Penang in the Age of Social Media


Octogenarians use it. Kids use it. Homemakers and powerhouse executives love it. Here is how the people of Penang use social media.

In the twenty-first century, snail mail has become old school and social media platforms have taken over in connecting the world. The intricate term “social media” can be defined as any instance of electronic communication where netizens create online communities to disseminate information, videos or personal messages, among other things.1

Take the most widely used social media platform in the world, Facebook, for instance: it has over 1.8 billion active users worldwide and has greatly altered the way information is created and transmitted across the emerging global village.2

Several other prominent social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google+ and LinkedIn have also made their way into our daily lives thanks to technology and to the modern longing for self-expression. While not all stand the test of time, these few platforms have found ways to keep up with trends and preferences.

In 1990 Jaring surfaced as Malaysia’s earliest Internet Service Provider; today, there are around 10 companies providing essential connectivity to the smartphone-toting Malaysian. To better understand social media usage among Penangites, a survey was conducted involving 270 respondents from three different age ranges – namely 19 and below, 20-29 and 30 and above, each group comprising 90 respondents respectively.

The survey showed an astounding 253 out of 270 respondents (93.70%) being social media platform users, with a majority of them spending at least 2-10 hours a day on their devices. A distinct trend is evident – the age of respondents is inversely proportional to the likeliness of them being social media users. Its detractors feel that social media platforms not only intrude on their privacy, they are considered to be arduous and time consuming.

To Facebook, or Not to Facebook

It is almost impossible not to fidget with our phones or to refrain from checking Facebook and tweets every now and then – even during study or work. As many as 138 (54.55%) survey participants concur that having access to social media platforms during work is a boost to their performance for various reasons – one being the sea of shared information that not only provides data for research, business, marketing and other purposes, but also connects one to global networks through just a tap on the smartphone screen. It is through these platforms that companies and organisations have an alternate and effective way of communicating with their counterparts to develop events, projects and share ideas.

From tweeting to posting photos, social media updating plays an important role for employees and employers alike to destress and unwind. Micro-breaks such as these can increase creativity by providing inspiration, allowing users to work more efficiently. One respondent says, “Work culture needs to evolve. A work place is not just a factory that churns out operations, but needs to take care of its employees’ wellbeing too. Social media at work allows employees to take a mental break and connect with people – including colleagues, family and friends – ultimately improving performance.”

While most respondents agree that social media is an exceptional tool for work, a large group perceives it as a form of distraction. “Not many people are disciplined enough to separate between work and personal time,” says a respondent, backing the idea that social media is indeed an interference.

Time for a wefie.

That said, moderation is key in ensuring that employees are able to perform their tasks while at the same time have access to social media platforms. Extensive usage would only lead to detrimental consequences – underperformance, to be exact. Some companies ban social media sites on their office intranet; even so, Facebook is only a thumb away. Work culture potentially plays a larger role in regulating excessive social media use among employees, and the establishment of work policies allows employers to set early expectations. This in turn acts as a foundation for building a good work culture that can be preserved for many years to come.

Freedom on Social Media is Not Freedom in the Real World

A slew of arrests have been made of people accused of insulting the prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, on social media, with recently retired Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar giving his assurance that any bid by enforcers to monitor and punish those who abuse social media will be done within the ambit of the law.3 The Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, or Sosma, was introduced in 2012 for national security reasons, and has been arguably abused and even used against dissent.4

“We never had freedom of speech over social media and I doubt we ever will. In a country where religions are given way more highlight than what is really going on, we are not heading towards a democratic or even a semi-democratic country.”

As far as free speech goes, where do we draw the line? Freedom of speech should be allowed in both physical as well as virtual platforms; however, the justifiable extent of freedom of speech is highly ambiguous especially when there is a confrontation between distinct cultures. A social media user claims that “We do have freedom of speech, but responsibility should come hand-in-hand [with it]”. Another says, “This is made apparent by all the arrests made on the basis of unflattering opinions about the ruling coalition on Facebook.”

In the survey, 104 respondents believe that Malaysians do not have the right to freedom of speech over social media, while approximately 60 social media users were uncertain – making up 65.05% of total users. This could very well be one of the most objective reasons why our country is in political disarray. The following statement by a respondent describes the sentiment: “We never had freedom of speech over social media and I doubt we ever will. In a country where religions are given way more highlight than what is really going on, we are not heading towards a democratic or even a semi-democratic country.”

