The term ‘social media activism’ is almost an oxymoron. It’s right there in the name: activism calls for action to be taken, in an attempt to promote a particular social or political cause. To associate such a concept with something as effortless as posting an Instagram Story or sharing a Facebook post makes a mockery of the practice itself.
Or does it?
Better known by its more pejorative monikers ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’, social media activism is characterised by the use of relatively low-effort activities to promote a certain cause. With the rise of social media itself, the practice has gained traction all over the globe. Even ex-US President Barack Obama recently raised concerns with how social media is being used in attempts to incite change.
Yet over the last couple of years, social media has empowered causes that arguably would have never grown to the extents that they have today. From the #MeToo movement that first got off the ground after a 2017 tweet by actress Alysssa Milano, to the Black Lives Matter movement that gained traction amidst worldwide Covid-19 lockdowns last year, social media activism has become an inextricable part of the causes we root for today.
Social media activism closer to home
In Singapore, social media activism manifests most commonly in the form of Instagram or Facebook pages dedicated to raising awareness around specific socio-political causes. Whether or not you follow these pages yourselves, you’ve probably seen the content they put out, in the form of reposts by friends, or even in your suggested posts.
While social media activism can be practised by anyone keen to speak up on a particular issue online, these social justice pages arguably attract the most eyeballs, with no small amount of credit going to the straightforward manner in which information is often packaged and presented to followers.
With its impressive repertoire of concisely-worded multi-image carousels, The Twain Have Met (@thetwainhavemet) fits the bill for such Instagram pages—but with a few twists. For starters, unlike most other social justice pages, the Singapore-based page touches on a broad range of local socio-political issues, with posts about everything from the job scope of a Nominated Member of Parliament to the death penalty in Singapore.
“I feel like there is no real meaning in just focusing on one issue, when our audience encompasses a spectrum of [diverse and complex] people who would want to hear about different issues,” shares Nicole, one of the people behind The Twain Have Met, which has amassed close to ten thousand followers since its inception in 2020. Articulate, vocal and palpably passionate about speaking up on local politics and social issues, Nicole is also particularly hesitant about putting a face to her work online.
The Twain Have Met’s strict adherence to protecting the identities of its editors has proven to be effective in not only supporting the page’s objectivity, but also people it sought to offer a platform for—at least on one particular occasion.
In August 2020, a series of allegations regarding local influencer Dee Kosh and his sexual advances on minors gained traction on both Twitter and Instagram, prompting individuals to come forward with their experiences online. According to Nicole, the nameless, faceless nature of The Twain Have Met aided in their efforts in reaching out to people who were sexually abused by the influencer.
“Because we were an anonymous [page], they believed in us, in the sense that [they trusted that] we would respect their anonymity too,” says Nicole, adding that the survivors also shared with them stories that “weren’t shared previously” online.
On what ‘real change’ looks like
The main arguments against the value of social media activism are typically rooted in the belief that actions online simply lack the capacity to incite real change—at best, it can only serve to raise awareness around certain issues.
But to Nicole, the Dee Kosh incident serves as an important example of how in some instances, raising awareness and inciting real change can be one and the same.
“Dee Kosh is an online personality—the only real way to stop his influence and help [the survivors] get justice would be to raise awareness about what he’s done.”
In driving the conversation around the issue and providing survivors with an avenue to share about their experiences anonymously, Nicole believes that the efforts of The Twain Have Met were “very meaningful” for many of the survivors involved.
Nicole also highlights how discussion of less mainstream issues on social media can incite real change by encouraging people to deepen their understanding of such issues.
Referring to a recent post on LGBTQ people in Asia throughout history, Nicole shares that a number of people had reached out to The Twain Have Met team to ask where they could find the resources used for the post, in hopes of using the material to talk to their family and friends about the subject.
“One person really stood out to me, because his father had been using traditional Asian [rhetorics] to justify why he was homophobic, and he really just needed something to refute [his father’s views],” says Nicole. A few weeks after the team had provided the reader with the resources, he updated them with the news that his father had been receptive to what he had to say.
