Social Media Fail

Why social media won’t be able to effect political change in Malaysia.

I know that it may be late for reflections on last year, but I think that it’s important to share some rather depressing conclusions.

As some of you may know, I was in KL this past summer doing independent research on social media and political activism.

Well, I came back to the States, compiled my data, filed a final report, and started working on a real argument. I had concluded that social media provides the space that is kept from opposition and anti-government/pro-reform activists in traditional media. My advisor took this as a casual observation and pushed me to formulate another argument.

So I looked through my material again.

I concluded that social media couldn’t and won’t be able to help Malaysia effect political change.

Political change depends upon protests that are massive and long enough to pressure government to step down or to change its ways.

Bersih was a wonderful example of how social media can facilitate protests. Yet, we can all observe that there haven’t been great strides in changing or reforming government or the electorate. Most of what has been “done” has been frivolous or has been immediately taken back. Or, it has been severely questioned and not taken seriously, such as the abolishment of the ISA.

So government hasn’t changed because the Bersih protests weren’t ‘successful’ enough?

In a comparative study with protests in the Middle East and even in the rest of Southeast Asia, I found that Malaysia’s corruption, poverty, and unemployment levels were not nearly as high as those of the nations who saw political change after weeks or months of protests.

Additionally, there is a very large urban-rural ideological and socioeconomic divide in Malaysia that limits protests to mainly the urban areas. Not to mention the fact that Internet access is greatly limited and manipulated by UMNO within these rural areas.

This became starkly evident by the short duration of the Bersih protests. In contrast, you will notice that mass amounts of people were protesting day and night for extended periods of time in Libya (9 months), Egypt (18 days), Bahrain (4 months), Burkina Faso (5 months), and others.

The energy and willingness to make potentially large sacrifices (job, prison, death, etc.) isn’t quite there yet in Malaysia.

Egyptian Protests | Source:

The Internet and social media help the cause but do not give it success or failure. Ultimately, success comes from the consequences of our actions… in real life.

So we’ve already discussed that we cannot simply tweet out our anger online but that we need to take to the streets. But we also need to keep that energy going.

I am always getting invites from Fahmi for Occupy Dataran events, which is an indication of this energy. But if just a small fraction of people going to these events, we will not accomplish much.

We cannot continue to rely on social media to relay our message to government and to the rest of the world. This may seem outrageous but maybe we need to revise our tactics here!

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Annah Kim is a Korean adoptee from the United States. She received funding from her university to come to Kuala Lumpur to conduct independent research. Her research project focused on the reaction of citizens to censorship of the media. She’s also been involved in the political scene while in Kuala Lumpur. Back in the States, she’s pursuing a degree in the fluffy disciplines of International Relations and French. In 5-10 years, she sees herself living in a box, paying back student loans.

Posted on 30 January 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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