Aside from three respondents who did not provide their opinion, 205 (81.03%) social media users felt that the ability to exercise freedom of speech on social media platforms allows them to be more mindful of what is occurring in their surroundings, while the remaining 45 held a contrasting view that freedom of speech is bound to fuel forthcoming political disharmony. Only 89 respondents (35.18%) believe that they have ample freedom of speech over social media.

Through social media, social activists are able to reach out more instantly to their intended audiences, enabling the execution of their actions offline, thus allowing a collective action to make real changes. “Take the Bersih 1, Bersih 2 and Bersih 3 rallies as an illustration,” says Dr Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist, activist and columnist. “The first rally was held during the prime time of blogging and its main online mobilisers were some 200 influential bloggers like Haris Ibrahim and Zorro Unmasked. Bersih 2 took place after Facebook became the most renowned social media platform where participants teamed up to plan their activities after being blocked by the police from entering KL city centre – when in fact many of them were strangers offline. By Bersih 3, dozens of Bersih supporter groups, large and small, popped up nationwide to join the rallies.”

In addition, the Bersih campaign in Malaysia was so strongly supported by an international network of the Malaysian diaspora through digital activism that during the Bersih 4 rally, Malaysians concurrently organised demonstrations in more than 90 cities worldwide.5 In countries with lax restrictions over such platforms, where views are expressed more frequently, Malaysians around the globe – from Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth all the way to San Francisco, Vancouver and Seattle, just to name a few – openly supported the coalition.

Creative demonstrators at the Bersih 4 rally.

The sustainability of social activism depends highly on its social media engagement; media platforms owned by the state are subject to censorship for national security, thus reflecting mainly government views.6 However, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are a reflection of society, and not merely tools; people have always entertained these thoughts, but the difference now is that they actually have avenues to speak out and express themselves.7

What of the relation between social media and government policies? Social media platforms not only play an active role in propagating information regarding the latest government policies, they can also be a place for citizens to voice their concerns. Ninety-two social media users (36.36%) strongly agreed that they should be provided with a platform on social media to voice their views about government policies, while 107 others simply agreed, the two together amounting to 199 users (78.66%). Encouragingly, more than half (58.50%) of the respondents were of the opinion that Penang’s local councils have been consistently engaging with the rakyat through these platforms.

Is Anything Private Anymore?

The biggest question most social media users ponder about is, how safe is it to submit their private information on these platforms that are filled with so much ambiguity, and how much of their lives are actually being monitored? A total of 98 respondents (38.74%) felt that social media privacy policies are inadequate in preventing breach of privacy among its users. These concerns are indeed something not to be taken lightly

“Some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information … they are gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it,” says Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, indirectly mentioning Facebook and Google during EPIC’s Champions of Freedom event in Washington, 2015.8 Social media platforms of such paramount rely heavily on advertising based on the data that they amass for a portion, if not a majority, of their income.9

Many social media platforms have parental control settings.

Flashback to an incident in 2013: former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor in Hawaii, Edward Snowden, was scrutinised heavily for making global headlines when he revealed top secret information – stored in about 1.7 million downloaded files – regarding NSA surveillance activities on citizens all around the world, to handpicked journalists from The Guardian and filmmaker Laura Poitras.10 Snowden reasons, “We do a lot of good things in the intelligence community. But there are also things that go too far. There are things that should not be done and decisions that were being made in secret without the public’s awareness, consent and even without our representatives in the government having knowledge of these problems”.11

In Malaysia, the amendment to Sosma in 2013, which authorised phone-tapping and communications power to the government, threatens a breach of citizens’ privacy. The authorities are also able to gather any necessary data for their investigation purposes as the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) does not cover government agencies and bodies, thus allowing the authorities to easily monitor the movements of citizens.12

This gathering of personal information demonstrates that the rakyat’s prerogatives to privacy are not always respected since their personal information about them is being amassed without their knowledge or consent. Our personal information, be they insignificant details or the sharing of opinions on domestic affairs such as the pandemonium that broke out during the Nothing to Hide 2.0 forum on August 14, 2017, are not entirely personal anymore. It begs the question: how safe can we be when some forthcoming official can easily misinterpret a post or a text message for ill will, when it actually harbours no bad intent?

There was increasing evidence that social media is indeed a contributor to suicide-related behaviour as it leads the individual into isolation – shutting himself or herself off from the world.

