The Politics of Social Media in South East Asia

Malaysia currently has about 13.6 million Facebook users – this is 48% of the population. It also has the highest Twitter usage in the world. And with such an audience, it is understandable that social media would become an extremely important part of the political sphere.

Today youth under the age of 30 [pdf] makes up more than 50% of Southeast Asia’s population. This population is mostly middle class, which is a traditional engine of consumption. And in Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia there is an increasing investment in infrastructure and education which creates a high penetration of social media. Even in less affluent countries, like Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand, low internet penetration rates still mean large numbers of users due to dense urban populations.

There has been a mass scale digitisation of the ASEAN countries and in the next few decades this population will adopt more digital services to meet their needs. Apart from digitisation, the other important trend is urbanisation. This will create more access to social media, technology and the internet.

The biggest manipulator of online communities in most of South East Asia is the government as it has the largest claim to authority and can exercise censorship. There are two forms of government usage of social media: for political popularity, power and control though censorship; and for development and community building, which of course, does not have to be government led. Many people also use the internet for political change.

In the government influence sphere, the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY as he is known, joined Twitter last year. Within two weeks, SBY had over 1.7 million followers and a spike in his popularity. His Malaysian counterpart Prime Minister Najib Razak has been tweeting since 2008. Najib had about 1.3 million fans on his Facebook page, while opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has only 428,371. There is a clear correlation between political popularity and social media usage in South East Asia. Although these political strategies might not work so well in poorer countries where people don’t have access to education and internet.

The spread of the internet access through smartphones is also enabling political parties to connect with individuals and even entire families that may otherwise be hard to reach. As the smartphone gets cheaper and cheaper so there is penetration of the internet in rural areas as well, especially in Cambodia. The government has been able to use this as a propaganda tool in the same way it uses traditional media, and it has accelerated the adoption of Facebook and other social media platforms.

Along with the government, political parties and corporations, the other stakeholders are the people. Sometimes all it takes is one person to shake up the government. In one instance in 2010, Philippine President Benigno Aquino directly answered a Facebook question by a critic. This was unprecedented direct engagement with the masses by a national leader.

During the 2011 floods in Thailand, social media was an important tool and surpassed the mainstream media’s efforts in providing emergency relief.

Facebook helped build a community around the response to the crisis, providing minute-by-minute information and thus mobilising communities. However, the energy that sustains such online communities tends to dissolve after the crisis is over.

Resistance and criticism by the common man is also prone to censorship. In Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia the government is increasingly emulating China’s example of suppressing online freedom. The Technology Crime Suppression Division of the Thai police intends to monitor the country’s most popular chat site, Line, which has 15 million users in Thailand.

In Vietnam there is the controversial Decree 72 which will enforce bans on posting news articles on blogs or social websites so that the site is used only for “personal” sharing. The government has even made cyber attacks using bots on some bloggers causing them to move their servers outside the country.

Thus as much as the internet can offer participation and engagement, a global public sphere is a utopic dream. The internet operates within socio-political structures that influence how the technology and information can be used and disseminated. Additionally, in Vietnam, government agencies are now developing local language alternatives to Facebook and Google. If these services are formally banned these alternatives can fill the vacuum to the benefit of the government. The public sphere of the internet will be co-opted by the government in the future and we may see a confrontation between international technology companies and Vietnamese authorities.

In Myanmar, social media has been instrumental in political change for the population. In 2007 videos and pictures of anti-government protests were shared on YouTube and Flickr. This was the only way to publicise tyranny and create external international pressure. The country has been infamous for jailing bloggers, journalists and poets. Yet democratic reforms have led to the unblocking of Facebook, which has become a new ground for political protest.

There is a growth of citizen journalism and this has been recognised by mainstream media. In Thailand mainstream media outlets have begun to offer training to citizen journalists. In Malaysia, social media is used to watch trends and mainstream news outlets track sites to pick up news and trends, while international news often uses postings on social media to report stories.

The growing popularity of social media is changing how the public perceives official channels of information. Due to enhanced penetration of the internet there is a greater demand for accountability from traditional power. Yet traditional power can still hold the reigns of this information through censorship and information production.

Today, like any social system, or any community or society, how social media is used depends on social structure and how traditional political power can balance itself against new types of social power derived from information technology. Only time will tell precisely how this will evolve.

July, 1, 2014- International Data Group.

Southeast Asia: Terrorism Online

In Southeast Asia, discussions of terrorist groups, by participants themselves, are regularly posted on websites and various web forums and chat rooms to entice new recruits. In fact, convicted terrorists have given evidence of the influence of the internet in their recruitment and communication strategies.

