Cyberspace – Out of Control?


A Bernama statement on how the Internet has become the Malaysian political battlefield has set cyberspace ablaze with much indignation and fury. Among the concerns highlighted include:

  • difficulties in censoring the flow of information
  • poor handling of problems associated with the Internet
  • how the tight government control over MSM has driven people to the alternative media which is now more powerful in dominating public opinion
  • how some of the young Internet users blindly accept and believe what they read online, thus making it difficult to put forward a rational and civilised debate
  • how those in the rural areas are easily kept informed by their IT-savvy children of what is going on online, including all sorts of rumours, half truths and even made-up stories tarnishing the government’s image. 

The article featured a supposition that “if some netizens continue to distort the concept of democracy, the authorities will not listen to their abusive remarks while mature voters will also reject them after some time, upon realising that they are already so horrible before they have even come to power.”

Raja Petra Kamarudin has responded to these issues in his latest No Holds Barred post called You need brains to do it (UPDATED)

What the authorities do not seem to realize is that there is a new nation in existence sporting a diverse populace with its own unique and varied culture. However, its boundaries are defined by silicon wafers, fiber optic cables, and dancing electrons. This nation is not a physical entity but rather, one of the mind and certainly a force to be reckoned with.

Its name is cyberspace. And it is powerful in its pervasive influence with defining qualities that give this body of people its singular identity.

Despite claims that ours is a  democratic society, we ironically lament our limited opportunities to voice our discontent about issues that concern and affect us. Since the importance and effectiveness of the MSM is declining drastically,  we have to depend on online oppositional power if we intend to effect any change in our country.

Many write about a broad range of public issues to express their dissent. Whenever major events or crises occur such as in the Teoh Beng Hock inquest, readers can invariably turn to blogs and online news portals for the latest information and more importantly, critical commentaries which are virtually absent in MSM.

Fully aware of the expectations of their audience, activist-bloggers have to keep abreast with their critical comments and observations. Blogosphere culture requires bloggers to write for their audience with specific objectives in mind. Online activism hardly happens out of the blue, but has found a social basis, especially in Malaysia, because of the many structural flaws in society. Furthermore, online activism has succeeded in sustaining its power because it fills the void that has been created by the failure of mass media to play its role in society.

In democratic societies, despite whatever rights we may pretend we have, many people do not have an opinion about major issues such as the “non-attitudes” problem or political ambivalence. Judging from the messages in both mainstream and online websites, the different styles of framing of questions can solicit and mould public opinion. Such a situation certainly raises questions about the ability and competence of ordinary citizens to play the expected roles in a democratic society. However, the Internet has changed all that for us – for the better!

Recently, if not for Tweeter and global cable networks, protests in Iran would not have become so widely known and influential. In the same vein, online protests about the “Green Dam” software in China gained momentum when even some official media stories questioned the policy.  A little closer to home, we saw how news about Bersih 2.0 rally spread like wildfire via Tweets and updates in various social media. All this goes to show that we cannot underestimate the pervasive power of the Internet.

Those who decry the positive influence of cyberspace have failed to realize how the constant updates of news feeds from tweets, blogs and Facebook have fuelled news reporting in online mass media. The fact is clear – web power has become an integral part of mainstream media power. And the authorities are losing ground in cyberspace and they are afraid. In their fear, they choose to breed fear by spinning all kinds of yarn.

From my observations, it appears that the “old” and “new” media are converging and, whether we like it or not, the variety of media channels has vital connections, each of which enhances and strengthens the links in the chain. And the authorities are definitely NOT happy that these links are growing in number and in strength!