Social media are exploding in parts of Southeast Asia — a trend being hailed by some democracy advocates as a helpful tool for promoting more open government.
“We were the first political party to make use of Twitter in 2008,” says Chee Siok Chin, one of the leaders of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. “We have also been uploading our videos on YouTube, spreading our message via Facebook.”
Driven by declining prices for computers, cell phones and access fees, the use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook has seen spectacular growth in Indonesia and the Philippines, although it's still used by only a fraction of the population.
Social networking also is catching on in some of the more closed nations. More than a fifth of Malaysians now use Facebook, and tiny Singapore accounts for nearly 1 percent of all Twitter users worldwide.
While most people use social media primarily for entertainment and networking, political and social activists have begun to harness its power. Internet access has transformed coverage of events in Myanmar, which is ruled by an iron-fisted military junta. Hundreds of young people used Internet blogs to share news with the world about the Saffron Revolution, which began in late August 2007 when Buddhist monks, students and others took to the streets in peaceful protests and ended a month later with the military's brutal crackdown, according to Kyaw Yin Hlaing, a professor at City University of Hong Kong.
“Thanks to these young activists, the international media came to realize the gravity of the situation in Myanmar,” wrote Hlaing.
In Malaysia, the Internet strengthened the democratic opposition in 2007, according to James Chin and Wong Chin Huat of Monash University in Malaysia. “Mushrooming political web blogs … together with a handful of online news portals, were providing an alternative to the tightly controlled mainstream print and broadcast media,” they wrote. By exposing the ruling party's “misdeeds and corruption,” bloggers and online news outlets helped drive the middle class and sections of the working class “toward a major change in attitudes and voting behavior.” A series of unprecedented street protests took place, and in the 2008 election the ruling party lost its historic two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Technology also helped the anti-government demonstrators in Thailand in April and May, drawn mostly from the rural and urban poor. “In the past they were upset, but they weren't cohesive as a force and coherent in their agenda,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a leading political scientist in Thailand and visiting scholar at Stanford University. “New technologies have enabled them to unify their disparate voices of dissatisfaction.”
But social networking also has significant limits as a democratizing force. First of all, says Preetam Rai, an educator and technology researcher based in Southeast Asia, online activists' reach is limited, especially in countries where Internet penetration is low. And most people use the Internet for entertainment or socializing. “People get interested in serious issues when certain incidents happen, like the Burmese protests in 2007 or the current Thai situation,” says Preetam, “but they go back to their regular online consumption pattern when the situation is normal.”
Mong Palatino — a Filipino blogger, youth activist and member of parliament — participated in a student uprising that helped to topple the corrupt Estrada regime in 2001. “We sent rally updates through e-mail and e-groups,” he recalls. “For the first time, texting became an important tool in organizing protest activities.”
But Palatino warned in his blog earlier this year that “cyber-activism becomes a potent force only if it is fused with grassroots activism.” Unfortunately, he said, too many young people are seduced into thinking that signing an online petition or adding a cause to Facebook is enough, and in that sense, cyber-activism can actually be counterproductive by keeping young people from becoming active in the real world.
“Activism in the 21st century features new action words like texting, re-tweeting, clicking, chatting and social networking,” blogged Palatino. “But 20th-century action words are still more persuasive and powerful — like talking, organizing, marching, pushing and rallying.”
— Barbara Mantel