The role social media plays in our lives has lately been all the rage in debates all over the world.
The controversy over “fake news” has been a hot subject not just in our part of the world — witness the just-gazetted anti-fake news law in Malaysia and the hearings on the same matter in Singapore and the contentious ongoing debate as to whether social media played any role in electing current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
The biggest controversy has to be that surrounding the election of United States President Donald Trump and the alleged massive role played by Russian operators in manipulating social media in the US that tilted the election Trump’s way.
If the world’s most powerful and vigorous democracy can be so greatly influenced through social media by others, the potential hold of social media on elections and through them on public policy and therefore in the shaping of our lives can truly be scary.
So did our own government then act with haste to rush through our own law against fake news?
This writer put that proposition across to a known authority on such matters in a private conversation and his take suggested something rather more prosaic. He believed politicians’ first reflex when confronted with a hot issue is to be seen to be proactive.
In that sense our leaders and politicians are perhaps no different from those in any democracy in that they need to be seen to be responding to pressing matters.
Which, given the grave implications of social media and the potential for mischief if not anything more malevolent or malicious as detailed above, erring on the side of action rather than inaction would have been the perfectly natural thing to do.
Of course the likelihood of the misuse or abuse of a weapon as potent as social media by way of the widespread dissemination of irresponsible and false news is something that must always be taken very seriously.
If nothing else, the very dumbing down of public discourse brought about by the advent of social media is something that is truly regrettable. It seems like everything these days is being reduced into some catchy or trite one-liner or visual designed to elicit visceral reactions and little else.
Enlightened and informed debates are tossed out the window and in their place are simplistic statements or arguments that arouse strong emotions, the better to have them gone viral.
Dispassionate weighing of the merits or otherwise of any given issue becomes all but impossible if what we all do is react to this or that viral remark or statement. That is one of the surest ways to turn a responsible and considered electorate into a completely unthinking mob.
No democracy can withstand such harmful onslaughts. Many pundits now believe the election of someone as iconoclastic as Trump into the White House can only do long-lasting and possibly irreversible damage, particularly to the standing and credibility of the US in the eyes of the international community.
Social media platforms such as Facebook are now more commonly regarded, fairly or otherwise, as anti-social vehicles which can be weaponised to harm even rich and powerful countries.
The global reach of such platforms turns them into supranational players that are largely beyond the control or regulation of any sovereign political entity. A small and open country such as ours stands little to no chance if any group or country should choose to launch any virtual attacks of any sort against us.
Even if we accept some of the criticisms against our anti-fake news law being rushed through, the fact remains that we need to arm ourselves and not take anything for granted in our own protection against a possible enemy as amorphous as social media.
As it is, social media has already added greater variety and options for our democracy to evolve and thrive in ways unimagined before. This cannot be rolled back even if we tried. But we need to be conscious that like any powerful tool, this can also be a double-edged sword. All must work to put social media to its proper use.
John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.