If we can’t discriminate between serious argument and propaganda, then we have problems.

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March 2017 Highlights & Commentary

By Maria Townsend 12/4/2017
March 2017 was a busy month for Paddy Schubert Consultants Sdn Bhd.  The highlight was the lively luncheon discussion with the well-known political analyst, Dr Razak Baginda.  Dr Razak requires no lengthy introduction.  His reputation precedes him.  Dr Baginda is currently an advisor to ICON Centre for Global Affairs, a private think tank based in Kuala Lumpur.  The ICON Centre for Global Affairs was founded to challenge prevailing views and encourage broader debate that is critical in the current domestic and global environment.  As Malaysia strives to become a developed and industrialized country, its citizens, too, must be adequately prepared with quality information on the country and its international affairs. Dr Baginda has a wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise as a political analyst, and shared his views on our upcoming elections with members and guests of the MRP.
Malaysia has a population of over 30 million across two geographical regions.  It is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society which seemingly co-exist harmoniously, however there is growing number increasingly becoming disenchanted with the status quo, and a growing divide in politics.   In this new world, we are also seeing a faster dissemination of information and the larger demands of a more politically aware general public.  With speculation of an imminent election, we see a further polarized electorate questioning the direction that the nation is heading towards.

We see polarisation in the elite as well as in the masses.  Our political scene has been given a shake up with the re-emergence of prominent political figures from the past, and the realignment of political parties.  As such, the forthcoming GE14 will be one of the most interesting elections to date. 

One of the key points raised by Dr Baginda when speaking about “Facing the General Elections:  Challenges of both sides” was the danger of fake news.  There was indication that fake news had heavily influenced the outcome of GE13, and fear that it will hugely impact our next elections, GE14.

Fake news is an unfortunate trend that is fast becoming a global problem, and Malaysia is not immune.  The smart phone is not limited to the urban population, the rural too have access to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and personal blogs.  As the electorate are becoming more technologically savvy, and the communications landscape gets denser and more complex, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, and more opportunities to participate in political debate.  News, even fake news, can become viral in a matter of minutes. 

Social media is the most powerful tool today to use, in order to disseminate information to would-be voters especially since the general election is looming. The importance of social media in elections has been studied extensively. One study (published in the 2012 journal Nature, “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization,”) found that Facebook feeds have a significant impact on voting patterns. The voters will have to decide from what they read, see and perceive.  Many people are unable to discern authentic news from fake news, and those with vested interests are exploiting the situation.  How will the government manage and moderate this dissemination of fake news?

In GE13, the BN party was accused of hiring 40,000 foreign workers from Bangladesh to vote. Many people took the rumour as genuine and even wanted to heed the call of non-governmental organisations on social media to arrest the purported phantom voters at polling stations.

With fake news and rumours continuing to spread on social media, both Facebook and Google have launched tools to allow users to report what they believe to be false information, and the Malaysian government have also now provided a similar “fact-checking” tool by way of a Web portal called Sebenarnya.my to combat the problem.  However, perhaps what we all need, as citizens, is to develop more skill in applying our skepticism. We need to spot false narratives, and question what we read and what we are told, to decipher fact from fiction. As Obama stated at a press conference in Berlin on the effect fake news can have on democracy; “If we can’t discriminate between serious argument and propaganda, then we have problems”. Either we get this right or we cease to be free citizens.