Social Media and Mental Health

Back in May 5, 2017, a victim of cyber harassment identified as 20-year-old Teh Weh Chun took his own life by jumping off the 17th floor of a building in Tanjung Bungah after struggling from anonymous slandering posts online, as well as stress.13 This was only one of many suicide cases that have occurred over the years as mentioned by Ardy Ayadali, publicity director of Befriender’s KL, a non-profit organisation with a mission to alleviate distress and help reduce the risk of suicide through emotional support and public education.14

Ardy also added there was increasing evidence that social media is indeed a contributor to suicide-related behaviour as it leads the individual into isolation – shutting himself or herself off from the world.15 One survey respondent couldn’t agree more and mentions that “We have become introverted and we’re projecting our extroversion on online platforms.”

Befrienders chairman, Mary Raj, on the other hand has a different take on this matter. She feels that social media platforms have their defects but they also serve as an effective tool for those in need to reach out through a readily available platform. Approximately 35% of victims who have reached out to the organisation consisted of Gen Y-ers (especially those aged 30 and below), who comprise the most number of suicide cases in Malaysia. They have taken to channelling their emotions to the organisation through emails rather than calls as it helps them voice out in an easier and more comfortable manner.16

Social media is a fast and easy way to keep up to date with family and friends.

This however may not be the case for everyone as such actions may result in a backlash from the community itself, which tends to perceive it as an act of seeking attention rather than a plea for help, lowering the individual’s self-esteem further and putting him or her in even higher risk. Parents play a critical role in identifying and curbing this issue, according to Penang Education Department Counselling Assistant Director Mohd Zakaria Zain, who also mentions that mental and emotional breakdown, hysteria, suicide attempts, moral degradation and abnormal psychological behaviour are among the symptoms exhibited by a victim of cyberbullying.

What about the laws that safeguard these victims? Based on the survey, 178 social media users (70.36%) were well aware of laws against cyberbullying, such as the Computer Crimes Act 1997, and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, while the remaining 75 users were not.17

The statuses we update or the messages we tweet may have unprecedented consequences as they reach far beyond our intended audience. Therefore, utmost precaution should be taken and individuals should think twice before posting on such unrestrained platforms to prevent significant ramifications.18 There are several distinct categories of cyberbullying: harassment where the perpetrator cyberstalks the victim; flaming, which is public bullying that often directs harsh language or images to a specific person in a virtual platform; exclusion, which is the act of intentionally singling out or leaving out a person from a certain online chat group; outing, which is when a perpetrator shares personal and private information about someone publicly; and masquerading, where a bully creates a fake identity to anonymously harass others.19

The statuses we update or the messages we tweet may have unprecedented consequences as they reach far beyond our intended audience.

With their credentials kept discreet, 23 out of 253 respondents (9.09%) claim to have been cyberbullied. As a matter of fact, CyberSecurity Malaysia’s statistics reveal that cyberbullying among students have risen to approximately 338 cases reported last year, showing a rise of 47 cases from 2014 – not surprising due to the rapid growth of internet users. In spite of that, one has to wonder how accurately these numbers actually are in representing the situation in Malaysia. We can very well assume that there are numerous others out there suffering in silence. Not all are willing to come forth to share their traumatising experiences.

Social media has had one of the most substantial impacts on how people communicate within the past decade and it all boils down to how its resources can be maximised to its fullest potential. As Bill Gates puts it, “Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time.”

Alexander Fernandez is a USM undergraduate currently pursuing his degree under the English for Professionals programme. While most people eat to live, he lives to eat instead.

1 social%20media
2 social-networks-mapped/
3 policing-of-social-media-will-be-within-the-lawigp- says#ihGcZJUWtBeksGAg.97
4 anti-terrorism-security-law-sosma-for-5- years
5 shows-social-media-can-mobilise-themasses- 63725
6 15384221
8 delivers-blistering-speech-on-encryptionprivacy/
10 21262897
11 watch?v=yVwAodrjZMY&t=187s
12 malaysia
13 note-on-facebook-before-jumping-offpenang- flat
15 exclusive/2017/05/243354/suicide-rise-amongmalaysian- youth
17 http://byl2024-cyberbullying.blogspot. my/2014/04/laws-on-cyberbullying-in-malaysia. html
18 social-media-law-an-essential-guide
19 of-cyberbullying/

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