A study by the Australian Strategic Policy Group in 2009 found that the internet might become the dominant factor in radicalization in the region. Exploring this is instrumental to understanding the issues of global jihad and terror. We live in an interlinked world, and it makes sense that terrorism worldwide is a loose global network. There have been many news reports in the current Iraqi crisis and the group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has been getting recruits from all over the world, especially Southeast Asia.

Harrison and Barthel in 2009 argued that the “active audience” in social media is rooted in older forms of rebellious media use, like community radio or participatory public art projects. Social media, however, extends the potential scope and impact of radical resistance and collaboration. And radicalisation in the area, and its links globally is certainly not a new phenomenon.

Where are groups based?

There are two major terrorist groups in the Philippines. One was established by former combatants in Afghanistan and the second, the Rajah Sulaiman Islamic Movement (RSIM), was founded by Ahmed Santos, a Filipino who became radicalised while living in Saudi Arabia.

In Thailand, terrorism is an insurgency rather than an issue of global jihad like in the Philippines. And going to Syria for jihad is a trend among groups in Indonesia and the Philippines, but not in Thailand. Malaysia and Indonesia have a strong radical online presence.

However, there is no major jihadist headquarters in Southeast Asia, and all extremist trouble from the region has been local. This means governments have dealt with these groups with talks and negotiations. This is especially true in Indonesia after the 2002 Bali bombing and the peace agreement between the MILF (the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) and the Philippine government.

The internet is effective enough to help these groups recruit new members and get in touch with their members through websites or social media. However, recruitments on Facebook are rare, these are more for coordination and discussion of already existing groups. This said, the group that attempted to bomb the Burmese embassy in Jakarta this year first met on Facebook. While another group in Jakarta, Madiun and Solo, which was first mistaken with the Sunni Movement for Indonesian Society (HASMI) group, also met on Facebook and plotted a failed terror attack.

Are things changing?

Southeast Asia was once a possible second front for al-Qaeda but has actually seen a decline in extremism over the last decade. This is because good law enforcement, cooperative interstate relations, peaceful resolution of communal conflicts in Indonesia and the closing of major terrorist training centers have weakened networks.

Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, once had a presence in five countries. But by 2003, it had largely reduced to Indonesia, and its leaders decided to end violent action there in 2007. Yet the group has a presence in Syria according to a recent report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).

Between late 2012 and January 2014, JI’s humanitarian arm, the Hilal Ahmar Society of Indonesia (HASI), sent ten delegations to Syria to deliver medical aid and cash to the Islamic resistance. “The danger remains that fighters returning from Syria could infuse new energy into Indonesia’s weak and ineffectual jihadi movement,” the IPAC study concluded.

In the current state of terrorism in the region, it seems that extremists have spread where they have found causes outside the region. And the groups operating are smaller and most likely pose national and not regional threats.  This means, however, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in particular have potential worries over the next few years when extremist nationals, or neighbours who have been fighting in Afghanistan and Syria, come back with new skills. 

How does this online presence work?

The phenomenon of online extremism first appeared in Southeast Asia in early 2000, in the Bahasa Indonesia and Malay language cyber-environment. These websites tried to mimic the contents of their Arabic and Middle Eastern online counterparts. Although they were not on a par with operational coordination and trader craft, like technological information on how to make bombs for instance, they were catching up by 2009.

These Bahasa and Malay websites have also been used to justify terrorist acts and propagate conspiracy theories. They have also started the sharing of tradecraft materials, such as hacking, firearm and bomb-making manuals. One of the first appearances of such a manual was in August 2007 on the then new forum, Jihad al-Firdaus.

As for actual activity, there have been at least two reported hacking incidents in the region. One of the targets was the website Indonesia.faithfreedom.org that radical Islamists criticise for being derogatory to Islam. The other was a Friendster Account belonging to a member of the same website. And though Jihad al-Firdaus is no longer accessible, more blogs and forums keep cropping up generating and sharing technical information. A recent influential forum is Al-Tawbah that has strong Arabic influences with more videos on jihad and how to make weapons.

Southeast Asian militant groups recognise how important an online media presence is and how they can disseminate information uncensored. For radical groups lacking access to mainstream media, this is perfect. Khattab Media Publication, is the self-proclaimed official media wing of the Mujahidin Syura Council, an extremist group in southern Thailand. They are inspired by al-Qaeda and run a Malay blog. The blog has translations of fatwas by the Palestinian intellectual Abdullah Azzam, the man behind the ideology of al-Qaeda, obliging Muslims to militarily defend their lands and this encourages the use of violence.

