic, and things seemed bad. But he put things into perspective, relating the numbers to the whole world. We’re quite a low-risk country, with low infection rate and high vaccination rate,” he said.
While Critical Spectator’s fans applaud his writing, he has also attracted criticism. Sometimes, this has resulted in online spats emerging where the language used has reflected some of the trends observed in the YouGov survey.
For instance, in June this year, local playwright Alfian Sa’at wrote a Facebook post to say “a certain Polish polariser” was “decontextualising and distorting” things he had written on social media to do a “takedown”. He called this “pathological behaviour”.
A few days later, Mr Petraeus addressed Mr Sa’at’s post with another Facebook post: “Never a dull day with left-wingers!” he wrote, saying that Mr Sa’at’s actions made him look like a “gigantic hypocritical snowflake”.
Shortly after, local publisher of former socio-political site The Middle Ground, Daniel Yap, came under fire on Critical Spectator. Screenshots on Critical Spectator showed that Mr Yap discovered Mr Petraeus’ name was Michał Piotr Pietrusinski, and left a Facebook comment asking The Online Citizen’s editor to amend his name in articles “for Google to crawl properly and index”.
In a Facebook post on Critical Spectator addressing this, Mr Petraeus wrote that he was giving space to these “loonies”, in order to “expose all of the self-professed fighters for better Singapore for the hateful frauds they really are”.
Mr Jerusalem said that it would be “quite a big charge” to hold particular individuals as a source for the trend of online polarisation.
“My sense is that with or without these individuals, there’d still be a diversity of views and the factions that currently exist. People sometimes find it convenient to reduce the views of these factions down to an identifiable figure that represents them. But I think regardless of that, there’d still be polarisation,” he said.
“The presence of individuals with strong views is not the only reason for polarisation. There’s also echo chambers and bubbles that exist within each platform, and a lack of spaces where people can engage in intergroup dialogue, whether online or in person.”
He added that Singapore has its own unique challenges in terms of political participation.
“Many people regard society as not being very hospitable to that, so this discourse is taken online.”
On the other hand, Ms Tin turned to a line from Spider-Man to describe her take on these high-profile individuals: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
“If you’re a public figure, and if you have a significant following, you know you have an influence over people, then I think your response also needs to exercise greater care and responsibility. Who can be 100 per cent sure that you’re always right?” she advised.
“I would prefer that even as you state your position, (you observe) the tone with which it’s said. It’s about being responsible for how you ask a question because it affects other people’s opinions, being cognisant of our impact on others. As much as we want people to listen to us, we must also be willing to listen to others.”
Beyond what the Government can do, Ms Tin said society has a “powerful” role to play.
“We’re powerful on our own. Whatever’s being talked about online is done by people themselves. So if you’re able to recognise wrong-doers and the harm they’re inflicting on other people, you can rally people to come in and say, no, this is wrong, bullying is wrong,” she said.
“Even if that individual can’t be banned from Facebook, if there are enough people willing to stand up, I think it will help to balance the sentiment and help the victim to feel like they’re not alone.”