Unwilling to lose its status as the longest-sitting political party in the history of Malaysia, the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance made a final and desperate move only a month prior to the momentous 14th general election. The Dewan Rakyat, with a total of 112 BN MPs, passed the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018. Many observers of Malaysian politics considered it the biggest threat to freedom of expression in the country.
However, acknowledging the air of discontent coming from Malaysia’s civil society groups, Pakatan Harapan (PH) made a popular decision in its election manifesto: they vowed that, if they earned governance, they would abolish the Anti-Fake News bill, along with other oppressive laws. Thus in August 2018, three months after their unexpected political success, after a brief debate, the Dewan Rakyat finally passed a bill to repeal the unpopular act through a majority verbal vote.
What made the bill controversial was the fact that it was passed without adequate discussion during the panic against fake news. For BN, the bill served as a reasonable justification, not forgetting that it could have also been used to curtail information that the government deemed unfavourable — especially in light of the ongoing 1MDB scandal that involved former prime minister Najib Razak.
It was also problematic that the Anti-Fake News Act itself did not provide a clear definition of what the term “fake” or “false” meant, thus making it easier to be manipulated and abused. To the present day, how the Pakatan Harapan government will offer alternative measures to tackle fake news remains a big question.
Yet fake news keeps spreading
Regardless of the bill’s implementation, in less than a year, countless fake news items have slipped past the social media’s algorithm, creating social discontent. It’s also hard to deny that fake news partly contributed to bringing thousands of people to the anti-ICERD rally which turned out to be the biggest street demonstration since PH took over Putrajaya, and also contributed to a series of gatherings in solidarity for the late Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim. Let’s not forget a most recent case, when a Facebook user who had accused Attorney-General Tommy Thomas of being an enemy of Islam, later posted a public apology.
However, the repeal of the Anti-Fake News Act (AFNA) 2018 brings up one basic yet burning question: how can we limit the spread of fake-news in this era of rapidly flowing information? What can effectively protect citizens from the spread of fake-news?
The ever growing rate of internet penetration – increased from 70 to 85.7% between 2015 and 2018 – and the democratisation of communication technologies in Malaysia have made the consumption of news and information relatively faster than in the past. Blogs and Facebook have now become the go-to websites, and smartphone applications that people use to check the latest news and keep up with a flow of constant global information.
But, on the other side of the coin, blogs and Facebook have also become prime spaces to spread false news. Their purpose, among others, is to generate revenue by acquiring enormous numbers of subscribers, who later participate in sponsored campaigns through clicks, likes, and shares. They exploit whatever means available, including framing headlines and stories that somehow could mislead their audience.
Having said that, in order to be believable and click-worthy on the feeds of the different social media platforms, fake news must be attractive enough to reach and engage with receptive audiences.
As a consequence, the speed at which information and news spread very much depends on the audience or the readers — especially when news is being passed around incessantly, without proper checking for authenticity and sources. In simple words, the more passive and dogmatic the readers, the quicker the spread of false news.
News and media literacy for everyone
Like it or not, we are living in a digital world. We complete most of our daily tasks on the World Wide Web at the touch of a fingertip. Armed with smartphones and able to use high-tech kiosks instead of human-staffed counters, we receive information at lightning speed, thus making it harder to read and evaluate everything, as our feeds are constantly jam-packed with information.
In light of this development, and paired with constant technological and political changes, media literacy should be a matter of concern for everyone, especially adults, who generally spend more time online compared with children.
A report published by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) demonstrated that the percentage of internet users between 2016 and 2018 increased from 76.9% to 87.4%. The mean age of Internet users in 2018 increased to 36.2 years, compared with 33.0 years in 2016.
This shows that the majority of internet users belong to older age groups, and are mainly adults in their 20’s and 30’s, which respectively accounted for 30.0% and 25.9% of total users.
Having adequate exposure to media literacy could help news consumers think critically, and allow them to make independent and reasoned judgments about different types of content. It is important for every smartphone-savvy Malaysian to be able to identify and differentiate facts, opinions, as well as to be able to check information on reliable news portals.
And given that blogs and news portals work according to their own agendas, one should also be able to recognise the purposes of the creator of each piece of content.
In one way or another, tackling fake news or misinformation goes back to the idea of having informed and active citizens in a democracy. It needs to start from the bottom, that is, by preparing citizens to be digitally literate in many aspects of social life, so that all may be able to know and practice their rights and responsibilities as active members of society.
Certainly, proper democracy requires the active participation of all its citizens. Therefore, to be an active citizen in the digital age means to be able to become informed through a correct knowledge-gaining process, one which involves asking, researching and analysing information.
Using better quality reading materials and news sources would allow everyone to make more informed choices, and also participate in the public sphere in a healthier way, instead of blindly following everything that others said.
While it is true that increasing a society’s media literacy is a job for teachers, librarians, journalists, as well as the government, on the other hand, media consumers should be able to develop their own “fake media antibodies” themselves.
Surely, relying too much on the government may also jeopardise our freedom: indeed, the government could sift through what goes through the news portals, thus restricting the choices of information that users can access, regardless of the proven authenticity of such news.
While PH is still looking for remedies to tackle the problem of fake news, it is never too early for people to develop their own defence system. Made up of citizens of different backgrounds, this “fake media antibody” could help preserve democracy and strengthen social harmony by making media consumers more responsible and aware.
At the end of the day, it is us, the citizens, who need to be more careful and wise in using the technology we are provided with. It is also our own responsibility to help stop the spread of false information or news.
Therefore, please think twice before clicking the share button.
Izzuddin Ramli is an analyst at Penang Institute.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.