There are open forums where people are trying to get in touch with others for Airsoft gun training and martial arts exercises. Quranic verses are then carefully selected to justify actions that could have an impact on human lives in the real world. Social media has allowed jihadists to be portrayed and advertised as heroes and subversive acts are represented as revolutionary victories.

The internet and social media has been a blessing for its ability to share information, what is becoming apparent is that this freedom will have to somehow be balanced with security. 

Analysing the Desi Popular

From Prince Biscuits to Dalda to Surf Excel, our minds and childhoods echo with TV jingles, nationalistic pop anthems from the 90s and snippets of jokes from 50-50. Pop culture is always musical. Ask someone about their favourite bit of Pakistani pop culture, and invariably the answer is Nazia Hassan, “Purani jeans aur guitar”, Vital Signs and Junoon. But a deeper look brings back heart wrenching nostalgia, like watching Thundercats on STN at 7 pm as a kid, or trips to Bata before every new school year, or laughing at Moin Ahktar on PTV. Popular culture by no means is something that can be concretely measured or defined. In Pakistan such frivolity is often sidelined, but by nature of being uncontrolled and spontaneous, pop culture crawls through the cracks to become part of the national psyche.

Popular culture is a different creature from the national phenomenon of culture. It only comes into being when it has mass effect and acceptance, but with no direct control of the creator or of any form of authority. The actors of the legendary TV show 50-50 have long disappeared from the airwaves, yet the comedy skits are still part of beloved pop culture. Massive aid by the Internet, like YouTube, have ensured that such chapters in our popular history can survive. Most of quality TV from before the 80’s was produced by PTV, and the state enterprise has either lost this content or has been unable to digitize obsolete mediums of film. This compounds one of the problems of popular culture in Pakistan, that it doesn’t last long.

Quality makes for good popularity, but popular culture is often absolutely frivolous (like the popularity of Annie’s Mahiya, or Mathira’s antics on cable TV). It does not have to be art; it just has to be catchy. It is forever changing and evolving, and mostly comedic, artistic or musical. To give a very simple example, the shalwar kameez is culture; the Pierre Cardin twist to the outfit for PIA air hostesses in the 1970’s is pop culture.

Dr Aur Billa

The problem with popular culture in Pakistan, as mentioned earlier is its extremely short lifespan. Even though pop culture is transient, Britney Spears head shaving shenanigans have lasted longer in our public memory than Dr aur Billa’s hilarious take on pop music. This is probably due to the nature of our media and how it is controlled. Virtually all the fodder for pop culture in the last ten years has come not from art and music but from 24 hour news channels, like Amir Liaqat’s “Ghalib film dekhi hai aap neh?”, and Maya Khan’s “Apnay maan baap ko dhoka mat dain” (about sitting with a member of the opposite sex in a park). In a country obsessed with national security and political drama, it is not hard to see why high culture (like fine art) and low culture (like Pushto films with buxom dancing lasses) have a minimal role in discourse. Even when high art and popular culture are as important to the construction of Pakistani identity as religion, ethnicity or politics.

"Ghalib Film Dekhi Hai Aap Neh???"
“Ghalib Film Dekhi Hai Aap Neh???”

In the 1990s, the heyday of pop music in Pakistan, these 24 hour news channels did not exist. In fact, it can be argued that news channels like Geo and Dunya were the death of entertainment channels like Indus music that, for a few years had captured the attention of teens across urban Pakistan (for one, it propelled Jal’s Aadat into Pakistani music’s Hall of Fame). It is only in the last two to four years that we have seen the beginnings of a renaissance of entertainment channels with Hum Tv.

General Zia’s years were a blur of state censorship and state controlled television to the extent that even female actors sleeping in bed on TV had to have a veil on their heads. The state does have a role in creating what is popular culture, but this is hardly equal to the state controlling it. The most popular example of this from outside Pakistan was propaganda posters during World War 2. The most wonderful art and design was combined with government messages across the world including the US, Great Britain, Soviet Russia, Japan and China. One of the most popular posters was the red British “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. Today these posters have survived because to the masses, they represent an instantly recognizable version of history, not because of state control of history.

