Praba Ganesan

Praba Ganesan is chief executive at KUASA, a democracy outreach organisation. It's time to be involved. You can contact him at praba.ganesan@mykuasa.org or follow him on Twitter @prabaganesan.

FEBRUARY 8 — Everyday is a struggle being in the same WhatsApp group as Jena. And a laugh.

He shares as he goes. He claims he does it while waiting between errands, for instance, waiting to pick up his kids at school and meeting clients.

He really does not care if they are fake, these posts and links.

He’ll share any news anyone bothers to pass to him. Any anything. He is a chain-letter progenitors’ wet-dream.

When asked why he shares without hesitation or thought over what has been shared, especially the fantastical and outright impossible, he’ll quip “better safe than sorry.”

Now they’ve located an allegedly missing 13-year-old within five hours driven by social media, Jena will find more resolve to inundate the group chat.

He’d say, see Praba, safe is better than sorry. I have the exact thought when I imagine him drowning in a sea of smartphones. Something about living, dying and swords.

Using social media to assist people, as in locating a student who may be in danger, is excellent but how about fake news?

Jena is an infuriating example but there are many in all the chat groups I am in, along with other social media like Facebook, who share news without any effort to filter.

It’s noisy in there.  

[FYI: I’m willing to loan Jena out to any chat groups which need more active members. He’s active alright.]

That and the talk by ministers to counter fake news with legislation, several things emerge to the surface.

The fake in us, the fake we fear and the fake responses to selective fake developments, has forced this column to meander into the question of, are we about to be destroyed by lies?

It is without doubt Malaysians are one group most vulnerable to fake news, compared to most countries.

This country is synonymous with secrets.

Partial blank outs of history textbooks, replaced with editorialised steroid pumped facts.

Communities hiding from examination by steering information within their language corridors.

Government contracts under official veil of confidentiality, so it is just guesses the people live off.

Education fuelled by repeated exercises to accept facts rather than challenging them.

Insist culture and religion as a basis not to ask more about particular things, and at times even general things.

Outright denials of accusations towards authority, to be cocksure that it must be wrong when authority is scrutinised. Authority is authority because it has authority, and only those lacking gratitude will even suspect authority.

Trained to be gullible and laid into a bubble believing there is no confusion as long as we accept the official narrative only, it is only surprising we are not fooled by fake news more often.

I’m almost tempted to ask the ministers, who’s fooling who?

Worsening

Social media’s greatest strength is the end of information monopoly.

It is also its maddening weakness.

As I am reminded, government has the monopoly over force, in Malaysia government also had near-monopoly of information for decades.

In a perverse way, social media and fake news are highly combustible together in a country built on curtailing rather than harnessing its people. It is a loud kungfu kick to our false sense of certitude and a wake-up call to usher in an age of reason not obedience.

Soon, because the Internet has morphed into being even more unwieldly.

Centre to this downward spiral is the reality consumers now rely on their peers rather than sites to read.

Therefore, the world begins for people from Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. What friends prefer is what they end up preferring, which leads to selective reading, overemphasis of community bias and a sea of random links.

There is less restraint, and an abandon in that. This is evident by a conviction if it is online it must be true.

One picture can become the basis of any allegations.

During the last election, many blogs used a picture of two interns working with me as proof of the famed DAP’s Red Bean Army. It did not matter, what is truth. There’s an alleged battalion of cybertroopers, and with this visual of dudes standing by computers, the evidence is complete.

Every URL has the same value.

I deal with staffers who use web information without verifying. They flip the issue on its head and ask me why do I feel their information is flawed? Without realising they place the burden of proof on those sceptical rather than feel obliged they should be able to prove the information they have picked up from the net.

Can they be blamed entirely?

I’m not sure, but it is worrying.

And with social media bent on easing further posts and cross-posts across platforms, information overload is swamping our people.

An assemblyman once told me about his ongoing “Dante’s circles of hell on repeat” nightmare scenario, because more than 200 resident groups have added him to their chat groups which he can’t leave. Nothing says “don’t vote me” more than having a screen message tell everyone that their elected rep has voluntarily left.

He’s just waiting for artificial intelligence to automate his responses and conversations. It won’t be lying politicians, instead it will be artificial politicians.

No solutions, just choices

It is easier not to care, and duly harass people with volume of messages, posts and links.

There is a choice, to own what we share with our friends and family.

Since those close to us will undoubtfully consume what we dish out, perhaps the polite thing to do is to be circumspect and consider if the information is true.

Kyra Tan was found, but if chat groups are flooded with fake news, over time people become desensitised and probably not offer the same level of attention to genuine pleas for assistance.

There are the standard solutions to fake news, to be done in tandem; develop a culture of integrity, rate source credibility, exercise consumer sensibility and implement defamation laws objectively.

However, the war on fake news can easily be and in fact probably is camouflaged clamp down of dissent.

Though the worry about fake news is real.

Still, the task to deal with lies is in the hands of the people, and government must be honest about their own self-interest. Otherwise they end up compounding fake news, not clamping it.

Though I think I may have a better chance of convincing my government than Jena, the prolific WhatsApp chatgroup content sharer.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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