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Navigating online offences

(Pic by Integricity Visuals)

WHEN Melissa Gooi posted a comment on her Facebook page about the Agong’s birthday speech in early June, she was hauled up and investigated for allegedly “insulting the King”. The infamous Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee’s bah kut teh posting during Ramadan also led to the couple, known by the moniker Alvivi, being arrested, detained and charged under three different laws for allegedly “insulting Islam”. Additionally, a Hari Raya video that Maznah Mohd Yusof made, featuring her three dogs, led to the Muslim dog trainer being arrested and remanded, and harassed by the religious authorities.

Imagine if Gooi’s response to the Agong’s speech and the subsequent conversation around it had taken place in a coffee shop, or in the privacy of her home, or in a three-way teleconference. Would Gooi and her friends have been investigated and prosecuted for saying the same words? What if Alvivi had made the same Ramadan greeting and printed it out and distributed it among her friends instead? And what if someone had walked past Maznah’s house and saw her bathing her dogs – would she have still been charged with causing religious disharmony?

Viral power

This rash of cases suggests that the arm of the law has a greater reach online than offline. The same activities, conducted in the real world, may not attract much attention or any legal implications. It would seem that as far as the authorities are concerned, it’s more likely criminal and more easily actionable if it’s viral.

What has given rise to this situation?

Social media has led to a decline in digital anonymity. It encourages users to not just make known their identity but to broadcast it to the whole world. For some people, social media is how they define who they are. This has simply made it easier for the authorities to zero in on content regarded as seditious. Police officers can’t be in every coffee shop in town to catch people making seditious remarks, but in one hour, they could visit a lot of Facebook pages.

Contributing to this has been a false perception of privacy on social media. Many people don’t realise there is no way to completely control the sharing of your pictures, even if you choose a vigorous privacy setting.

And in the age of mobile phones, a tightly locked-up, uber-private Facebook profile is no protection against a busybody who snaps a shot of your comments from someone else’s computer. Gooi’s comments stream was captured by someone who simply took a screenshot of her Facebook page. That screenshot was then circulated as a file labelled “Kutuk Agong”.

The screenshot that was distributed under the file name 'Kutuk Agong'

The screenshot that was distributed
under the file name ‘Kutuk Agong’

The age of social media, by its very nature, is defined by the sharing of content. And it’s a fallacy to think that sharing is only restricted to feel-good mantras or funny cat pictures. The reality is that most of us, at one time or another, have shared something on Facebook that has grievously outraged others or offended their sensibilities or values. That is precisely what happened in Maznah’s case. Her three-year-old video was reposted by someone else with an inflammatory “insulting Islam” tag added to it.

Don’t look

The government seems to think that citizens should, therefore, police themselves and take full responsibility for the content on their social media sites. Yet how is this fair when social media users sometimes do not have the tools to restrict the sharing of their Facebook content? Why should someone be held responsible for a third party who renders the inoffensive offensive by adding inflammatory commentary?

Additionally, why should the author of a posting or video be responsible for another person’s sensitivities, for so long as the posting isn’t a call to or threat of violence?

Our sensitivities belong to us, nobody else. As adults, we, not anybody else, should be responsible for them.

In an age in which Salman Rushdie describes the “culture of offendedness” as being the norm, perhaps the government should advocate a simpler solution. Tell people who are easily excitable and offended not to look.

(Wiki commons)

(Wiki commons)

After all, content on the internet has to be deliberately or consciously accessed. No one is forced to get a Twitter or Facebook account or even to read Twitter or Facebook. No one has to read websites they don’t like, or watch YouTube videos that offend them, or read Facebook status updates that are vacuous and annoying.

And if you can’t help yourself but look, then take responsibility for choosing to be offended. As William Saletan, in discussing the controversial film The Innocence of Muslims, points out in Slate: “You’re living in the age of the Internet. Your religion will be mocked, and the mockery will find its way to you. Get over it.” The Nut Graph


Bernice Low used to blog for CNET Asia. When not skewering someone in her blog, she’s busy dreaming up of Hollywood blockbuster movies in her other life as a screenwriter.

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12 Responses to “Navigating online offences”

  1. ellese says:

    With social media, more people become narcissistic. They think they are reality TV-ready and always look for people to like what they publish.

    This is the problem with this article. When one publishes for the world and wants others to like it there are surely people who won’t like it. That’s the reality. You can’t publish for the world and expect everybody to like you. Then argue it’s unreasonable for people not to like you or to criticise you.

    The premise of the writer’s article is thus flawed and wrong. The value eschewed is misguided. If we follow the writer’s suggestion, one can publish and propagate hate messages, Nazism, racism, crime etc etc with impunity. Then argue that if you don’t like it, don’t read it. Tak masuk akal.

    Sometimes I’m just amazed by the rubbish logic that is published on social media. Many seem to have lost all sense of morality. Take a step back. Use parental values as a yardstick. Now we must always teach our children to not publish all your private info and opinions on the web. If they do, they must be responsible for it. They must try to publish things which are not defamatory, criminal, offensive etc etc. One must be responsible for one’s publication. Simple. The West also adopts this value. If any celebs publish say a pro-Nazi/racist/contemptible comment, they don’t argue that others not read it, kan?

    [...]

    • Bernice Low says:

      My argument is not that people who publish material on social media should not expect to be ‘disliked’. Rather, the crux of the proposition here is that disliking something should not be the basis for criminal prosecution, in particular, by using the Sedition Act.