“What we do online may not really drive big changes, but it does make some change, one person at a time—I think [that should also count as] real change.”
Rallying the community in hard times
In the wake of increasing COVID-19 cases in the community, Singapore entered a semi-lockdown in May 2021, thrusting F&B businesses into the fray as dining out became temporarily outlawed. But of those affected, no other group is as hard-hit as the digitally-disadvantaged hawkers without existing arrangements with delivery platforms and social media outreach capabilities.
Enter Wheretodapao (@wheretodapao), an Instagram page born out of a desire to raise awareness of the plight faced by digitally-disadvantaged hawkers in times such as this.
“We just hope to share a more personal side to these hawkers, and raise awareness of this group of less tech-savvy elderly particularly [during] this stay-home season,” shares the person who runs the account. They declined to be named.
In a bid to promote as many local hawkers as possible, Wheretodapao’s page-runners feature at least three different hawkers based all over the island every day, using their own visits to these hawkers and followers’ submissions. It is safe to say that their efforts have paid off—over the course of less than a month, Wheretodapao has amassed over 35,000 followers and counting, attesting to both the page-runners’ dedication and the local community’s support for the initiative.
But are the hawkers really benefiting?
According to some of the featured hawkers on Wheretodapao, the answer is yes.
“There has been a slight improvement in business [since Wheretodapao featured my submission],” shares Daryl Khoo, son of a hawker who has been featured on Wheretodapao.
Since the post went up, his father, who runs Mei Lock Soursop Juice at Old Airport Road Food Centre, not only saw sales increase by roughly 10 percent, but also a marked increase in young people coming to patronise the stall.
This observation is echoed by Li Xiao Hui, daughter of the couple operating De Li Snacks at Tampines Round Market, another stall that has been featured on Wheretodapao. While her parents could not provide an estimate for how much business has picked up, they have noted an increase in younger folks coming down to the stall since being featured.
The page-runners of Wheretodapao have also received their fair share of Direct Messages from members of the public who have been to patronise some of the featured hawkers.
“They tell us that they go to these hawkers and inform them [that] they’ve been featured, or that the hawkers themselves tell them [that] business has picked up,” shares one of the page-runners.
Not enough to keep some afloat
In spite of Wheretodapao’s immense popularity, which has already translated into collaborations with big names like DBS, Foodpanda and JustDabao, its page-runners acknowledge that the trickle down benefits for hawkers isn’t equal and that these success stories “can’t speak for everyone”.
While the page’s feature on New Hong Kong Congee at Amoy Street Food Centre remains one of its top-performing posts at over 1,600 likes, owner Mdm Wong has yet to see much “tangible impact”.
“That being said my mom was really encouraged [by the support online]. She definitely sees hope,” shares Kien Sieng, Mdm Wong’s son. He was also the one to submit the write-up for Wheretodapao’s feature on his mother’s stall.
Some hawkers remain less optimistic.
With a few customers already milling around Traditional Delights, a traditional snack stall at Maxwell Food Centre, before its official opening, one would assume that the attention Wheretodapao has brought the stall has translated to a turnaround in business.
Yet the reality could not be more different, at least according to Mdm Seng, the owner of stall. While there has been an increase in footfall to her stall post-feature, she notes that the improvement is slight.
“It’s very tough work, and for very little money. I’m basically running a loss-making business,” shares Mdm Seng, who adds that she is not sure how long she can continue operating.
Even hawkers on food delivery platforms feel the heat, according to Mr Koh, owner of Maxwell Food Centre’s Heng Heng Hainanese Chicken Rice. While the business is on food delivery platforms such as Foodpanda and WhyQ, revenue earned from these platforms only come up to less than $20 a day.
According to Mr Koh, having a relatively stronger online presence also does little in improving sales, given that there are a total of seven different stalls selling chicken rice at Maxwell Food Centre alone.
He adds that it is also difficult to compete with more popular chicken rice stalls that receive a lot of publicity online, namely Michelin-listed Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice.
