Cyberwar-Don’t be the victim
KUALA LUMPUR: Gone were the days of mainstream media having the upper hand of being the only source of information dissemination.
Although Malaysia was initially sluggish in jumping on the new media bandwagon back in the 90s, the advent of technology propelled the public into cyberspace rather abruptly at the turn of the millennium.
At the height of Malaysia’s political upheaval in the late 90s, as a result of then deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking and subsequent indictment of sodomy, Malaysians began to turn to alternative sources for information.
This was something that caught the ruling government Barisan Nasional (BN) off guard.
Anwar, having gained notorious support particularly from the younger demographic at the time, unknowingly became a catalyst that drove Malaysians into a new age of information seeking and sharing.
Despite the fact that BN was somewhat unprepared for the sudden switch from ‘old media’ or above-the-line ‘promotion’ methods to the information superhighway, it has managed to catch up thus bringing the Government-Opposition ‘cyberwar’ to a level playing field.
While the term ‘cyberwar’ speaks for itself, the fundamental element of cyberwar is the abolishment of the ‘gatekeeper’. Suddenly, the public found a way to express themselves and reach out to a wider audience without any barriers.
The catch? New media brought along with it propagandas, controversies and the alleged other side of the coin. The public lapped it up and was hungry for more.
Bloggers came out of the woodwork and all of a sudden, people became more vocal from the comforts of their own home, hiding behind anonymous names and images.
The more responsible and vocal bloggers includes the likes of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He first started using new media after the 2008 general election, particularly to hit out at the administration of then Prime Minister and his successor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Several bloggers including pro-BN blogger Rockybru and Umno member blogger Big Dog, hopped on board.
In some ways, BN was not at all ready for the impact new media had back in 2008. The price was paid when BN lost five states – Kedah, Kelantan, Perak, Penang and Selangor – to the Opposition coalition.
However, the Opposition did not achieve this unprecedented victory solely on their own accord. Dr Mahathir and pro-BN bloggers who were critical of Pak Lah’s administration in their writings pretty much gave the Opposition an upper hand.
A general overview of the cyberwar in 2008 is that the criticism exercised by bloggers at the time was more constructive and based on truth. But with more people entering the blogosphere, it has since evolved to become a venomous ground of ‘anything goes’.
With more outlets for people to voice their opinions, comes the responsibility of readers to vet what is the truth and what is mere nonsense.
With that said, 2008 still served as an eye-opener for BN who then went on a mission to conquer new media.
According to a social media survey website, Socialbakers.com, Prime Minister and BN chairman Datuk Seri Najib Razak has the highest number of followers on Twitter and Facebook, for a political figure. He outranks local celebrities on Twitter as well.
The Opposition’s impact, if judged solely on the number of followers its leaders have garnered, is not as strong as BN.
While the number of Twitter followers and Facebook likes do not necessarily reflect public sentiment, it is clear that BN has managed to catch up on the time lost. As the leaders take to social networks, supporters are also following closely behind and here is where the cyberwar becomes a no holds barred battleground.
The danger of new media is in its fundamental element; that there are no gatekeepers. Without any filter, it becomes easy for anyone to propagate lies as the truth, fiction for fact, and half-truths become whole.
Last Sept 28, Malaysian Digest reported on a 1Malaysia school exercise book with a sketched picture of Najib’s face on it, in which PKR Rembau division chief Badrul Hisham Shahrin or Chegubard had claimed that it was a desperate attempt by Najib and BN to win support.
He had alleged in PKR’s party organ KeadilanDaily.com that the exercise book was to be distributed and used in schools by the government.
However, subsequent checks by MD revealed that the books were part of an art project by Gerai 1Malaysia, an initiative that had nothing to do with BN but more of a parody project in promoting the 1Malaysia brand.
All it took was a simple phone call. Like any other ethical media organization, MD’s strict vetting policy when it comes to reporting is borne out of a sense of responsibility to supply the public with only truth.
Following the clarification on the matter, the KeadilanDaily.com article was taken down with Chegubard posting an official apology on his blog.
While many become more tech and Internet savvy, there are those who got lazier. They feed on propaganda and controversies without wanting to find out the truth behind certain allegations.
Last Monday, MD was alerted of a current Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) bill being circulated highlighting the Renewable Energy Fund charges. Some blogs accused the charges as a way of BN to take money from the public.
Again, a quick check online and a call to TNB revealed that the charges have been sanctioned since 2011, was widely reported in the media, and is only applicable to those who use more than 300kwh of electricity in a month.
Another example would be DAP recently crying foul with regards to the Election Commission (EC) allegedly not allowing them to use their rocket symbol for the upcoming GE.
Rockybru later revealed the other side of the story in his blog posting here.
Damage would have been done, especially amongst those who do not bother to check.
By now, readers, especially those who frequent cyberspace more than mainstream media, would be able to discern which sites are pro-Opposition and which are pro-Government. The best course of action in the cases of dubious stories, is to read what both sides have to say, and make an informed deduction.
We need to realize that as the world becomes more and more borderless, information-wise, verification and common sense are highly important.
While some of us are now more skeptical towards mainstream media, saying that they are nothing more than government tools and that their content is filtered and do not convey the whole truth, the same goes for new media. Not everything we read on the Internet is true.
Cyberspace is rife with conspiracy theorists, hungry for an audience. This is something we need to constantly remind ourselves of.
Being a blogger and a blog-reader at the same time, this writer has often been faced with crossroads. The most common one being, “If I want more people to read this, all I need to do is sensationalize the truth a tad, and voila!”
However, one thing keeps this writer in check – that the world needs to be a better place. Lies and sensationalism would only contribute to a rumor-mongering society who shuns facts and consumes propaganda.
The end result of that is an ugly picture. A world where facts, figures and logic get thrown out the window in favor of gossips.
The same goes for campaigning during elections. The fight has now been taken online and supporters of each party are battling it out with blogs, Photoshopped pictures, videos and social networking.
Last week, MD carried a pictorial on the GE13 cyberwar. Both sides unleashed their creativity at editing photos but to what end? Where does creativity end and slander kick in?
This is a sensitive time in Malaysian history. The upcoming general election is set to be a colorful and ground-breaking one. Whether the ruling government regains its two-third majority or the Opposition sweeps in with a big win, the rules, like it or not, are changing. Both sides must be aware of the new responsibility that comes with the free-for-all world of cyberspace.
It may appear as an easier platform to reach out to voters, but there must also be an understanding that rational and logic should still outrule emotional factors.
While it is highly important to embrace new media, we must also be grounded in the practice of counter-checking facts.
Carson Daly had this to say about media giant NBC, “The plate tectonics of media have shifted where NBC had to become a new media company from an old media company.”
It is apparent that the shift is inevitable but it is also imperative that we remind ourselves how we need to be our own gatekeepers.
As for MD, we will continue to exercise our strict policy in verifying our stories before we report on them. Like many other newsportals, we prioritize fact-checking and will continue to do so in our bid to neutralize the playing field that is cluttered with half-truths and lies. - By Farah Harith