IT started out with blogs, I believe, after the dismal showing of the BN in the 2008 General Election. I remember the reaction of then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi lamenting that BN lost the Internet war and that BN reps from that moment on needed to use the new media more effectively.
This was followed by the usual flurry of such activities by the BN people, and criticisms that followed, alleging that many of these blogs merely contained government spin and didn’t really engage with the rakyat. Indeed, that these blogs essentially talked down to the rakyat.
Since those early days, of course, things have moved somewhat, especially with all the hype surrounding the impact of social media in relation to, say, the Arab Spring and, much earlier, the Obama presidential campaign.
Granted, the evidence is still sketchy and, possibly, more coincidental than real. But, nonetheless, especially with the opposition having had a head start in the use of social media, the BN folk – at least the Internet-savvy and /or those who want to woo the younger Malaysian generation – have jumped on to the social media bandwagon.
The PM is a perfect example of members of this group who wish to be ‘happening’, ‘cool’, in touch with the young, whatever. After all, there’s a big vote bank there, come GE13; a bank that could go either way, vote-wise.
But, of course, things become rather unpredictable when you open yourself up to the people in this way, and when you attempt to reach out to a group (youth) that can be, at the same time, respectful, rebellious, facetious, oppositional, and even downright silly.
Especially when many of them feel they are dealing with these leaders anonymously. It’s like getting into an arena where you have little, if any, control.
Be that as it may, has the public responded positively towards the government use of social media to reach the masses?
Well, that would depend, really, on what one means by reaching the masses and the motivations behind all this.
Let’s face it, many Malaysians – not only the young – are sceptical, if not cynical, about the motives of the government. Of course, to be fair to the mindless, on the other hand, many are also gullible.
When scandals after scandals are unearthed, and the responses by the government have ranged from dragging its feet to being dismissive and plain arrogant, this does not help matters.
Also, when promises of greater transparency in reality become the opposite, even the most hardcore supporters become rather disillusioned.
In this context, then, no amount of ‘reaching out to the people’ is going to be met with much trust. As the saying goes, cakap tak serupa bikin. Malaysians, by and large, are not stupid. We may be docile, but stupid most of us are not.
So, I feel, the public (or at least some portions of the public) have responded in the best way they feel possible – cynically, sceptically – to the attempts to reach them via the social media.
In a situation where many may feel quite powerless to change things, their responses, however glib, however facetious, could be seen as ‘weapons of the weak’, to borrow from the American political scientist James C Scott.
This, indeed, could be the only way they feel they can respond to years of abuse and being alienated from the corridors of power and by those in power.
Hence, it should come as no surprise then that when politicians set up – or set themselves up – with Twitter and Facebook accounts, urging the people to ask them questions, pretending to be on the same page as the masses, they receive silly questions and comments in return.
Indeed, when these people are admonished for being childish and immature, one is tempted to ask: How more mature do you expect the Malaysian public to be when many Malaysian leaders show a much lower level of maturity? And almost all the time at that.
Just this past week, no less than the Malaysian internal security and public order director, uninvited and unchallenged, expressed his fear that the Internet allowed people “to know what was going on in and outside the country” and that this could constitute a “threat to national security.” That should strike many as a truly idiotic comment coming from a senior public official. If knowing what’s happening outside the country constitutes a national security threat, and needs to be curbed, then surely this can’t be much of a democracy we are living in.
I would think that people use the Internet to know about what’s happening outside the country principally because (a) they don’t get the information from our local media or (b) they have little trust in the local media and / or (c) they find the international media more credible, more trustworthy.
In any case, surely it’s up to the local media and other local information agencies then to start reviving the rakyat’s belief in them instead of blaming the people for their own inadequacies, their illegitimacy?
It would seem that what we currently have in place is an idiotic education system, a pathetic security network and, worse, idiotic leaders, some of whom are currently too busy commenting on Twitter and Facebook, revelling in the number of followers they have, when they should be spending more time running the country.
In this situation, social media or no, no amount of appealing to higher ideals, higher values, or for a ‘Towering Malaysian’, is going to achieve much.