      Re: “The premise of the writer’s article is thus flawed and wrong. The value eschewed is misguided. If we follow the writer’s suggestion, one can publish and propagate hate messages, Nazism, racism, crime etc etc with impunity. Then argue that if you don’t like it, don’t read it. Tak masuk akal.” Perhaps you would like to explain why this is “tak masuk akal” when it comes to a medium where viewing such material is entirely optional and down to choice? In Malaysia, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a well-known anti-Semitic text is freely available in bookstores. But since no one is being forced to read it (or look at it), police reports aren’t being made on a daily basis. Racist, anti-Semitic, hate-driven and obscene content is EVERYWHERE on the internet but you have to LOOK FOR IT if you want to FIND IT. Which is the point I’m trying to make: if you know it offends you, why would you even go and look for it?

    • sweetpumpkin says:

      If the web is suddenly devoid of honest and direct opinions about any issue, it would be boring.

      How can you equate what Melissa commented on her FB with Nazi/racist/”contemptible” statements? What she said was what anyone is capable of saying while having teh tarik at the mamak amongst friends.

      Unfortunately, she said it on Facebook and someone got offended. Don’t we have the right to not agree with something that’s said by anyone including people of power?

  2. ellese says:

    I thank you for the reply.

    Your argument is flawed for the simple reason that it puts the blame on those who seek [offensive material] rather than those who publish them.

    Your argument is the same as those who publish various offensive racist, anti-Semitic and defamatory books. Those who publish cannot argue that it’s your fault for reading it. If you had not read it, you won’t feel insulted or defamed, for example. There are many other thousands of books and it’s your fault for looking at it. Thus you have no right to criticise.

    These arguments go against any legal precepts that I know of in this world. It’s simple. You must be responsible for your action. You can’t blame others for viewing or reading things you publish to the world.

    That’s why your argument does not make sense.

  3. Phua Kai Lit says:

    Police states and semi-police states like Malaysia survive on the fear and apathy of the vast majority of their decent-minded citizens.

    Once we lose our fear and our apathy, they will collapse quicker than you think. This is amply documented by the rapid collapse of the Central and East European Communist police states.

    • TNG says:

      Police state uses fear. During the Dark Ages, people live in fear because they are ignorant about everything, from disease to superstition. Luckily, science liberated people from fear. But the anti-Lynas group rejects science and wants people to live in fear again.

  4. ellese says:

    Dear sweet pumpkin,

    Thanks for the kind [comments].

    As a rule one, must be responsible for one’s statement. You may make disparaging comments among your friends at a mamak stall, but if it gets public especially to the disparaged person, there is no defence allowed under any law to say you meant it to be private and [shared] only with your friends at the mamak [stall]. This is a universal value. If you have an opinion, so long as it’s private, it’s fine. But once you make it public, you must account for it. No two ways here.

    Once one publishes, of course the readers have a right to disagree. But they, too have a right to express other emotions including being upset, happy, angry etc etc. It’s a free and liberal society. We allow much expression, so long as it does not resort to violence. That’s the most liberal stand. Otherwise in most countries you may express as you like as long it’s within the boundaries of laws.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong. But your statement cannot preclude others from reacting differently from yours. Our value must always impose responsibility on the [author]/publisher.

  5. khairil says:

    “Once one publishes, of course the readers have a right to disagree. But they, too have a right to express other emotions including being upset, happy, angry etc etc. It’s a free and liberal society.”

    Nope. It’s only a free and liberal society when one’s statements are treated with impartiality by law enforcement agencies. If someone wants to hold you accountable for a statement, then the application of that needs to be fair.

    If some psycho lunatic NGO victimises an innocent artist because they think the letter “i” belongs to them, I’m not going to sternly lecture the artist for making an offensive statement publicly.

    The lunatic NGO’s “right to express other emotions including being upset, happy, angry etc” are going to land someone in jail. Fine if the sensitivity is applied all ways.

    It isn’t.

    • stewoolf says:

      How I wish the “lunatic” NGO’s could present their argument like your comment delivery, so that their case (or cause) can be adjudicated in the open court of public opinions via a decent media such as TNG, instead of hogging on the police enforcement and judicial resources that are much needed in handling crimes and criminals.

  6. faraabdul says:

    You’re living in the age of the Internet. Your religion will be mocked, and the mockery will find its way to you. Get over it.

    Oh, I so agree with this quote. Thats what I’ve been telling people when they fume over some mockery. Muslims should stop being emotional. You can’t forever charge people under sedition if you don’t like something from that person. There will always [be] people who mock religion freely on the internet. For now, you just charge a few people who you deem insulting to religion. What about the thousands or millions of others? Why not charge them too? Let us put all people who mock Islam into jail to uphold the sanctity of our religion. Is that the way Islam endorses?

    Ignore them. Not giving them an excuse to mock your religion further.

  7. zamorin says:

    If left to me, I wouldn’t ban anything. Not even the “supposed” racial literature, not Satanic verses (great book), not Mein Kampf nor the Protocols of the elders of Zion. Some of the books and religious texts are even more hard core (racial) than this yet they are not banned. Thus even racial literature is subjective.

  8. Adam says:

    Yes, in this age of the internet, we have to re-adjust our “sensitivitimeter” to a higher tolerance level especially to visual and audible inputs. Unless the slander and insults are directed at us in person, we should ignore them and let them fizzle out.

    It is human nature that those who intentionally post insulting materials for whatever reasons, would hope for a reaction and would continue to post more as long as the issues are alive and sizzling. Take the case of the cartoons a few years back. The first round of protests saw many casualties, the majority of whom were Muslims themselves. More cartoons followed until nobody is interested to even search for nor look at them anymore. The issue just died by itself.

    On the other hand, if some people unintentionally post something which could be deemed an insult, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Take the 2 recent cases of Maznah and the surau owner. The fact that they could easily be traced indicates somewhat that they do not have bad intentions. We should look at the issues from their perspectives instead of ours. Only then, can we judge fairly and with compassion.


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