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2 + Rumor Transmediation Critical Mash-ups and a Singaporean Prison Break For the very reason that they do express in simple and rationalized terms the uncertainties and hostilities which so many feel, rumors spread swiftly. —Robert H. Knapp, “A Psychology of Rumor” One interesting aspect of going viral is that when a message is forwarded, it is tacitly being endorsed by the forwarder. And when it has been forwarded by so many people, it may gain a certain degree of credibility, and in this way increase the likelihood that it will be forwarded again. “Nothing succeeds like success,” and nothing gets passed on like passed-on rumors. —Nicholas DiFonzo, The Watercooler Effect On the afternoon of 27 February 2008, guards at Singapore’s Whitley Road Detention Center were escorting Mas Selamat bin Kastari (Mas Selamat), one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorists, to the visitors’ area of the center to meet with his family. Mas Selamat had been arrested two years earlier in Indonesia for using a fake identity card. He was extradited to Singapore, where he was being held without trial under the city-state’s Internal Security Act, a law that gives the police and military a great deal of latitude when dealing with suspected terrorists, including the ability to hold someone without charges. Mas Selamat was suspected of leading a plot to hijack jets and fly them into targets in Singapore. He had broken out of an Indonesian prison in 2003, incurring an injury that made him limp; despite this impediment, Singaporean authorities emphasized the threat he represented and put him in their most secure detention facility. The government had every intention of using its considerable resources to keep the elusive terrorist in custody. As they had done during his earlier family visits, the guards at Whitley Road Detention Center brought Mas Selamat to a bathroom so that he could use the toilet and change into street clothes before meeting his relatives. Unbeknownst to his captors, the prisoner had been paying close attention to his surroundings on past trips to the bathroom and had been subtly breaking protocol—by closing the toilet stall door, for example—in order to see what he could get away with while lolling his guards into a sense of security. On this day, however, he had a more dramatic plan. After entering the toilet stall and closing the door, he turned on the water tap and hung his pants over the stall door. He then tossed several rolls of toilet paper out of the stall window, which had no bars or lock on it, in order to cushion his fall. He climbed up and out of the window, slid down a drainpipe attached to the wall and ran across the detention center’s yard. Despite his limp, he was able to escape, presumably by climbing onto a covered walkway that allowed him to jump over a fence. Eleven minutes elapsed before the guard charged with monitoring Mas Selamat realized something was amiss and alerted superiors. Thinking that the fugitive would be found quickly near the detention center, prison officials did not notify the public for four hours. Alert Singaporeans nonetheless noted the flurry of activity in the vicinity of the detention center and blogged about it, sparking the rumors that would eventually become a kind of back channel for Singaporeans wary of official media yet interested in this important story. Escape from the high-security detention center was previously thought impossible; Singapore prides itself on its reputation for order and is known for its zealous law enforcement. Further, the perception that Mas Selamat was such a significant threat to local and international security made his escape seem all the more fantastic. Singaporeans asked themselves how it was possible that such an important and dangerous prisoner could escape from their most secure facility. The circumstances of the escape—and the initial absence of official information—created an environment ripe for speculation ; in this case, it was an ideal rumor antecedent. One such rumor surmised that Mas Selamat had been killed in captivity and that the escape was a cover-up operation. A posting to the “Where the narrative landmines 44 Bears Roam Free” blog was typical of messages from Singaporeans both anxious and angry about the escape. The frustration of the author of the blog is palpable as he asks repeatedly how the escape could have occurred. Likening it to a Malay wayang show, in which a puppet master is behind a...


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MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
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