Rumour-mongers and the social media

Khaw Veon Szu,

MORE than 100 years ago, American author Mark Twain claimed: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” If Mark Twain were alive today, he would be dumbfounded to discover that a lie, turbocharged by social media, would have circled the globe a few rounds while the truth was still asleep!

Welcome to the world of social media. Nowadays, literally with a click, one can “spread” texts, voices and images, truths or half-truths and even hoaxes instantly to another person’s smartphone almost everywhere and anywhere in this world — much like a virus outbreak.

Worse, it seems that social media has turned the rumour mill into a supercharged rumour turbine, something that can be electronically manipulated and fabricated. And that impacts and inflicts untold suffering on people’s lives.

A classic example would be the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 incident. As the world continues frantically searching for the missing plane, the online world has proved a fertile breeding ground for speculation, conspiracies and innuendoes. Social media is littered with countless posts suggesting numerous possibilities concerning the disappearance of the plane, or where the wreckage may have ended up.

Some comments are not only insensitive to the families of passengers and crew members, but also outright ridiculous. For instance, a politician apologised on Twitter after suggesting the plane may have disappeared in a “New Bermuda Triangle” in Vietnamese waters.

It should be noted that according to 2011 data from the World Bank, at least 61% or nearly 18 million of Malaysia’s population of 28 million have access to the Internet. Other studies, including TNS, have painted Malaysians as voracious users of social networks, with about 80% of the country’s Internet population having Facebook accounts. This clearly provides the perfect battlefield for political parties competing to win over the people’s hearts and minds.

It’s no wonder then that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak predicted that the 13th general election would be Malaysia’s first social media election when he launched the Malaysia Social Media Week 2013 summit in February last year.

Three months later, the 13th general election was called, and it turned out to be almost as Najib had foreseen.  Of course, social media was not the sole determining factor in the election, but it was definitely a potent force in shaping voters’ perception.

Dare we forget the rumours of 40,000 Bangladeshi nationals alleged to be deployed as phantom voters? Fuelled by social media, it sparked panic among some voters, who took on the role of vigilantes to monitor polling centres. But there has been scant evidence of such phantom voters and these rumours have since been denied by both the Bangladeshi and Malaysian governments.

What worries many — even ardent defenders of free speech — is that lies, and sometimes disinformation driven by ulterior motives, can spread so quickly and so widely through the power of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms, and potentially cause grievous damage to a corporation’s reputation and business.

Remember not so long ago when Gardenia Bakeries (KL) Sdn Bhd, an established local bread manufacture, became the victim of online rumours? Confronted with an unrelenting online campaign calling for the boycott of its products, Gardenia was forced to take out advertorials in the media refuting claims that it was a “crony company”. So effective were those unfounded allegations that the leading bread maker had to seek help from DAP organising secretary Teresa Kok, who described the online smear campaign  as “extremely racist and unacceptable”.

Herein lies the danger of online lies spread by social media. In today’s media landscape, where online accusations and rumours spread virally, judgment is swift. It has become almost a modern witch-hunt, with YouTube videos and Facebook posts condemning the accused, be it an individual, corporation or even government, before they can respond.

Make no mistake — Malaysia is not short of laws to stem the spread of online rumours and punish rumour-mongers. Just to name a few, we have the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the Defamation Act 1957, and the Penal Code. In short, there are ample laws that the authorities or aggrieved parties can use to go after irresponsible culprits.

Yet, considering the permanence of online records, reputations can be shattered irreparably, even when rumours are proven false in a court of law. The question now is, can justice prevail in the online court of public opinion?

In this regard, can Pheme finally save the day? In Greek mythology, Pheme was famous for spreading rumours.

According to the BBC, a lie detector for social media like Twitter and Facebook is being built to try to verify online rumours. How apt it is that the three-year project is named Pheme, after the mythological Greek character.

The system will analyse in real time whether an online post is true. It will also identify whether social media accounts have been created just to spread false information. The aim is to help organisations, including governments and emergency services, respond more effectively to events.In the final analysis, irrespective of whether Pheme can eventually save the day, we have to come to the sobering realisation that the social media does have a dark side.

Unless we, the users, own up and stop aggravating the problem by creating or spreading news and views we find online without knowing if they are true, I am afraid we might be putting ourselves on an irreversible path of self-destruction.