pyari <3
pyari <3

Pakistan has never had a tradition of propaganda posters but one of the bastions of national television (and even a mouthpiece for state propaganda), Shaista Zaid, is an icon today. She is instantly recognizable, and even beloved by her long-standing presence on PTV, with her perfectly pinned dupatta and impeccable English accent. Again, her figure is not created by any authority, it is rather how she has been perceived and received by the masses that fixes her in our memories. Her retirement thus spawned long bouts of reminiscing about the lives and times of General Zia.
It can be argued that Humsafar was the first drama to break the stereotyping of Pakistani TV as being dull and uncreative plot wise. Other popular shows on TV like Jutt and Bond, Shashlik and Teen bata teen, were different in the sense that they targeted a young population with comedy. Interestingly, Jawad Bashir’s hand was behind all three of these comedies. Including the music of Dr aur Billa, well produced music videos like Abrar-ul-Haq’s Preeto, and Ufone GSM’s riotous adverts, Bashir may be the single biggest contributor to Pakistani pop culture since the 90s with honorable mentions to partners-in-crime, Adeel Hashmi, Vasay Chaudhry and Faisal Qureshi. Good comedy was always popular (whether Moin Akhtar cross-dressing in Rozi in the 90s or the inane hilarity of the sitcom Bulbulay today), but quality dramas were few and far between.

The sad thing is that such changes in local culture are not given importance in dominant narratives. With a threadbare film and music industry, break throughs like Jutt and Bond or Humsafar open us to local art but are often not capitalized on because they do not feature into the power structures of society. It is sometimes argued that during Zia’s time, there was a cap put on creativity, that due to government censorship and control, the quality of national TV fell. Yet there are short-lived blips of renaissance here and there, for example shows like Chand Grehn in the 90s. Today the problem is not state control but societal encouragement of such projects and the people behind them.

(In The Nation, a few weeks ago. Leave a comment?)

The course of the Indus and Jehlum, was manmade!

A lesson in forgotten (Pakistani/subcontinental) history….

According to the Rājatarangiṇī (“The River of Kings”), the banks of the Indus were reconstructed by mere mortals of seemingly superb talent!

The Rājatarangiṇī is a metrical historical chronicle of north-western Indian subcontinent, particularly the kings of Kashmir, written in Sanskrit by Kashmiri Brahman Kalhaṇa in 12th century CE (thank you Wikipedia). The work records the heritage of Kashmir and its politics from the epic period of the Mahābhārata to the reign of Sangrama Deva (c.1006 CE), before the Muslim era. The list of kings goes back to the 19th century BCE.

The chronology might be a bit off, but the work is true to whatever was going on in Kashmir somewhere between the 8th and 12th century.

These old works show  that rulers of this era  were some of the most brilliant urban planners, and in fact, the “Golden Age” (of building, planning, writing, and gold, the time of India being the most powerful economic region) of the subcontinent was already over by the time the Muslims landed on its banks.

The good times can only be said to have come back, for just a bit, with Akbar and Shah Jehan and their contributions to art and architecture… but the Subcontinent was over its glory days so much sooner than we think. Anyway, read the lower paragraph in the picture below.

indus-and-jehlum

The picture is from: Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal (Penguin 2012)

Popular Culture and Science Fiction

Image

In 1984 William Gibson wrote the popular science fiction, Neuromancer. The novel predicted the rise of the Internet and the word “cyberspace” thus entered the modern lexicon. Thus popular culture directly impacted the real world and eventually the Internet became a big part of everyday culture. Today it is one of the necessary fronts of social and political change. Here are some musings on science fiction and popular culture theory.

On a side note, popular culture is almost unexplored by modern political theory. Except for Marxist critical theory that calls it the “culture industry,” there are few words written about its benefits. Adorno and Horkheimer, critical Marxists from the 1940s, theorized that mass culture was a political weapon to ensure the continued obedience of the masses to market interests. They predicted the rise of popular mass media, firmly controlled by large corporations and class interests for monetary purposes. There was no purely “public” sphere where people had freedom of choice and opinion. Except of course, in recent time, cyberspace. This explanation of popular culture itself, seems dystopian. Something science fiction is very comfortable about when describing futures. Almost, art imitating life.

Science fiction its self at the outset seems to be a product of the merging of popular culture and scientific innovation.The Atomic Age starts with the year 1903 when Ernest Rutherford, a British chemist and physicist, born in New Zealand, started discussing the possibility of atomic energy. Following this, the first pop culture reaction was in 1914, with the publishing of H.G. Wells‟ science fiction novel entitled The World Set Free in which he describes the finding of unlimited energy locked inside atoms, and presents a story of how atomic bombs are deployed around the world. Such examples, just relating to the bomb are continually repeated. In 1945 the first atomic bombs were created. In 1986 the graphic novel, Watchmen, reimagined the past from the world war to the Vietnam War to Nixon’s America (with one of the protagonists being in total control of atomic and subatomic particles).

