Tanjong Piai will be the WhatsApp by-election in Malaysia

There had been an exponential increase in lies, fake news and hate speech in the past few days, which will be small fry when compared to the explosion of lies, fake news and hate speech that will take place in the two weeks of the Tanjong Piai parliamentary by-election from Nov. 2 to Nov. 16.

In fact, the Tanjong Piai by-election will be the WhatsApp by-election in Malaysia.

Already, there is in circulation on the social media a purported Pakatan Harapan WhatsApp poster for the Pakatan Harapan candidate Karmaine Sardini, calling on the Tanjong Piai voters to “Undilah Calon Melayu & Islam”, which is clearly designed to spook and antagonise the 42% of the Chinese voters and 1% of the Indian voters – as the Barisan Nasional candidate will be MCA’s Wee Jeck Seng.

A news portal article today headlined “Fake news one of top 3 factors set to cost Pakatan Tg Piai seat” reported:

“A VIRAL WhatsApp message shared in Tg Piai recently claimed that Budget 2020 has funds for men who want to marry more than one wife and this has voters hopping mad.

“It’s one of the main reasons that 48% of Tg Piai voters want to reject Pakatan Harapan in the by-election, a survey by think-tank Institut Darul Ehsan (IDE) shows.

“The message is one of many fake news items and misinformation spread among villages and community circles in Tg Piai – a predominantly agricultural constituency at the southern-most tip of the peninsula.

“The spread of fake news is one of the top three factors that will determine whether PH can hold on to the seat in the November 16 by-election, IDE said.”

In the United Kingdom, even before the date of its General Election was fixed for December 12, British national newspapers were full of articles like “Will fake news wreck the coming general election?”

Two days ago, European Union told Facebook, Google and Twitter, who had to submit monthly progress reports fighting fake news, to take more action on fake news.

One year ago, the tech companies, Facebook, Google and Twitter signed on to the EU’s “code of practice on disinformation,” a voluntary agreement that lays out steps to fight fake news on their platforms.

In a joint statement published earlier this week alongside progress reports from the companies, the EU said the impact of the “self-regulatory measures” remains unclear.

“Large-scale automated propaganda and disinformation persist and there is more work to be done under all areas of the Code,” EU Commissioners Vera Jourova, Julian King and Mariya Gabriel said the joint statement. “We cannot accept this as a new normal.”

Social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are facing backlash from lawmakers around the world for failing to contain the spread of fake information in election campaigns.

In its report to the EU, Facebook said it removes millions of fake accounts every day.

In a statement to CNBC, a Twitter spokesperson detailed the company’s efforts to tackle platform manipulation and said it discloses data relating to issues such as legal requests and rules enforcement in bi-annual transparency reports.

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company is committed to working together with “government, industry, news publishers, and our community.” “We appreciate the Commission’s extensive report, and share the same commitment to reduce the spread of online misinformation,” the statement said.

Still tech companies could soon face stricter regulations in the EU related to disinformation and illegal content online. European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has said she would prioritize a new Digital Services Act within her first 100 days in office, which would upgrade “liability and safety rules for digital platforms, services and products.”

In addition to the annual reports published early this week, the companies published monthly reports detailing their efforts to fight fake news in the lead up to the European election.

But what are the tech companies, Facebook, Google and Twitter doing to fight fake news in Malaysia, and in particular, to prevent fake news and disinformation from distorting the outcome of the Tanjong Piai by-election?

With the Tanjong Piai by-election set to be the WhatsApp by-election, all players in the by-election, whether the candidates, the political parties or coalitions, the Election Commission, the tech companies and the voters would have to consider their role in the new digital battlefield.

It will not be an election battle which operates on daily cycle of the print media, not even an hourly cycle, but much faster and more telescoped in time based on the rapidity of production of each fake news and the ability to counter and expose the fake news.

For the immediate purpose of the Tanjong Piai by-election, the tech companies can probably set up a joint fact-check centre, which could verify whether a video, Facebook, Twitter or Whatsap is a fake news or factual.

Pakatan Harapan will also need a centre to instantaneously expose the fake news in the digital world.

Can the voters of Tanjong Piai end up being the most media literate in the country, able to distinguish fake news and disinformation or will they fall prey to lies, fake news and hate speech?

Returning to the news portal article mentioned just now, an IDE senior programme manager Kamarulbahrin Zahid was quoted as saying that when they asked the Tanjong Piai voters why they wanted to reject Pakatan, villagers took out their phones and show them the messages.

He said: “Every villager we met was part of a WhatsApp group, it was their first source of news. Second was Facebook,” explaining how pervasive these platforms are shaping opinions.

“Almost all of these messages were fakes. It is a problem because unlike urban folk, there are not many people in these WhatsApp groups that verify or counter suspicious messages, so fake news goes unchallenged.”

Can media literacy in Tanjong Piai be developed in time before the by-election?

Lim Kit Siang MP for Iskandar Puteri