THE nation’s unity suffered a major blow recently when a simple shoplifting case nearly turned into an explosive racial incident. In the incident at Low Yat Plaza in Kuala Lumpur, a Malay consumer reportedly walked off with a handphone that he was inspecting at a shop when the shop assistant, who is Chinese, turned his back momentarily to look for something on the floor.
The whole incident was captured by the mall’s CCTV. It was clearly a criminal act and had nothing to do with race or any other factor. Hence, the unfortunate fight that broke out shocked moderate and peace-loving Malaysians.
As usual, many blame it on a political system that continues to divide the nation along ethnic lines since independence 58 years ago.
Yet, it also demonstrated how easy it is for an isolated incident to escalate into something bigger and uglier through social media — the nation’s latest favourite pastime.
Apparently, various video clips were broadcast as if via live telecast on social media, showing how the brawl occurred. A group of youths, said to be seeking revenge for their friend who was caught stealing, were shown fighting with dealers at the plaza.
Welcome to the world of social media where everything is inter-connected! Nowadays, literally with a click, one can spread texts, voices and images, truths or half-truths, and even hoaxes instantly to another person’s smartphone almost everywhere and anywhere in the world — much like a virus outbreak.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and other social media platforms have turned the rumour mill into a supercharged rumour turbine, something that can be electronically manipulated and fabricated. It can not only inflict untold suffering on people’s lives but is capable of tearing a nation apart. The Low Yat incident is a good example.
Even though Malaysia may not be perfect, let us not recklessly, intentionally or otherwise, put our nation — a unique multiracial and multi-religious country painstakingly nurtured and built by our forefathers — at risk of disintegration.
Herein lies the danger of online lies spread by social media. In today’s media landscape, where online accusations and rumours spread virally, judgment is swift. It has become almost a modern witch-hunt, with YouTube videos and Facebook posts condemning the accused, be it an individual, corporation or even government, before they can respond.
Make no mistake: Malaysia is not short of laws to stem the spread of online rumours and punish rumour-mongers. Just to name a few, we have the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Defamation Act 1957, and the Penal Code. In short, there are ample laws at the disposal of the authorities or aggrieved parties to go after irresponsible culprits.
Yet, considering the permanence of online records, reputations can be shattered irreparably, even when rumours are proven false in a court of law. The question now is, can justice prevail in the virtual and real world court of public opinion?
Nothing can be worse for a person to be found guilty in the media or public opinion, and not through due process in the court of law.
This is reminiscent of a scene in A Man for All Seasons — a famous play by English playwright Robert Bolt — when the protagonist, Sir Thomas More, and his future son-in-law, William Roper, had the following interchange:
Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of the law!
More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
The powerful statements clearly support the rule of law. Simply put, if we plough through the basic principle of the rule of law — which is that a man is innocent unless proven otherwise in a court of law — everyone is less safe.
The thought that the rule of law we rely may not be there to protect us from an onslaught of abuse by the power of the social media is indeed terrifying.
We have to come to the sobering realisation that social media, as revolutionary as it is, does have a dark side.
Just who do we think we are? This is the question that we, social media users, must keep on reminding ourselves. If we are not responsible enough, we can cause unimaginable pain to people, and along the way, even tear a nation apart with irresponsible messages, views and visuals shared and spread online.
Khaw Veon Szu, a former executive director of a local think tank, is a practising lawyer. The views in this article are his own.
This article first appeared in Opinion, digitaledge Weekly, on Aug 3 - 9, 2015.