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Online political war

  • With truths interspersed with a multitude of lies and confusions, the judgmental powers of voters are once again put to serious test.

By CHONG LIP TECK
Sin Chew Daily

The era of social media should be one of peace and mutual understanding. Unfortunately such an ideal is now reduced to merely an inaccessible dream.

If we were to look at the anarchic disorderliness of social media today, we won't fail to see comments that are largely negative in nature, a departure from its intended model as a platform for meaningful human interactions, social mobilization, commercial promotion and sober political deliberations.

While increased frequency of people-to-people interactions should indeed promote better understanding among web users, more often than not it instead becomes a tool for unchecked cyberbullying.

Politically, the gigantic space which makes it possible for billions of ideas, voices and arguments to be shared and exchanged within the human species has now been exploited by political parties and their supporters, even the media and politicians, to vie for dominance. For instance, the cyberwar involving President Trump has effectively altered the political map of the United States.

Prior to this, all that we knew was that social media sites provided convenient gathering places for dissidents worldwide to launch reform campaigns like the Arab Spring in 2011 as well as our own Bersih rallies.

Such campaigns were targeting the ruling authorities who were relatively weak in harnessing social media to their advantage. However, there are signs the authorities are now picking up steam in embracing social media and could even have an upper hand over their rivals.

During the electoral campaign, Philippines' Duterte was reaping the windfall of his masterful exploitation of social media sites like Facebook to promote his viewpoints, making them readily accessible to the country's tech-savvy millennials. He hired a team of competent online media strategists to overhaul his image and shape him into an approachable and popular online figure while making use of the same tools to wage persistent onslaught against his opponents, human rights activists, minorities and the press.

Any online war of words initiated by political factions, individuals or organizations will often end up becoming forums upholding web violence, targeted propaganda and cyberbullying, including fabricated news and doctored images, videos or sound clips aimed at brainwashing the recipients with the belief that they are on the same side as truth against the opponents' ill-intentioned lies.

During the 13th general elections, Facebook was overwhelmed by enormous quantities of politically motivated accounts teeming with unverified information and "shock discoveries" that put the ruling coalition in an apparent disadvantage, with rumors created to bring down rival politicians.

While most of these accounts became dormant soon after the elections, others have remained active until this day. With GE14 about to be held anytime this year, a visit to Facebook should reveal the fact that some of the old accounts are still active while new ones are being churned out on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, with the BN now beginning to embrace the cyberwar in a big way, it is anticipated that the next GE will see much more intense crossfires on the cyberspace, giving rise to a new social media ecosystem characterized by infinite web violence and conflicts.

But, can we count on social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to check such violence? Facebook has announced plans to hire additional 10,000 employees worldwide to work on security issues, step up third party verification to block fake news, and work more closely with governments to identify sources of unsubstantiated information and web violence.

The thing is, how will Facebook accomplish such a mission if the governments are controlled by people like Duterte who are expert social media manipulators themselves?

With truths interspersed with a multitude of lies and confusions, the judgmental powers of voters are once again put to serious test. It remains to be seen whether the voters will trust their own eyes and reasoning this time, or be continually influenced by what they read on social media sites.

 

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