The recent historic general election unearthed a variety of issues and controversies, not least the use of social media platforms – notoriously TikTok – by specific political parties to allegedly spread hate and disharmony and to incite violence.
To signal how slowly the authorities responded, over a thousand such videos were removed by TikTok this past week, about a fortnight after the general election results were announced and Anwar Ibrahim was declared the Prime Minister.
As part of a political strategy, the TikTok videos had already served their purpose by then. Removing them from public view this late in the day was akin to shutting the barn door after the horses had bolted.
Indeed, if containment was ever the aim, the authorities – from the police to the previously rapid-to-monitor-detect-and-apprehend Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission – should have expected this abuse of any media during this period.
Since we – and the authorities – need reminding, it used to be that, come general election time, the dominant Barisan Nasional coalition would take up extensive advertising slots in their – although pretending to be ‘our’ – media, both print and broadcasting.
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The advertising back then – often called ‘negative propaganda’ – was about demonising the opposition parties. These included Pas, when it wasn’t a BN ally, and almost without fail, the DAP.
Acres of newsprint and hours of radio and TV over the years have been spent on these efforts. For many of us, these efforts have been a waste of our time and scarce resources.
But often they achieved immediate success – like the use of a photo of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah wearing a Kadazan headgear with a symbol that resembled a cross in the 1990 general election to religiously discredit him and his Semangat 46 party just before election day.
In those pre-internet days, the image was spread extensively by the BN mainstream media, and photocopies were distributed widely in mosques, suraus and night markets.
The point is campaigns of hate – underscored by racial and religious discourses couched in simple and crass language and imagery – have been the staple of numerous BN regimes, particularly Umno.
For those of us who have been following and analysing media coverage of the general elections over the decades, fears of ethnic violence have been the basis of many campaign efforts, especially by BN.
What the Perikatan Nasional is accused of doing this time around is nothing more than taking a leaf out of the BN playbook.
Two issues – 13 May 1969 and the DAP – have been flogged (though evidently not to death) by the Umno-BN spin doctors for many decades. And we must remember that many of those in PN are indeed with Umno DNA.
Like the producers of many silly Malay dramas and films – centre stage Mat Kilau – these political jokers work with a substandard script for instant effect (and with longer-term intended consequences).
And they won’t stop no matter how many thousands of videos we take down. Censorship has never been and can never be the answer to tackling this issue.
Indeed, if we go down that censorship road, let us be aware of the consequences, especially if those doing the censoring are NOT benign do-gooders.
This fear-mongering works when other things are in place – or awry, if looked at from a concerned, critical perspective.
It works when the target audiences – mainly, though not exclusively, marginalised ethnic Malay youth – are made to believe they are under siege, surrounded by unfriendly ‘others’ who have taken their space, their opportunities, their land, and are about ready to invade their homes and kick them out. Think Gaza.
Indeed, they work when the target audiences already feel displaced, barely surviving as Grab and Food Panda riders in an uncertain gig economy. And they see others outside their world enjoying untold riches while hardly raising sweat.
The fear-mongering succeeds because there is already in place a cultural environment and an education system that preach exclusivity and has little respect for diversity.
The fear-mongering thrives when an additional and powerful religious socialisation system exists from the cradle to, at least, universities. It is a socialisation system that promises rewards in the hereafter – even if the idea of a theocratic state is difficult to realise.
TikTok and other social media platforms then help to highlight, sensationalise and distort these supposed threats and challenges. Removing TikTok videos and apprehending the wrongdoers will not help us address the underlying problems.
Indeed, legislation and the long arm of the law – quick fixes – will achieve very little.
The immediate task of any concerned reformist government should be, first, understanding the fears and needs of these Malaysians and, second, coming up with programmes of action that address those needs, especially if they are economic.
Third, an alternative, even oppositional, narrative must supplement the above strategies. Beyond feel-good TikTok videos, this narrative needs to be brought to, for example, the villages, the suraus and the mosques.
The technology certainly has changed. But, sadly, the strategies and mindset for many of the instigators, the politicians, haven’t – remaining, as they do, on the dark side.
The task of any responsible, reformist government – indeed, the task for all of us – is to challenge these troublemakers who deliberately try to distract and confuse – and win seats – and discredit them or bring them into the light.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
12 December 2022