Spectre of fake news hangs over general election | New Straits Times

KUALA LUMPUR: The 14th General Election (GE14) looks set to be the “Social Media Election” based on the likelihood that political campaigns will rage online more intensely than ever before.

Media experts and political analysts have strong reasons to predict that much of the political battle for one-upmanship can be won or defeated on social media.

The basis for their reasoning is that a large size of the population, young or old, practically “live” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The war of attrition could heat up on the popular messaging application WhatsApp during campaigning ahead of polling day.

Whether it is to get information on political developments, current issues or to talk to other people, social media is the platform that nearly everyone with a smartphone turns to nowadays.

The 12th General Election in 2008 was considered the year of the blogs, and in the 13th General Election, many people used Facebook to seek political views before they voted.

While some have debated that it will be more of a “Facebook Election” than a “WhatsApp Election”, the spectre of fake news in social media is a threat to the fairness of the campaign process.

According to the Statistics Department, Malaysia’s population was 32.2 million in the third quarter of last year. Statista, an international statistics portal, found that 68 per cent of Malaysians were active on Whats-App in the same quarter, meaning there are a staggering 21.9 million users.

A survey by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission found that there were 21.9 million social media users in 2016, with 97.3 per cent (21.3 million people) owning a Facebook account.

Universiti Teknologi Mara social media expert Dr C. Sara says fake news caused public confusion, which could affect their decision-making process.

Asked whether Facebook or WhatsApp could be manipulated more to disseminate fake news, the political pundit said Facebook could reach a wider audience than WhatsApp.

“The use of WhatsApp is high as there are a big number of smartphone owners, but they can only circulate information within a limited number of groups.

“Facebook has a wider reach because you can share articles, videos and there’s a feature for live talk shows, so it can spread a wide array of information.”

Social media plays a significant role in helping political parties rally support to win the war of perception. But, false information is now the No. 1 enemy for politicians.

The government recently announced its intention to introduce a law to protect people from falling prey to fake news.

Although the opposition accused the government of not having national interest in mind, experts said the move was timely, especially as France and Ireland are also drafting laws on fake news. Germany’s “Facebook Law” came into effect in January.

Universiti Malaya political analyst Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi echoed other experts, saying that fake news could ruin a country. Thus, in his opinion, having a legislation to address it is vital to preserve harmony.

Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi

“We cannot simply believe any information that we receive without getting clarification. We also cannot humiliate another person by fabricating stories that can cause huge embarrassment for other people and their families.

“In Islam, it is said that deceptive information leads to slander and that the sin of spreading slander is greater than the sin of killing a fellow human being.”

Economist Dr Hoo Ke Ping said fake news could be disruptive to the economy in the long term.

He said fake news could erode investors’ confidence, and they might invest elsewhere.

This, he said, was because confidence was a fundamental value for investors in doing business.

He said investors would likely flee if the federal or state government failed to convince them that it could counter fake news in a matter of hours, not days.

“If there is too much fake news, they will think twice about continuing to invest in the country.

“Foreign investors have auditors to assist them in making the right decisions and analysis. 

“What’s important is how the authorities address fake news, and their sense of urgency in dispelling rumours.”

For now, there are no fresh indications on when the proposed bill on fake news would be tabled in Parliament, and the delay might cause worry among politicians and the public in the wider scheme of things.

Whether GE14 will be a “Facebook Election” or a “WhatsApp Election”, it seems that this so-called mother-of-all-elections can degenerate into a “Fake News Election” in the absence of stern legislation to rein in the problem.