First response to things that irk us in 140 characters is now passé. With smart phones and the Internet snugged in our pockets, we unthinkingly vent our angst and gripes online, often spurred by misconceived notions based on flawed assumptions. That’s where unintended outcomes and ethical issues can come back to bite us.
Yes, you can be legally liable for tweeting and re-tweeting potentially defamatory comments. Because seemingly harmless memes can go viral and mutate into messages detrimental to another entity’s reputation, this should alert us to the myths that we are completely free to say what we feel on social media without liability.
Think before you tweet is common sense. Common too, and understandably so, is our righteous indignation, hence our caustic reaction to the impunity that incumbent politicians and their sycophants have long enjoyed for their preposterous statements, corrupt dealings and obvious incapacity for public office.
We should, however, also recognise that the Internet’s not beyond regulation – for obvious reasons: to protect intellectual property rights, to curb child pornography, piracy, frauds, racial and religious vilification, identify thefts, bullying and so forth.
There’s a darker side of the Internet. Many of us hide behind the mask of anonymity in venting our political (and personal) angst online. Anonymity for no good reasons merely undermine one’s credibility. And, ‘echo chambers’ on the Internet, where like-minded talk to each other, are as detrimental to knowing the truth as cronyism and patronage are to checking the political system.
Having said that, no, we shall not cower from continuing to confront and question the corrupt governance at many levels of government, gerrymandering, and discriminatory policies. No fair-minded Malaysian should tolerate or accept the state’s incursion into the people’s online communication space in spite of recent trends by those in positions of public influence taking legal actions against civil activists and journalists.
Recall the case of social activist Fahmi Fadzil who had to apologise 100 times on Twitter to settle a case with lifestyle magazine publisher Blu Inc Media in 2011; journalist R. Nadeswaran for posting two tweets on a property developer in 2012; Malaysiakini for publishing selected Your Say articles on the Prime Minister in 2014; The Malaysian Insider for two stories on former Mentri Besar of Selangor in June 2016; and recently, private citizens for various posts on the death of PAS spiritual leader Datuk Haron Din.
Cyber citizens should mobilise to protest and protect whatever freedom is left for our news portals and socio-political blogsites to cover the stories that matter, and publish well-researched commentaries that the mainstream media, liable under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, are not doing – at least not effectively. In countering the government’s incursion into our basic rights to what we can say, read or circulate online, we should also recognise that we are accountable for what we say.
Our right to receive and send information; our value for honest chat, fairness, accuracy and responsibility; our common sense and decency – these should be sufficient to guide what we read, say and circulate online.
We should of course be free to challenge conventional wisdom, confront those who govern us, hold them accountable for their words and actions. Likewise, governments expect the same from its citizens.
The problem arises when our citizens’ rights conflict with the government’s ‘right’ to take legal actions against any communication perceived to be a threat to national security or personal reputation. A legal guide for bloggers published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (San Francisco) shows how we should be mindful of the grey areas of online defamation laws.
Since Operasi Lalang cracked down on civil activists, opposition politicians and journalists in October 1987, much has changed in the tone and pitch of our national conversation. Socio-political blogs have boldly debated issues that we wouldn’t read or hear from the media just two decades ago.
Cracks on the wall, unfortunately, are beginning to appear when, in competing for a captive audience, Internet users get caught up in propagating their questionable ideologies, firing up controversies – one more sensational, and occasionally, more conspiratorial than the one before.
The same motivations that drive gutter journalism do play out on the Internet. What’s merely thought to be true is transformed into bizarre conspiracies and odd misrepresentations. These are all evident in many socio-political blog sites, some presenting like finely designed mainstream news sites.
The onus is on users to thoroughly research the slick sites’ reliability and commitment to fair comment. The basic principles of ethical journalism – transparency, verifiability, fairness, truthfulness and accountability – should play out in all blogsites that claim to offer readers a contextually fair interpretation of issues, verified by facts and figures.
Simply said, blogging and tweeting should extend the purpose of everyday interpersonal communication – to build relationships and minimise harm. Smooth communication means to listen and understand first the verbal cues of the sender, disagree with respect, obtain feedback, respond, and reconnect. That’s a whole lot better way to converse.
Eric Loo@The Heat Malaysia Online