Battlelines drawn in cyberwar

Nov 12, 1999

The Net, cast far and wide, is of great help with its wealth of information. But at times it can also be a Web of deceit. PHILIP GOLINGAI examines the effectiveness of the cyber tool in political campaigning. 

THE post-colonial days of information department big screen and loud hailers are slowly been eclipsed. 

Leaflets, pamphlets, posters, banners, billboards and the print and electronic media have all been an effective tool in campaigning. 

If in the 80s saw professional advertising firms and spin doctors coming to the forefront in helping parties and candidates win the minds and the hearts of the voters, in this general election there is a new electronic toy in play. 

It will make its maiden appearance. It will be the Internet that may make or break a candidate's campaigning day. 

This cyber campaigning will allow voters with the click of a button to access pro-government and anti-government websites packed with information, misinformation, allegation and instigation. 

Malaysian online politics surged with the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim last year, said Internet writer Sabri Zain, who has a popular cyber column called the Reformasi Diary. 

No other local issue, he felt, had so intensively captured the imagination of Malaysians on the Internet. 

"The closest the country had in terms of a lot of Internet activity was during the haze in 1997 where we saw a few dozen sites dedicated to the haze issue." 

"After Anwar's sacking in September 1998, reformasi websites started sprouting to reach a few hundred." 

The reformasi websites that are devoted to defending Anwar and attacking the Government and its leaders has spurred Barisan Nasional, especially Umno, to monitor the anti-government home pages. 

Umno Committee on Defamation Internet division head Zein Isma Ismail said anti-government websites had done a tremendous job in discrediting the Government. 

"I congratulate them but what they have done is slander, sow hatred and make allegations with their small facts." 

His committee had found that 8,000 people logged on to anti government websites an hour on weekdays and the figure doubled on weekends. 

Zein Isma, who is also an Umno Youth exco member, said he had instructed the movement's 700,000 members to look into the anti-government websites whenever they could to study the minds of the opposition. 

"I, myself, surf the Internet 10 times a day to monitor anti government websites." 

Barisan and pro-government forces had also created websites to neutralise the allegations from anti-government homepages and to "counter-attack" the opposition, Zein Isma said. 

The main role of the Internet in the elections was to provide views, opinions and discussions that voters would not see in the traditional media such as television and newspaper, Sabri said. 

"Rightly or wrongly, many people perceive the information they obtain from the traditional media as been skewed or prejudiced to favour the ruling party. 

"People will turn to the Internet for information as they feel that there are not enough alternative views expressed in the traditional media," Sabri added. 

The Internet's primary role was propaganda, Zein Isma said, adding that "this is what you call information warfare." 

"Those who can give the right information and reach the voters first and can convince them, can succeed." 

Sabri said the opposition parties would benefit from cyber campaigning as it allowed them to air their views and discuss issues raised during the elections. 

The Internet would also give the opposition the means to counter instantaneously any allegation made against them, he said. 

However, Zein Isma said the propaganda war in the Internet was an equal battleground as Barisan had its own pro-government websites as the coalition was concerned with all aspects of information channels. 

"It will not only be the opposition who will not benefit from the Internet as what they have (websites), we too have." 

"My counting is that if we combine all the pro-government and Barisan component parties' websites, our number is as good as theirs (the anti-government websites)." 

Zein Isma said he did not know to what extent the information in the pro-government and anti-government websites would influence voters. 

"We do not know who the surfers are as they are without identity. Whether they are voters or not. Or whether they are pro-government or anti-government supporters." 

Whether Barisan or the opposition would benefit from cyber campaigning was questionable, Zein Isma said, adding that the Internet was just a medium to disseminate information. 

"Sometimes too much information can also be meaningless. For example, people can also get fed up with too many ceramah and will not vote for you. 

"You are talking about human feelings, if you continue harping that there is nothing good about the Government, then the voters will tell themselves that it has brought prosperity to the nation. 

"You cannot close people's eyes and minds. They will buy you at the first bluff. But, too much bluffing overbluffing will make the Internet surfers go against the opposition as the truth will prevail." 

However, Sabri said the Internet was a medium that favoured the underdog and not the authority. 

"The nature of the medium is that it is rebellious. Certainly the anti-government websites are talking to the converted (opposition supporters) but there are many lurkers (people who casually browse the Internet) out there. 

"There are many fence-sitters who are interested to know what the other side (the opposition) has to say. The silent lurkers will be exposed to opposition information." 

Zein Isma disagreed, saying that there was no co-relation between the Internet propaganda and the surfer's voting inclination. 

"The voters will not change the Government just because they surfed the opposition's website. People are not stupid ... they surf because they are curious. That's all but they will not be swayed." 

The Internet might not be effective in influencing the minds of a large number of voters, Zein Isma said as there were a small number of surfers in terms of the total voters. 

"The backbone of the voters are still those from the rural areas and only a minimal number of them have Internet access." 

Sabri, however, said that cyber campaigning would reach not only those with Internet access as many people print out what they see on the Internet. 

"They fax it, photocopy it and distribute it. There is already a network of information disseminators that are completely unstructured and informal." 

"The effect will be far reaching to the electorate as those exposed to the information will not only be the actual users. 

"The Internet is a very porous medium that finds its way to other sources of information." 

Sabri cautioned surfers to use their judgment when digesting information from the Internet. 

"Surfing the Internet or reading the newspaper is no different. You have to use your judgment. Some things you read in the Internet can be unbelievable, you have to look at other sources of information." 

Always double check the credibility of the story, he advised, adding that with such a free and anarchic medium, the surfer had to shift the weed from the shaft. 

There was a higher percentage of untruths on the Internet than there were truths, Sabri said. 

"There are untruths from both sides of the camp. You just need to use your judgment. Some information is hard to swallow like the allegation that Barisan leaders had Israeli bank accounts and that Wan Azizah had asked Anwar for a divorce." 

Zein Isma agreed, saying "the Internet can bring anger. It plants hatred and suspicion against the Government. 

"It tell lies about the Government and an Internet user sometimes does not know what is true and what is not." 

Truth or lie, the power of the Internet, Sabri said "could be quite telling." 

"For example, the Chow Kit riot rumour last year. Even though, a small percentage of the population have access to the Internet, information from the small proportion of the population was disseminated rapidly." 

This election will be the testing ground for the latest political weapon in campaigning. 

And voters have to tread cautiously while surfing the minefield of information, misinformation, allegation and instigation on the Internet. 

Let the elections cyberwar begin.

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