The Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) organised a workshop on 23 and 24 March 2023 titled “Crisis of the Social: Faultlines, (Un)Truths, and Manipulation,” with the support of the National Security Coordination Secretariat (NSCS) of Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office. The purpose of the workshop was to address the current global crisis of the social, marked by polarisation, declining trust in traditional elites and institutions, and the rise of populist leaders who have exploited ressentiments. The workshop focused on the evolving social landscape, including identities and affinities, discourse and resources, and the potential vulnerability of these to manipulation by state and non-state actors.
During the opening panel of the workshop, Dr Eviane Leidig, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow at Tilburg University; Dr Kamalini Ramdas, a Senior Lecturer at NUS; and Jiaqi Liu, an Incoming Assistant Professor of Sociology at Singapore Management University; shared their thoughts on the importance of identity politics among the Chinese and Indian diasporas and the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore. They presented on three topics that shed light on emerging transnational links of the Hindutva movement within the Indian diaspora, the politics of outbound student migration among the Chinese diaspora, and methods to reduce polarization through education among LGBTQ+ groups in Singapore. These presentations provided insights into how to navigate the complexities of multiple identities within multicultural societies, as well as the relationships between diasporic communities and their host and home countries.
The second panel delved into the threat of manipulation by state and non-state actors towards political ends. The panel featured Dr Jefferson Ragragio, an Assistant Professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, who discussed digital populism in the Philippines; Calvin Cheng, a DPhil Candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, who shared his insights on state-led conspiracy theories in China during the COVID-19 pandemic; and Dr Stephanie Alice Baker, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at City University of London, who talked about the pipeline from health and wellness to far-right extremism promoted by social media influencers in the West. This panel explored the impact of the decline of trust in various forms, from vaccine scepticism to a diversification of beliefs beyond traditional religious elites. It examined how this decline interacts with other factors such as social media platforms, state governance, and censorship, emotional contagion online, and individual proclivities to create extreme ideas that proliferate and permeate mainstream discourse. The discussions shed light on the complex dynamics behind the proliferation of extreme ideas and their consequences for society.
The third panel of the workshop brought together eminent speakers to discuss the critical issue of the current lack of trust in contemporary times, which has become a global phenomenon. Professor Miles Hewstone; Emeritus Professor at the University of Oxford; explored the causes and consequences of this crisis of the social by examining crucial concepts such as the potential irreversibility of the decline of trust and social capital in societies, and what hyperdiversity and the pluralization of identity lines mean for multicultural societies. To expand on this topic within the Singaporean context, Professor Daniel P.S. Goh; Associate Professor of Sociology at NUS; discussed the heightened competition for influence over the public, and explored whether an American-style culture war is taking place in Singapore. Dr Dominik Stecuła; Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University; shared valuable lessons from the post-truth era disinformation during the Capitol riots in the United States of America.
Overall, the workshop provided insightful perspectives into the evolving social landscape and potential threats posed by manipulation by state and non-state actors. It also offered strategies to mitigate polarisation and promote trust in diverse societies. The workshop proved to be a valuable platform for participants to exchange ideas and solutions to address the complex challenges facing national security in an ever-changing social landscape.