Can social media protests make a difference?

NOV 1 — Last week, a huge amount of chatter on social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, and online media reports were centred on one common theme: the “1M Malaysians Reject 100-storey Mega Tower” fan page.

The fanpage was created shortly after Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced the erection of a 100-storey skyscraper — costing RM5 billion in the heart of the city, next to the historic Merdeka Stadium.

As of today, there are over 200,000 fans on that page comprising citizens of every walk of life having “liked” the page, a majority of whom have posted scathing comments on the page objecting to the building of the tower. 

In fact, such is its popularity that the fan page went viral almost immediately after its creation chalking up close to 50,000 fans in the first 24 hours of its creation. 

And the site continues to rack up about a thousand fans an hour to date. This exponential rise in fan base even prompted Facebook to block administrator access to the site, citing that the creators of the page have violated its terms of use.

While not really new to Malaysia, this growing phenomenon of netizens voicing out their displeasure through Facebook and Twitter is by far the most talked about, and perhaps most audacious protest in recent times.

So much so that it got me asking a couple of questions, namely, why are people doing it, and what kind of impact can such a fan page have on actually affecting change?

In his award-winning book, The Long Tail, author Chris Anderson argued that the Internet has basically brought about the ability to democratise the tools of production and the tools of distribution.

The editor-in-chief of the popular “Wired” magazine essentially argued that the democratisation of the tools of production via the personal computer, has spawned a generation of individuals who can now do what just a few years ago only professionals could have done. 

Connecting this ability to easily produce is the ability to democratise distribution primarily because of the power of the Internet to reach, interconnect and give access to everyone connected to the Web.

Simply put, Anderson noted that the Internet has given the power to ordinary people — you and me — to create things never before created and that people today are no longer confined to a traditional medium through which they can express themselves. 

I can think of no better scenario to illustrate this point than that of the Facebook “1M Malaysians Reject 100-storey Mega Tower” phenomenon for a number of reasons.

Firstly, setting up a fan page is easy because Facebook has already democratised the tools by which individuals can produce content. With Facebook, there is no longer a need to tediously set up a webpage or even a blog for a cause such as the anti-tower fan page.

Secondly, the website is able to garner such an exponentially growing fan base so quickly and effectively because the eyeballs are already there. According to a report by The Malaysian Insider, there are close to nine million Facebook users in Malaysia, 71 per cent of whom are aged between 18 and 34, a group of demographics that rely heavily on the Internet every day.

But perhaps arguably the most important contributing factor that has made the anti-tower fan page so successful is the fact that people can register their protest and demonstrate their displeasure and frustration without having to actually take to the streets literally. 

These “cyber-protestors” can protest in the comfort of their homes and offices and have chosen to voice out their opinions and views albeit without bullhorns, manifesto flags or banners. With merely a click of a few buttons and a few penned sentences, they can, and have, made their voice heard.

Which leads me to my second question: Can such a cyber-protest affect change?

In a recent article entitled, “Small change, why the revolution will not be tweeted,” published in The New Yorker, notable author and columnist Malcolm Gladwell posited that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter cannot change the real world. 

He argued that while social networks are very effective for some communication between friends on social media, such as alerting like-minded acquaintances of social events, they do not “promote the passionate collective engagement that causes individuals to make commitments that result in social change.”

Facebook “likers”, he argued, “are not sitters-in or non-violent activists.” They are not even marchers or candle-wavers; they may wish to associate themselves with a protest, but the nature of their medium means they do so with negligible risk and therefore negligible effect.

As the issue of 1M Malaysians Reject 100-storey Mega Tower rages on, some government officials have already downplayed the online protest citing that people are just giving the government flak because it is such a big project and that the building of the tower will be justified sometime in the future. 

Opposition politicians meanwhile continue to decry the government’s insistence to build the tower despite the unhappiness and protest shown by the people, with some even predicting that continued dismissal of these cyber-protestors would cost the incumbent government at the next polls.

It remains to be seen if Gladwell’s theories apply to the 1M Malaysians Reject 100-storey Mega Tower “activism” on Facebook, and whether or not such a growing stream of “likers” can actually affect change or not.

But regardless whether or not the 1M Malaysians Reject 100-storey Mega Tower fan page will lead to massive social change here in Malaysia, one thing is clear — the Internet and social media have introduced a new form of activism in the online world that people can identify with and participate in. 

At the very least, people now can galvanise their views, in this case, about the disdain for the tower project, share a common solidarity in voicing out against building of the tower, and inspire each other to speak out which would otherwise not have happened without the democratisation brought about by the Internet. 

Technology may have changed the medium by which people express their minds but the basic tenet of protests and demonstrations has essentially not changed — that of giving the people their democratic right to air their speech freely and fairly.

As such, this recent development should be viewed in a positive light because it forces the issue of engagement to the forefront, an issue that the prime minister and his government cannot afford to, and should not ignore. 

The powers that be should see this in a positive light and heed the voice of the people instead of ignoring, or worse, quelling the dissent expressed online — this especially so when the prime minister himself has pledged in the past to engage the rakyat on social media.

After all, isn’t democratic engagement a bedrock principle in the quest to move our country to becoming a developed nation by 2020?

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.



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