Social media as tool for national disunity

Social media is employed as a powerful filter/paradigm by which real-world dynamics is reducible to the twin lens of race and religion.

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Published by AstroAwani & malaymail, image by AstroAwani.

In the hands of extremists, social media is a potent and dangerous tool and platform for propagating and inciting ideological, racial and religious sentiments which can lead to violent outcomes.

In Malaysia, the ethno-religious peddlers and merchants have been deftly and cynically manipulating base/primordial sentiments using social media, especially on TikTok and Twitter.

TikTok has become very popular among young Malaysians due to the nature of its content messaging in the form of short video postings.

We saw that not only during the GE15 campaign, especially near polling day but even in the run up (“Social media monitor finds ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ narrative on the rise ahead of GE15, PAS’ Hadi ‘key amplifier’ of hate speech”, Malay Mail, November 17, 2022).

Youths were the especial target audience – which spilled over into the younger age cohorts/groups (“Racially-motivated videos on TikTok targeting children – PH leaders, parents want it stopped”, New Straits Times, November 22, 2022).

And many of the perpetrators were the youths themselves.

Dr Nuurrianti Jalil, a communications studies scholar (based in the US), is currently writing a book detailing the experience of TikTok usage in the context of the 15th general election in November last year (to be published Ateneo Policy Center, Ateneo University, the Philippines in 2024).

In her analysis of 679 videos (with over 1,000 views), Dr Nuurrianti found 373 containing hateful narratives and propaganda and “[t]he results revealed Malay-language hate speech [on TikTok] targeting non-Malays, especially the Chinese community …” (“How TikTok became a breeding ground for hate speech in the latest Malaysia general election”, Nuurrianti Jalil, Conversation, March 23, 2023).

It’s through social media that these politicians gain “new ground” and expand their electoral and support base, particularly in relation to what’s known as the hitherto untapped politically virgin and unfamiliar/uninitiated constituency of the young voters who are newly enfranchised.

As it is, the widening of the electoral enfranchisement has taken place as a result of the “UNDI18” policy initiative stemming initially from an eponymous (i.e., the original UNDI18) youth-centric movement – which lowered the constitutional and legal age of voting from 21 to 18 by way of Section 3(a) as operationalised via the automatic voter registration (AVR) mechanism under Section 3(b) of the Constitutional (Amendment) Act (2019) which amended Article 119 of the Federal Constitution.

The brainwashing and what would also be tantamount to indoctrination at a new level (especially for the youngsters in the Malay heartlands who are educated in kindergartens run by PAS, for example) and, of course, the incitement and agitation not only reinforces the siege mentality (mentaliti terkepung).

But crucially represents a blatant and audacious attempt to subvert the nation-building process and “convert” or “reshape” the target audience’s worldview into the mould of a supremacist – which will also ensure that they carry on the “struggle” as the next generation.  

In short, these extremist politicians deploy social media to peddle and hustle and tout a narrative that’s contrary to the fundamental concept of Malaysia – and what it means to be Malaysian – as defined and circumscribed by our Federal Constitution as the highest law of the land.

And, by extension, manipulating and using that narrative to justify their othering of Pakatan Harapan (PH) as the (main) enemy and, therefore, the embodiment of the antithesis of these hucksters’ vision of race and religion.

Hence, social media is employed as a powerful filter and paradigm by which to view the world – and interpret real-world dynamics or reality – so that everything is reduced/reducible to the twin lens of race and religion.

For the youth and young generation, social media in this sense thereby functions like virtual reality (VR). Arguably, their worldview is fundamentally dependent – “stands or falls” – on what they’ve been fed through social media.

It’s basically no different at all with the situation in the US, for example, where the ultra-right base can only understand and conceive reality through the Alt-Right conspiracy theories (such as the Great Replacement) as peddled by the “conservative” talk show hosts.

And, just as critically, these youngsters themselves become the proselytisers – using social media itself to propagate and incite others just as they have been impacted.

Thus, social media at the hands of the ethno-religious extremists is very harmful to the nation-building process as it impairs the full establishment of a Malaysian identity founded on the dynamic balance as encapsulated so elegantly in our Federal Constitution. 

In short, social media can also be a tool to deepen divisions and the polarisation in our society and sustain the tension that exists – where reality can be interpreted in two diametrically opposite ways.

The brouhaha over the Jom Ziarah Gereja programme under the auspices of the Ministry of Youth and Sports (KBS) is a salient example – whereby it’s been twisted to imply Christian evangelism on the part of Hannah Yeoh as the Minister.

If the situation isn’t controlled, it could spill over into acts of violence, and not forgetting    also the terror groups in our country who’re planning and preparing to strike “at the right time”. 

