MARCH 21 — “Social media has limited impact in this election.”
Been reading a lot of that lately... and usually on my timeline — the irony of it. But having my staff tell me to my face yesterday that all the LIKEs in a POST can never win you more votes than a healthy number of posters on a lamp post did it for me!
I’ll tell it to all the local naysayers — including my finance graduate from Pahang — so that they can be in the know, social media has monumentally shifted life, let alone elections in Malaysia.
So as a personal policy, I am going to UNFRIEND every person who deplores social media over the next two months.
I can always keep tabs on them via Twitter, check their Klout every other week hoping their influence is reducing despite the memes I put out about them.
I am not deluded. Nothing has complete reach, but the questions on social media and its impact on Election 2013 are misguided because while the answers are responding to the extent of the weapon, it excludes the terrain in which the weapon is asked to operate in and the mindset of the combatants.
In short, the answers exclude Malaysia, the derivations from the questions are suspect, for they are badly constructed.
Let's reconstruct it.
That which no one knows
In the motorcycle-infested UKM (Universiti Kebangsaaan Malaysia or National University of Malaysia) Bangi campus of 1993, the student union lobby is laden with the usual mid-morning suspects.
There is a copy of all the largely circulated newspapers. One copy only, but no one has to wait too long, the anti-reading culture has been around a long time.
Anwar Ibrahim is about to become deputy prime minister because the Umno divisions were failing to give the deputy president Ghafar Baba enough nominations to even make it to the general assembly.
Not many on campus cared or worse could be bothered to debate the issue. And it was not because the students did not have “WhatsApp” to organise coffee discussions at the only cake-shop.
(Back then you drop notes to friends at their pigeonholes at the dormitories, and the queue for the two public telephones to call home went all the way around the common hall.)
Getting together was not the real problem, getting any real information on the whole development was.
The papers didn’t explain the dynamics and plots, because they have to explain the edging of a party veteran by a rising star without making anyone look bad. They had to explain a power struggle within the ruling party without divulging any acrimony.
We were to know but not understand, and everyone on campus was only influenced otherwise by actual friends. (You could only find out what an avatar was if you walked up four flights of the library steps to the encyclopaedia section and looked for book two!)
The whole country was a puzzle to most Malaysians without free speech. TV backed the papers, and the radios echoed the papers and the lecturers reminded us to be grateful that the only thing we were aware was that we were grateful.
The young chief minister of Penang, Koh Tsu Koon, was not universally pilloried for being weak and letting Umno run roughshod over him. He unexpectedly rose to the position because Gerakan’s rock Lim Chong Eu was shockingly defeated in Election 1990.
Nor were there open rumblings in the small law faculty over the erosion of the judiciary, since Mahathir sacked a whole bunch of judges a while back.
No one from Semangat 46, Indian Progressive Front (IPF) or Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) did the regular press conferences which are common sights today, because mainstream media wouldn’t show up. They do encircle when there are squabbles within the opposition parties of course.
The keen observer had to glean ideas of the Aliran magazine which appeared monthly.
So many of us have forgotten how it was, how horrible the void was. To stare across the plain, try to figure out the country but frustrated no end by being blocked from the information and others who wanted to speak.
Our ground zero and “a whole new world”
Many parts of the world pre-Information Revolution had a free press to rely on. For every Guardian there was The Telegraph.
The Washington Post went after President Richard Nixon over Watergate, and the reports over the Iran-Contra arm deals kept President Ronald Reagan under siege at the end of his two terms.
The arrival of the Internet was akin to Commander Matthew Perry forcing feudal Japan which consciously closed up its borders from ideas to open up.
In a Malaysia clamped down with media shut, universities sterile and government offices obedient for a decade, dial-ups were manna from heaven.
The change is unrelenting
Not all Malaysians are online, even today, but no one in Malaysia is disconnected to everyone online.
Not knowing a dial-up from broadband does not stop you from buying a DVD of your favourite Hollywood flick without censorship. It is uncensored because the “merchants” are downloading the copies and burning them to the discs. (Unsure, they can always look at the online advisory and user reviews for these new discs from Vietnam rather than depending on China.)
You get the racy, rowdy and irreverent, and that is just a short walk to the vendor outside your neighbourhood 7-Eleven.
The liberation it brings despite the copyrights it infringes is a good case study for humanism over capitalism.
All phones you buy today can store data, and rarely do literate people fail to comprehend enough to transfer images.
The source of information is there, it is possible for those who can to pass to those who did not realise they can dare to dream.
The state is persona non grata in the exchanges because as the duplications, shares and infusions grow the depth of deceit involved in not wanting Malaysians to know has become a common consciousness. The language to explain may be absent, but the universal mistrust Malaysians have of their government tells us that cognitively many realise they have been force-fed the red pill by the Internet.
There are so many shortcomings, incomplete discussions and jagged conclusions, but with online content everyone has enough Cliff notes to argue through the night.
Why else have mainstays like Utusan Malaysia and TV3 seen their base shrinking by the month? So many are still unconnected, but those who are have been strewing their ideas — round, square and triangular — all over our life paths.
Having seen diversity and gladdening contradictions, mind-numbing conditioning on the telly is not entertainment anymore.
But even if you going to hold on to the main mast of the RMS Titanic, there are three million new voters, almost exclusively below 40 since Election 2008.
It is unlikely they’ll unplug their laptops and build their worldview based on a magic 8 ball and then vote.
Our terrain was drained of information and our people — our combatants — have been flummoxed consistently to believe they can’t think out their reality.
The terrain and combatants, which is why the Internet’s massive. A river runs through our river and our people are at least learning to swim again, and for Barisan Nasional to believe all they have to do is to stay the same but spend more money on Facebook ads is as arrogant as it is demeaning to the people.
Which is why Mahathir Mohamad may have a blog, but does not get social media.
Which is why spend they may taxpayers’ money to defeat taxpayers, BN won’t win back ground from Election 2008.
Social media is David’s slingshot. It is not in Goliath’s nature to fear a slingshot, let alone trade his shiny non-IKEA-designed sword for one. We are fearful as ever, but the fear is also in their house. I like my odds now.
So BN, how do you LIKE them apples?
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.