“What they can earn in one day is equivalent to what we earn in one month,” shares Mr Koh.
Lending a voice to the voiceless
With the country under lockdown amid an explosion of COVID-19 cases in migrant worker dormitories in March 2020, there was a surge in interest in the living conditions faced by the people then at the centre of Singapore’s struggle with the unfolding pandemic. As images of cramped rooms occupied by a few workers too many and off-putting meals began making their rounds on social media, calls for improvements in living conditions for migrant workers grew.
For its part, the Singapore government announced in June 2020 that it would be trying to improve the standards of migrant worker accommodations. The aim was to decrease the concentration of migrant workers in accommodations by building quick-build dormitories in the short term, and building more spacious, purpose-built dormitories in the long term.
While a step in the right direction, the proposed commitments remain a challenge for the government to deliver on, particularly in light of an ongoing pandemic that continues to keep complex, large-scale plans at a bottleneck—making advocacy and long-term checks on the powers that be more necessary than ever.
Hard truths to keep activism going
Bangladesh-born MD Sharif Uddin works as a safety coordinator for a Singaporean construction company. He is a migrant worker, but only by day, because night time is when he sits down to pen his thoughts in his diary. And as a migrant worker in Singapore, Mr Uddin has a lot of thoughts—thoughts that were eventually published in Stranger to Myself, a novelised compilation of the diary entries and poetry he has written as a migrant worker over the years.
“Wherever migrant workers are suffering, I try to write about it. I try to write [well], with emotion, because only when I’m showing my feelings do people [understand] our problems,” shares Mr Uddin, who remains passionate about spreading awareness of the issues migrant workers in Singapore continue to face, over a year on from the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the dormitories.
To date, migrant workers remain restricted from leaving their dormitories for any reason besides work and “essentials”, such as receiving medical treatment. Even then, their employers would have to apply for a pass for them to be able to leave.
In 2021, Mr Uddin published his second novel, Stranger to My World, which details his ongoing experience of being trapped in perpetual semi-lockdown in the dormitories.
“Imagine sitting and eating in one room and [not being able to] go out to market. Not just [for] a few days but one year. How is your feeling?”
As heartened as he was to see the outpouring of public support for migrant worker rights on social media last year, Mr Uddin remains deeply concerned about the issues he and thousands of other workers like him continue to face. Aside from being confined to their dormitories, Mr Uddin lists overcrowded living quarters, poor salary payment systems and unsafe transportation as other key issues that require action from the relevant authorities.
“We do hard work, but we [just] hope that the government gives us [decent] facilities to sleep, shower and work [in] safely,” says Mr Uddin.
With conversations around migrant worker rights having mostly died down in the online sphere, Mr Uddin expresses doubt that much can be done about his situation.
“Only when [the] local community talk[s] about migrant workers will the government take action. Now nobody is talking,” says Mr Uddin, adding that many workers remain reluctant to voice these issues to the relevant authorities for fear of jeopardising their relationship with their employers, which could very well land them right back where they came from.
For people like Mr Uddin, the fight for not just better living conditions but better rights for migrant workers remains one that is far from over—and one that needs to be sustained until things truly improve.
Mr Uddin’s sentiments are echoed by Abigail Goh, a volunteer at migrant worker welfare organisation Project Chulia Street. While activism on social media has contributed “massively” in driving donations for non-profit organisations like Project Chulia Street, Ms Goh expresses disappointment with how efforts are “on and off”.
“I find social media activism useful, but there is the danger that it’s just temporary attention because the topic is buzzy, and that’s sad. For the public it can be an on and off switch, but for the guys the issues never stop,” says Ms Goh.
According to Ms Goh, another issue that arises from sporadic online support for causes like migrant worker welfare is the overload of support in one area during periods of high awareness. In April 2020, images of the meals catered for migrant workers began circulating online, sparking discussion on the poor quality of food for migrant workers and leading to a deluge of food donations from the public.
“Awareness is good, but it’s also limited because even when something goes viral, actionable steps aren’t always taken,” she says, while acknowledging that the onus is more on the government than the public in addressing issues as complex as migrant worker welfare.