Decisive and swift action should be taken against both the keyboard warriors and the speakers in the videos alongside their paymasters.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) and PDRM shouldn’t give any allowance.

Instead, the affirmation that no compromise will be given must be translated into concrete action to pre-empt the others and also to reassure the nation as a whole.

We should emulate Singapore in this regard which is ever ready to clamp down on any party posting comments or videos which can jeopardise and threaten societal harmony.

Concrete examples would be where cyber-troopers (“cytros”) de-humanise/demean/denigrate the others who aren’t of the same race and religion or threaten violence and engage in cyberbullying.

What should be done is to set the confines and boundaries as embodied by the three Rs of race, religion and royalty.

The government via the Communications and Digital Ministry is proposing to amend the Communications and Multimedia Act (1998) and the Communications and Multimedia Commission Act (1998) to strengthen, enhance and clarify the regulatory framework.

Minister of Communications and Digital YB Fahmi Fadzil is on the right track in updating and firming up the regulatory framework to combat the continuing pernicious influence and impact of the exploitation of 3 Rs in the country – which has definitively and typically been through social media platforms.

This should portend and signal the unity government’s firm and steadfast commitment under Prime Minister YAB Anwar Ibrahim to combatting subversive elements which threaten the nation’s peace and harmony, including not least undermining political stability post-GE 15.  

Whilst the vibes from the social media platforms that were deployed in the run-up to and during GE15 are now behind us, the “scarring effect” remains. And even if it could be argued that youths from mixed states (i.e., non-Malay heartlands) are generally not so susceptible/vulnerable or largely immune to a certain extent, this can’t be said of the Malay heartlands.  

It behooves the PDRM to constantly warn the public, including the youths, against anti-national and anti-Malaysian views and concomitantly the recording and uploading of seditious and inflammatory materials (which are often either hyper-exaggerated out of proportion or blatantly false and untruthful, anyhow).

The government and PDRM must continue to be vigilant against such threats and constantly monitor social media platforms in collaboration with the providers to ensure that such contents are removed immediately and the creator traced and arrested.

The Bar Council has called for a National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill as well as a Hate Crimes Bill to be passed by Parliament.

So, moving forward, it’s vital that laws in addition to the Sedition Act (1948) and the Penal Code be “updated” and enhanced and complemented/supplemented.

This is so that the government can also deflect criticism that it’s using the aforesaid two pre-existing criminal laws to politically and selectively prosecute the instigators.

The government should also enlist the public in the fight against extremism on social media. In this, the public are indeed the frontliners.

The public must be encouraged to report seditious contents – which would clearly and unambiguously come under the parameters and metrics of the rules and regulations as embodied by the “community standards”.

Now, raising sensitive issues are usually done with a malicious intent unless it’s clear that the purpose is to redress legitimate grievances or to seek a proper balance between competing interests.

Where necessary, police reports should also be made as is already the case, being a part of our Malaysian “culture”, and accompanied by a memorandum to the Home Minister to press and pressure for concrete and tough action.

By right, the Home Minister should have a statutory duty to act swiftly and decisively where sensitive issues are raised with the intention to exploit racial and religious sentiments which could cause tensions to rise and resulting in the tearing of our social fabric.

Perhaps this is one area, i.e., the statutory duty concerned, which could be incorporated into a future legislation such as the National Harmony and Reconciliation Act.

At the same time, the PDRM must also have a statutory duty imposed on them to act on complaints, e.g., against hate preachers who use social media to reach out to their audience because of their very dangerous peddling of untruths against others who are not co-religionists.

State religious authorities should also act against these hate preachers precisely because their understanding is deviant/out of context and besmirch the sanctity and reputation of Islam.

During the PH administration, the Minister in charge of Islamic affairs (at the federal level) YB Mujahid Yusor Rawa had been a strong and vocal proponent of the legislative trio of an Anti-Discrimination Act, a National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Act and a Religious and Racial Hatred Act.

On hindsight and moving forward, such legislations are indeed now more needed than ever and would complete the wider legislative framework which also specifically encompasses the technical coverage of the multimedia and, by inclusion, social media platforms.

In EMIR Research article, “Do We Need a Race Relations Act”? (December 18, 2019), it’s mentioned that we also need a new national narrative that has and is given constitutional weight (i.e., solidly grounded in our Federal Constitution and the Rukunegara).

That is, “what’s implicit must now be made explicit”.

Towards that end, there should be a Preamble to our Federal Constitution – which outlines the social contract as shaped by the historical legacy and raison d’être of the nation’s identity and existence.

To complement and supplement the national narrative, there must be the creation of a national pledge, following in the footsteps of Singapore.

Just as the Preamble comes at the beginning, so the National Pledge comes at the end – like two pillars reinforcing and bolstering the constitutional superstructure and infrastructure.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research

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