Social Media: A Bridge or a Broken Plank in Southeast Asia?

30 Apr, 2013    ·   3914

Narayani Basu on whether the medium is a viable platform for political discussion and social change

Using social media to build or express opinion is certainly the beginning of something new in most Southeast Asian countries.  Some leaders have been quick to recognise the capacity of social networking to spread information and shape public opinion. The exact same benefit has not been lost on the citizens of Southeast Asian countries.

How far do social networking mediums form a viable platform for political discussion and/or social change in Southeast Asia? Can it build bridges between the political elite and the electorate, or is there still a long way to go?

Political Leadership: Connecting with the Electorate
Indonesian President Yudhoyono joined Twitter on April 13 so that he could establish a platform of personal interaction with the citizens of his country. In addition, Yudhoyono’s office launched a Twitter account to document his official activities as President. Malaysia’s Prime Najib Razak interacts with Malaysian netizens, hosting several meet-ups and other offline events with his Twitter followers. Indeed, with Pakatan Rakyat also dominating Malaysian cyberspace, the upcoming 5 May elections have been touted as Malaysia’s first social media elections. This tactic appears to have taken a leaf out of Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s book. Aquino’s government mobilised online voters in the 2010 presidential elections, using the mediums of both Twitter and Facebook.

Similar trends were observed in the general elections of Singapore in 2011. In the lead-up to the event, online activity across blogs, social media platforms, and discussion boards presented a virtual world abuzz with information and opinions that had, hitherto, remained muted. Tech-savvy leaders such as these present a dynamic change in modes of leadership and will appeal to a newer and younger generation.

Social Media: Vitiating Public Opinion?
Although Southeast Asian leaders are beginning to get on the social media bandwagon, in many countries of the region, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter remain platforms for voicing public opinion, not all of which is positive. The case of Thailand, where the Red Shirts (supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra) and their backers used social media like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter is one such example. Thaksin’s own avid use of Twitter led to this unrest being labelled ‘Thaksin’s Twitter Revolution’, pointing to the important role of individuals in activating the democratising influence of social media. In Myanmar, groups like the Myanmar Bloggers Society and Digital Democracy are working to subvert government censorship and promote freedom of speech and expression via blogs and Facebook.

While newspapers like The Voice Weekly and officials like the President’s spokesman Zaw Htay have Facebook pages of their own, many of these social media platforms are used to incite ethno-religious hatred. In Vietnam, political blogs populate cyberspace, especially on the issue of human rights abuses by the government. Indeed, many petitions on the issue of human rights are circulated by online activists via social media. Cambodia has several social networking sites dedicated to citizen journalism, where domestic issues are followed and discussed. In Indonesia, social media is now a natural platform for communicating on issues considered important for social and political change, such as the recent protest against hard-line extremist Muslim groups, which was organised entirely via Facebook and Twitter.

Bridging or Enhancing the Divide?
Although social media is developing as a useful platform for expressing and shaping public opinion, many Southeast Asian governments, unlike those of Malaysia and Indonesia, are not as open to public expression of views through social media. The Cambodian government remains fairly liberal with regard to social networking and the spread of news and views online, but the citizens themselves remain guarded as far as pushing the official envelope goes. In Vietnam, government surveillance of Internet sites has led to reduced posts on political blogs. In addition, the government has cracked down hard on online bloggers on issues that it perceived to be threatening to state authority, such as the human rights abuse cases. Controversial sites are often censored or blocked and many online activists have been jailed by the government.

In Myanmar, where social media sites like YouTube and Flickr were used to share videos of the anti-government protests in 2007, strong Internet restrictions are in place. In a similar trend, research shows that online campaigns have failed to capture the still-powerful rural vote in many Southeast Asian countries like Laos and Malaysia and Myanmar, where Internet access is limited to the urban population and where face-to-face campaigning remains the most effective tactic. Potential voters are also sometimes likely to either express scepticism or otherwise ignore social-media-based advertisements or political messages. The Internet, in many of these Southeast Asian countries, remains wholly limited to urban and/or political elites. Moreover, not all governments in the region are as open to the idea of a free cyberspace as its citizens would like.

Social media has certainly made effective inroads into Southeast Asian societies, but there is still quite a long way to go. Only time can tell whether Southeast Asian nations can truly cash in on the opportunity presented to them by social media for building bridges between governments and citizens, and for government-to-government interactions.