Not all doom and gloom
In spite of the issues that come with the sporadic nature of social media activism, the explosion of support online for migrant workers during Singapore’s COVID-19 circuit breaker last year had its benefits for non-profit organisations like Project Chulia Street.
On top of a sharp increase in much-needed donations, it became “easier” for non-profit organisations to appeal to bigger donors such as private companies and family offices. For Project Chulia Street, contributions from such donors enable them to buy items in bulk and offer support to beneficiaries on a more timely basis.
Social media was also instrumental in keeping the migrant worker community together amid the ongoing pandemic. During Singapore’s circuit breaker period in 2020, Project Chulia Street put together a series of Facebook Live sessions coined ADDA (or “chit-chat” in Bengali) aimed at providing migrant workers with COVID-19-related advice with a doctor.
Conducted fully in Bengali, the series served as a platform for migrant workers to ask questions regarding pressing lockdown concerns such as salary payment and mental wellness. Through ADDA, workers were able to share their thoughts and ideas with each other directly—which, to Ms Goh, made for a “much more empowering” experience for them.
Even without the support of non-profit organisations like Project Chulia Street, migrant workers have been finding ways to stay connected with each other thanks to social media. “Bangladeshi Migrant Workers in Singapore” was a Facebook page started out of a whim by 34-year-old migrant worker Omar Faruque Shipon. Today, the page has over 94,000 followers, with Mr Omar regularly posting Bengali translations and even video explanations of important news in Singapore for migrant workers.
Short of driving sustained, top-down efforts to protect the rights of migrant workers in Singapore, social media nonetheless shows some potential in breaking down the notion that people like Mr Uddin and Mr Omar are just migrant workers; simple, voiceless labourers reduced to their sole function to the rest of us in this society. Wielded well, social media might even have the potential to push across a radical notion—the notion that migrant workers are in fact people, too; people with their own hopes and dreams and fears.
Let’s talk about race
Conversations about xenophobia are always tough. But that remains the situation many immigrants in Singapore are forced to face—particularly those also belonging to one of the ethnic minorities. And with a worrying increase in open acts of racism in Singapore over the last few months, the fear of facing animosity from the local community is “definitely escalating”, says T, a Singapore-based Indian expatriate.
While T acknowledges how coverage of xenophobia by both news sites and social justice pages on Instagram do “a great job” at providing in-depth knowledge about the issues faced by both foreigners and ethnic minorities in Singapore, they continue to live in fear of being on the receiving end of race-related violence.
“People who are racist are not going to see these articles and change their minds on behaving the way they do,” says T, who also cites the existence of “echo chambers” to be a possible reason for why they have not come across any racist remarks online themselves.
For real change to happen, T thinks that the Government needs to step into enforce racial discrimination laws more actively to send a message to people who hold these prejudices. Until change and action is enforced top-down, and policy changes are made to deal with these issues effectively, I cannot say I feel safe,” says T.
An admin of a social justice page who posted about the experiences of multiple Indian expatriates concurs with T’s sentiments. “Sometimes, I wonder if what I post has any bearing on what’s happening around us. You can see clearly see that people live in their own echo chambers and assume that everyone outside these chambers are bad faith actors,” shares the page-runner, who declined to be named.
The page-runner also pointed to social media algorithms as a potential reason for this. “In a world where Facebook and Instagram have financial incentives to feed all of us things that we already agree with, what’s going to happen to our shared spaces? ” he says.
It goes without saying that any cause worth fighting for will never simply entail a quick repost of a blacked-out box, or even even dedicating one’s platform to sharing information about a certain cause. And that’s the thing: while social media will never be the be-all-and-end-all for activism, it makes for a pretty formidable weapon in one’s toolkit for change. As illustrated by the causes that have (and continue to) moved us as a people, social media activism has great capacity for enacting change—when paired with sense, consistency, and perhaps most importantly, heart.
The names of some of the interviewees have been changed to protect their anonymity