For some, it is an important means of social justice and holding powerful figures to account. But to others, it is often “misused and misdirected” and has become a form of mob rule.
But one country wants to put an end to deeply contested online phenomena by introducing what legal experts and observers say would be the world’s first law against cancel culture, raising alarm among rights activists who fear that such legal powers can be used to stifle free speech. .
For the past year, the Singapore government has been “looking for ways to deal with cancel culture,” a spokesperson told CNN, amid what some say is a brewing culture war between rights advocates. homosexuals and the religious right after the recent decriminalization of homosexuality in the country. largely conservative city-state.
Authorities said they were “reviewing existing laws and related legislation” after receiving “comments” from conservative Christians who expressed fears that vocal groups would cancel their opinions online.
“People should be free to express their views without fear of being attacked by either side,” Justice Minister K Shanmugam said in an interview with state media in August.
“We should not allow a culture where religious people are ostracized (or) attacked for standing up for their views or for disagreeing with LGBTIQ views, and vice versa,” he added.
His comments came before the historic repeal of a colonial-era law that criminalized gay sex, even if it was consensual.
“We cannot sit back and do nothing. We have to find the right boundaries between hate speech and free speech in this context,” Shanmugam said.
“There could be broader repercussions for society at large where public discourse is impoverished… so we plan to do something about it.”
In a statement to CNN, his justice ministry said the impact of online cancellation campaigns could be “far-reaching and severe for victims.”
“(Some) have been unable to engage in reasonable public discourse for fear of being attacked for their opinions online… and may engage in self-censorship for fear of being targeted by cancellation campaigns,” a ministry spokesperson said.
What would a cancellation law look like?
The first thing any law addressing cancel culture must do would be to define the act of canceling, an extremely complex challenge according to legal experts, given how contentious cancel culture can be.
The phrase first originated from the slang term “cancel,” which refers to breaking up with someone, according to the Pew Research Center, and later gained traction on social media.
The Center published a study on the cancel phenomenon in 2021 that revealed a deep public divide between demographic groups in the United States, from the very meaning of the phrase to what cancel culture represents.
According to Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University (SMU), “there is no accepted definition” of cancellation and as such any proposed law would have to be “very clearly defined and worded.”
“What does it mean when a person says they have been cancelled? How would the alleged victims prove that they have been cancelled?” said Tan, who once served as a nominated member of the Singapore Parliament.
“Too often, people interpret, describe or remember incidents in different ways. Lack of precision could lead to the law being too inclusive and covering acts it shouldn’t,” Tan added.
“But if the definition is restrictive, the law could be inclusive and not cover crucial acts when it should,” Tan said.
Since most cancellation cases take place online, the new law would also have to be drafted especially with the Internet in mind and would likely involve the cooperation of social media giants, lawyers in Singapore told CNN.
“A cancellation law will have to involve the platforms where people normally discuss or propagate anything related to the cancellation and where the materials are posted,” said Ian Ernst Chai, a lawyer who once served as a deputy prosecutor at the Singapore Attorney General’s Office. cameras.
Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok could be asked to police users or comply with court orders to some extent, Chai said, and this could also include removing posts and tweets deemed “in violation.” of the law”. .”
Special legal mechanisms would also be needed to identify perpetrators (“cancellers”), other legal experts said. “With the cancel culture, things can immediately spread online and people’s reputations can be ruined in a matter of hours,” said criminal defense attorney Joshua Tong.
“It is clear that traditional legal processes are not suitable for cancellation scenarios and a different process should be used. The (new) law could contain sections such as intervention mechanisms to stop cancellation campaigns before they gain traction,” Tong added. .
In the case of Singapore, there are also several laws already in place that govern the Internet, including an Anti-Fake News Bill, punishable by fines of up to S$50,000 ($38,000) or possible prison terms of up to five years, as well as such as laws governing cyberbullying and doxing
So a cancellation law would have to be of a very different nature.