April 18, 2017
THE current ongoing cyber-war between BN and PR is causing much confusion and political fatigue. Politicians, civil society and online news portals are facing cyber-attacks and harassment.
Fake news, alternative facts, spin and counter spin abound today hence internet regulation especially on hate speech and defamation is most welcome.
Free speech is never absolute; its boundary ends when it tramples on fundamental liberties and rights of others or affects law and order. Online anonymity makes it difficult to trace and identify troublemakers who use proxy servers and hide behind cyber-walls that only experts can crack; there are also legal jurisdictional obstacles.
Even with enough laws and regulations in place, enforcement is another issue.
Malaysian politicians and parties have to be constantly alert. They are not just being observed by the media; the rakyat are looking at them and can and will expose any wrongdoings they see.
Citizens today demand more accountability. Politicians today will find it hard to avoid answering difficult questions.
People do not take what they read at face value, often resorting to social media to verify information. For example, I personally will access Parliament’s website and check the Hansard to confirm that an MP’s statement was reported accurately by the media.
People nowadays are more sceptical and will check the background politicians.
Thus politicians need to exercise caution about what they post online; anyone can tweet but the key is how and what they tweet about.
A limited understanding of cyber-culture, cyber-values and netiquette can very quickly escalate into a social media crisis.
Due to time constraints and long work hours, urban voters prefer to use social media to connect with their political representatives, while ground contact is more important to rural voters.
Politicians in large urban constituencies find it hard to connect personally with the huge voting population, but they can still use social media to create a personal connection with their constituents if they individually reply to online messages. Such virtual contact creates a digital bond despite a lack of face-to-face interaction.
Opposition politicians, political parties, bloggers, NGOs and civil society groups have flourished and grown exponentially with social media development as the Internet helps to improve their organisation, outreach, information dissemination, fund-raising and even internal communication.
They now have numerous mostly free channels to advance their agenda by circumventing government-controlled traditional media and directly disseminate their agenda and information to the rakyat, bypassing traditional media gatekeepers.
Therefore, social media is a catalyst that allows real issues, perceived issues and outright fake news and rumours to surface, amplify and shape public opinion.
Make no mistake that the opposition is taking full advantage of the fact that online controls are impractical as Internet Protocol (IP) addresses for blogs can be traced but not for Facebook and Twitter. Instead of government top-down laws, self-regulation might be a better model for online media.
For example, more financial resources are needed to set up real-world media organisations, such as newspapers, television or radio, compared to online. Licences are needed to operate traditional media outlets in Malaysia, which is not necessary for online media.
Thus, opposition political parties are able to operate their own online television and radio stations such as Ubah.TV (DAP) and Hijau.FM (PAS).
Lower online entry costs reduce the entry barrier for the participation of many groups, social movements and individuals, especially for the smaller, resource-poor political parties.
We must note that online chatter is not necessarily indicative of ground sentiment. However cyber-public opinion is still important for politicians and their parties when crafting out policies as it reflects views from a segment of society that is politically aware and knowledgeable.