A Flat Earth Doesn't Make a Dull Debate

Politics and communication technology make a wonderful fit. After all,

one is about trying to put across an accurate message to as many people

as possible at once, and the other is politics. No surprise then, that

U.S. and British elections are fought out largely via TV, nor that

Australia promises that the Internet will be a key medium in the

federal election there at the end of this year; in Singapore, too, the

Web is beginning to affect the political scene.

The strength -- and weakness, some believe -- of the Internet is its

anonymity and ubiquity. It allows anyone, from anywhere, to put forward

their agenda, no matter how unconventional, on an equal footing. For

example, consider the agenda of the Flat Earth Society, a long-lived

but hitherto limited organization that is now able to expand its

territory, if that's the word, simply by means of a Web site

(http://www.flat-earth.org).

"While the Society is not a 'crackpot' group, it is opposed to the

fashionable, politically-correct Spherical Earth theory," the society

says on its site. "The Society asserts that the Earth is flat and has

five sides, that all places in the Universe named Springfield are

merely links in higher-dimensional space to one place."

Well, quite. In most Western countries, it is up to individuals --

voters, if we're talking politics -- to decide for themselves what is

sense and what is nonsense among the content they find on the Web.

Elsewhere, and in Asia in particular, governments fear that their

electorates are not mature enough to distinguish harmful content from

harmless content, and feel it is the government's duty to intervene.

"We believe that it is necessary to have regulations that will help

maintain sensible and responsible political discourse during

elections," said David Lim, Singapore's Minister of State for Defense,

Information and the Arts, earlier this month. "Internet campaigning

does harm if emotions are whipped up by mischievous rumors and false

allegations under the cover of anonymity. Falsehoods, spread

anonymously with impunity and without accountability, damage not only

the credibility of affected candidates, but also diminish the gravity

of elections."

In other words, if you want to be ubiquitous, you cannot be anonymous.

All Web sites in Singapore must be registered, and Web sites located

outside Singapore which talk about the island-state's politics may be

blocked if the site's owners do not identify themselves to the

Singapore authorities.

"The regulations will not hinder candidates from putting forward their

arguments, nor prevent voters from freely expressing their political

viewpoints," Lim said. "But it would make political parties accountable

for the points of view that they put forward to the voting public on

their Web sites."

Other countries would disagree with this stance. Veterans of U.K.

politics would point to parties like the Official Monster Raving Loony

Party (http://www.omrlp.com) as an acceptable alternative political

voice. Unashamedly a crackpot group, the OMRLP is led by a cat called

Mandu, and holds its annual conference in a pub called the Dog &

Partridge. And does no harm.

In fact, there are several registered political Web sites hosted in

Singapore, not all friendly to the government, as well as a U.S.-hosted

site (http://www.talkingcock.com) that engages in general satire about

Singapore society, with headlines like "Economy Bad, So Ministers To

Get Pay Rise."

The closer regulation of political activity on the Web in Singapore

merely reflects a difference in culture, according to Lim.

"Accountability measures that work for Singapore may not work for China

or Japan or the United States, and vice versa," he said. "We will have

different rules, because our societies hold different values, and are

at different stages of development."

No place, then, for the anonymous members of the Flat Earth Society. A

pity. Its blend of "pataphysical engineering, ... memetics, cognitive

dissonance and signal saturation," part of what it calls the Mr. Teapot

Campaign, could hardly fail to enliven Singapore's Web-based political

scene.

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