Facebook is making Malaysians lose grip on reality.
At least that is what the newspapers in the country recently proclaimed. But in a society where the government-owned mainstream media are increasingly distrusted, could social media outlets actually be better connecting Malaysians to society, each other and even politics?
“Social media outlets have been the biggest factor in changing the face of politics in Malaysia and how information is spread,” said Angela, a Kuala Lumpur resident who asked that only her first name be used.
Following the 2008 general election, the ruling party, which had relied on traditional media forms since it took power in 1957, failed to win a two-thirds majority in the 222-seat Parliament. The media-savvy opposition took the rest of the seats.
Anil Netto, an independent writer from Penang, said in a telephone interview that the ruling party felt that they were being left behind in social media following the election.
“The current government’s traditional communication means of television, radio and print still have an advantage in rural areas where Internet usage is not as high but not in the urban centers,” Netto said.
“Fewer and fewer people are relying on mainstream media and newspapers. In local universities, people have stopped reading newspapers for Facebook and Twitter.”
To change that, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak created 1Malaysia, a site that claims to provide a "free and open forum." The Web site promotes video responses to viewer questions and a discussion forum called the “Roundtable,” which was created to allow Malaysians, regardless of location, profession or age, to provide “fair and constructive comments, suggestions or ideas to better the life” of people in the country.
But many see the politician's personal social media posts as forms of government-run media.
“People are wary of politicians online because you don’t know if they are being sincere," Halimah Ashari, a retired teacher, said. "Their Facebook and blog posts do not affect me much because it feels like another form of propaganda."
Still, the prime minister has nearly 1 million fans on Facebook and receives thousands of “likes” and hundreds of comments each time he posts.
“It seems as if the prime minister, or more likely his team, gets back to questions asked, and for that reason, I think he deserves some credit for taking the time to respond,” Alwin Chan, a digital media manager who lives in Kuala Lumpur, said. “It used to be difficult to reach politicians in the past and now with direct connection, you can.”
Before the Internet, citizens had little chance to speak out because the government controlled the media. Social media allow Malaysians to give their views and to see others who share those views, Netto said.
“It’s good to see that you’re not alone on such critical matters as politics,” Netto said. “With avenues like Twitter and Facebook, people feel as if their views matter.”
Not only are Malaysians more able to share views online, they are more willing. Malaysia is a high-contact culture, Asthma Abdullah, a cross-cultural development consultant and a Universiti Putra lecturer, said. This means people are often very indirect and subtle and rarely talk about real issues in the foreground. In this type of culture, social media are vital because they allow people to be more direct or bold than they might be in person.
“Social media allows us to give our views about politics, whether for or against," Ashari said. "People feel as if they can say what they want because they are faceless. I respond on blogs, saying whatever I like, and I am not afraid of the consequences.”
Social media give a more confident voice to Malaysians but they can also lead to problems in such a diverse country.
“Along with the country’s many races, ethnicities and religions come many sensitivities," Abdullah said. "When it comes to being critical online in this country, a concern is intercultural conflict when one group does not like something another group has said."
Although Chan said he doesn’t believe social media have improved or worsened race relations, he said he feels the effects of faceless hatred. After years of peaceful activity, SeksualitiMerdeka, an annual sexuality rights festival in Kuala Lumpur, was shut down by authorities and attacked by social media users.
“Because of social media, it blew up and people were commenting and saying very nasty things that surprised me,” Chan said. “That was really eye-opening to me that people in my country would say these things and hide behind a nickname.”
Malaysian politicians are also targets for ridicule online. Independent newspaper The Malaysian Insider recently reported that Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, president of uni-racial political party Malaysian Chinese Association, scolds citizens and youth for “using the Internet as an avenue to abuse national leaders.”
“(They) must understand that people are entitled to a difference of opinion and if they are the very people who talk about democracy and freedom of expression, they should not be rubbishing others,” Chua, who has about 130,000 followers on Facebook, told The Malaysian Insider.
Chua is naive to think people won't not attack him because “it’s just a part of social media," Chan said.
“It does take a mature nation and mature users to be responsible and share valuable comments," Chan said.
Most people spot and disregard comments that are "silly," Chan said.
As Malaysians prepare for future elections, it's expected that social media will grow even more influential.
“That’s the power of social media -- even those who are introverts can communicate because it is as if you are talking to not people, but a machine.” Abdullah said. “It certainly has changed the way we look at an issue and how we express our ideas openly. I may not have an audience but I can always talk to my PC.”