*Fan girl tears* Whattay novel.
*Fan girl tears* Whattay novel.

Then the robot is “that place in science fiction texts where technological and human are most directly blended. The robot is the dramatization of the alterity of the machine, the paranoid sense of the inorganic come to life,” as explained by a theorist*. The confrontation/cooperation between man and machine thus becoming an archetype which has been almost exhaustively explored. This brings me back to the brilliance of Neuromancer, merging so many nodes of technology, before its time, creating fodder for future popular culture. Movies reminiscent of this novel include Elysium… future dystopias with class structure, and small almost mercenary vanguard like resistances. Love.

**Roberts, A. (2000) – “Science Fiction – The New Critical Idiom” Routledge Publishing

What do Hitler, OBL and Stalin have in common? And is there a correlation between religion and ethics?

“God bless Mujahid bin Laden”

“God bless Sheikh Mujahid Osama bin Laden, and no consolation for the ignorant (Jahil) parrots of the West”

These were the comments I read under the following (liberal?) image I came across Facebook… so here is some food for thought (or not depending on how indignant people get in the comments).

Nutjobs

The poster/picture was shared by a Jordanian friend and the commenters below were mostly Arab, (though I think Pakistani readers would have similar reactions). Now the general sentiment of the comments was agreement with the captioning of the personalities, all except for Osama bin Laden who people tried to defend. What makes the goal of  killing for religion (OBL), better than killing under Communism (Stalin)?

Here is another comment: “First: Hitler was a disbeliever, originally did not believe in Christ, Second: Osama bin Laden, a man who acted when the world sat idle”

(BTW Hitler’s religious beliefs are actually not conclusively proven unreligious, however Nazism and neo-nazism today is heavily grounded in Christianity)

What does this kind of defense of OBL mean? Do people outraged at Osama’s presence on the above poster support suicide bombing? Do all these people not see killing as a crime whether it is Americans or Jews or Muslims?

Its not only us Pakistanis with masses of extreme wight-wingers, upset with liberalism, secularism, feminism and everything left of centre. Most of the religious world is rife with such destructive sentiments. The way a mass of us has been celebrating Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of  Salmaan Taseer, the same type of type of support groups popped up on Facebook for the neo-nazi Norwegian killer, Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 92 people in 2011. And it didn’t end here. In an act of provocation the Thor Steinar clothing company, associated with the neo-Nazi scene, has opened a store in eastern Germany called Brevik, a name almost identical to Breivik. Neo-nazi parties and groups exist across Central and Western Europe and are condemnable. There are many many examples of music groups, hate groups, individuals and churches that are know for being anti-Semite, pro-white and Christian. The difference is maybe in the quantity of support for these groups and national laws that does not give them space for great national and international impact.

So when people who share the viewpoint of the image, say that OBL is evil, or a murderer, or just an all round bad apple, its not because he was Muslim or that they are pro-West/USA, its because of his actions. Anyone who has such a disregard for human life is evil. That is why we have law, and criminal codes and prisons and punishment, so that a Mumtaz Qadri does not wake up one day and go on a rampage because he does not agree with what you are saying.

But is there a correlation between religion and ethics? Are religious people more moral than atheists or agnostics?

Studies have found no difference between religious and non-religious individuals on unethical behaviors such as dishonesty and cheating, while a negative relationship was found between use of illegal substances and individual religiousness*. Kidwell et al in 1987 found no relationship between religiosity and ethical judgments of managers. Religion may not be the key to making you a good (or a bad person), and there is no conclusive study to say otherwise.**

The picture also seems to show a (weak) correlation between mustaches and ethics. Get over it.

Notes

*See Hood, R. W., B. Spilka, B. Hunsberger and R. Gorsuch: 1996, The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (Guildford Press, New York). Also see Khavari, K. A. and T. M. Harmon: 1982, The Relationship between the Degree of Professed Religious Belief and Use of Drugs, International Journal of the Addictions 17, 847–857.

** See Parboteeah, Hoegl and Cullen: 2008, Ethics and Religion: An Empirical Test of a Multidimensional Model, Journal of Business Ethics (2008) 80:387–398.

Pak Tea House, August 2012.

Pakistan meme

I’m doing some research on memes and internet culture in Pakistan, so if you are here and reading this click this and help me by filling out this survey if you are a young Pakistani (and tweet/Facebook it too if you like it). Will post findings here soon.

Survey: http://memecloud.treebark.org/64147

And here’s a hilarious image from the Facebook page Sarcasmistan

Cartoonist, Writer, and everything thing else. And a penguin.

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