WITH the looming general election, Malaysians can expect more “fake news” to be spread by both the ruling coalition and opposition, said political analysts.
Although both sides will present themselves as victims of slander, Barisan Nasional is expected to ultimately benefit from an escalating propaganda war due to its ownership and control of the mainstream media.
Some analysts believe that Malaysians must ultimately wise up and be critical of what they read in order not to be swayed by lies and half-truths.
University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus Professor Zaharom Nain said lies and propaganda would be on the rise during the election season to discredit particular individuals, mainly opposition leaders.
He was referring to a press conference by former DAP vice-chairman Tunku Abdul Aziz Tunku Ibrahim on Friday, in which the latter had said he had received information that Pakatan Harapan chairman Dr Mahathir Mohamad would lead an opposition delegation to meet leaders in the US.
Tunku Aziz had claimed that the delegation, scheduled to leave on February 20, was seeking foreign help in efforts to topple Prime Minister Najib Razak.
He had said PH was also seeking support in the event that the pact won the 14th general election and formed the government.
“In this case, allegations that Dr Mahathir is planning to work with foreigners to topple (Najib) make it look like Dr Mahathir and the opposition are threatening Malaysia’s freedom and autonomy,” said Zaharom, who is from the university’s Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture.
“Dr Mahathir himself has done this a few times before, attacking civil society organisations and other critics as being stooges of Western imperialists. Old tactics rehashed.”
In the press conference on Friday, Tunku Aziz had said: “I am told that their mission to the US, to meet leaders there, is to brief them about the political situation in Malaysia. This is sad and disappointing.”
In response, Umno vice-president Hishammuddin Hussein called Dr Mahathir a “hypocrite”, saying when the latter was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, he had criticised opposition parties for doing such things.
PH leader Dr Rais Hussin has refuted Tunku Aziz’s claim, saying it was “fake news”.
University of Tasmania Professor James Chin said both sides were paying professionals to manipulate online news feeds and to produce “fake news” to take down their opponents.
“Because Malaysian media is controlled, the influence of fake news is much stronger,” said Chin, director of the university’s Asia Institute.
He said Malaysians had a tendency to believe what they read on social media, as they viewed news from pro-BN outlets as propaganda.
“There is no way to stop fake news… technically it is impossible, but in Malaysia, culturally, it’s impossible as well. Will it affect the way people vote? Yes, among the fence-sitters.”
Najib has said the cabinet is considering a new law specifically to combat “fake news”, to be presented in the next parliamentary sitting, which is due to start on March 5.
However, groups like Lawyers for Liberty are concerned that the new law might stifle freedom of speech and journalism critical of the government.
The Malaysian Bar, which represents 16,000 lawyers in the peninsula, has said the country has sufficient laws to curb the spread of “fake news”.
“The danger of fake news, from whichever side, is cynicism and distrust among the people when they realise whatever news can be faked,” said Dr Wong Chin Huat, head of Penang Institute’s political and social analysis section.
“Only two parties can fight fake news: the media and the public.”
He said Malaysia needed media that was independent and professional, and the people must be capable of critical thinking and believe in decency.
“Let’s face it. Fake news is nothing new, and much of such news has been broadcast on the mainstream media in favour of the powers that be.”
He cited examples of “fake news” that had captured the public’s attention, including there being traces of pork in Cadbury chocolates, the conspiracy to establish a Christian state, Muslim boys getting baptised in a Perak church and policemen killed during the Bersih 3 rally.
Even before the age of the internet, the riots that took place before Op Lalang in 1987 and former Semangat 46 leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s selling out to Catholics in 1995 are instances of that era’s “fake news”.
Wong said the public could take two approaches to fight against “fake news”.
“For ‘anonymous’ news, look out for the obvious clues – news without dates is fake, because the spreaders want the news to spread without an expiry date. You can also ignore news without credible names or links for you to trace.
“As for news spread by public figures, the public must demand an apology if the news is proven to be wrong. Make liars or foolish transmitters pay.
“The public is not helpless. We can all do something. To a large extent, every society deserves the news they read, like the politics they experience.”