Nurul Azlan at he Social Media and the Transformation of Public Space conference

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The Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis organized The Social Media and the Transformation of Public Space conference from June 18th-20th 2014. 150 papers from 200 participants were presented, with themes ranging from the transformation of publicness to creative industries, and democracy and activism. Design as Politics’ PhD candidate Nurul Azreen Azlan was one of the speakers.

Social media has been a pervasive force in contemporary public life, redefining the way we connect and communicate within the past ten years. This meteoric rise and rapid development, combined with the robust nature of the technology and the fluid way it permeates different aspects of life, make it an endless source of fascination for scholars from a variety of disciplines.

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Nurul’s work was presented within the Global Protest theme, where she talked about the state’s response to digital activism in postcolonial Malaysia, where social media played (and still play) a crucial role as a platform of communication for dissenters. This free flow of information happening in the cyber realm (Twitterjaya) started to loosen the monopoly of the state on the material urban space, resulting in several street protests since the first Bersih protest in 2007. Used to keeping more traditional media in line with a set of laws that encourage self-censorship, the state is limited by their own policy of no censorship when it comes to the internet, a result of the Multimedia Super Corridor initiative set up in the mid 1990s to jump on to the knowledge economy bandwagon. The democratisation of both public spheres is happening simultaneously, and the state is playing catch up in the social media game.

Post Bersih 2.0 in 2011, the police released a video depicting their own version of the protest, where they presented themselves in a more positive light compared to the protesters’ version of the event. In another protest against the rising cost of living, Bernama, the state news agency, used a different hashtag to refer to the event, using the more provocative #guling (topple) than the hashtag used by the organisers: #turun (down/go down). The term ‘cyber troopers’ also surfaced since 2011 to refer to people ostensibly paid by the state to monitor and counter the statements and claims that are critical of their policies and actions. Countering this, the term Red Bean Army was used to refer to people in similar roles tweeting and facebooking for an opposition party, the DAP. Individual politicians also got on board, tweeting and setting up facebook pages to reciprocate their counterparts in the opposition. The Malaysian Prime Minister’s twitter account has two million followers, making it the most popular account, if the number of followers is the measure you use to look at how popular social media accounts are. Some savvy politicians use social media to engage each other and communicate with their constituents and the public in general, while some are more careful and use the technology as they would with traditional media, as a broadcasting outlet.

These are then propped up by already existing laws like the Sedition Act 1948 and the Emergency Ordinance which allow for arrest and detention if you are deemed to make seditious and subversive statements, and the Printing and Publication Act 1984 and Broadcasting Act 1984 which regulations demand that licensing is approved on annual basis. Add to that the libel and defamation suits slapped on bloggers and online newspapers, and one can say that they got it covered pretty well.

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So what does this mean for the imagery of public sphere in Malaysia? In a way, if you were to take dissent out of the equation, the development of the Malaysian cyber sphere has managed to mirror that of the offline public sphere, with the urban-rural and communitarian and sectarian divide, and also the consumption of content which is more heavy on shopping and entertainment than political discourse. The Prime Minister may come first in the top ten list of tweet accounts that have the most followers, but the rest of the list are made up of entertainment artistes. This observation is also extended to blogs, with the most read blogs made up of tech and gossip sites. As Evegny Morozov has informed us in his excellent book The Net Delusion, East Berliners who could access Western media content were more interested to watch Dynasty than getting alternative views of political issues.

There is this disjuncture between this image of the internet being a liberating tool what with the proliferation of protests and all, and the actual situation if you were to zoom out a little to get an overview, only to find out that Internet has probably only widen the public sphere, and that’s about it. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what we need, a widening public sphere, and given how fluid and fast the technology is changing, this will pave way for more positive changes.