On new social media, empowerment can be enjoyed by everyone
The era of social networking continues to bring us irrefutable proof that the pen is mightier than the sword — and more so now than at any other stage of history. The serious questions a young Chinese man posted online last year about United States government policy are still circulating on social media. A citizen’s online criticism of the late Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew a few months ago raised the hackles of the authorities there — and a chorus of support. Now in Thailand we have a student making headlines with a biting attack on what she terms “coup propaganda.”
In the first case, the reasoned and eloquent diatribe against unfair, self-serving and hypocritical American policy raised eyebrows as a rare instance of vociferous free speech being tolerated by the Chinese government. Perhaps this was because it took aim at China’s arch-rival, but make no mistake: The criticism struck a resounding global chord on its own merits.
The Singaporean protester who went online to assail the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew shortly after the venerated leader’s death didn’t intend to target the dearth of free speech in the island-state, but the authorities’ stern response served to undermine Singapore’s reputation as Southeast Asia’s sole bastion of civic rights. What the youth wrote abruptly became far less relevant than the ugly fact of Singapore’s intolerance for freedom of expression.
In Thailand just days ago, a student at a prestigious Bangkok high school turned in a blank test paper and went straight to social media to explain why. She condemned the test question as post-coup propaganda aimed at subverting citizens’ civic duty. Overnight she became an anti-coup icon, hailed as a young voice speaking louder and more honestly than her elders.
What these three cases have in common is that they demonstrate the power of individual opinion, regardless of the speaker’s status in society. When we perceive wrongdoing we can — and by conscience should — be dissenting, bold and defiant toward established authority. And, with the aid of the Internet, we can have an immediate impact and trigger brave, far- reaching discussion that might just stand a chance of fostering change.
Social media have empowered ordinary citizens to take significant, meaningful strides in the name of improving society. An anonymous Chinese writer challenges America with a forthrightness that galvanizes millions. A young Singaporean garners widespread admiration for daring to question Lee’s enshrinement. A girl at a Thai secondary school takes the country’s most powerful man to task.
None of these events could have happened 15 years ago. Nor would such dissent be permitted today if not for the sheer scale of public opinion awakened and unified via the social networks.
In the meantime there are also the countless online commentators for whom freedom of expression takes the far less brave but often just as powerful form of humorous graphics that are “shared” in the tens of thousands — satirically captioned photos and the like. These anonymous pundits capture the public’s attention and spread opinions on a far wider scale than earnest prose alone can manage.
In words or pictures, such ubiquitous outcroppings of discontent allow unbiased users of the social media to see all sides of events so they can make a more informed judgment. Raw rhetoric, so easily exposed for its one-sidedness, is fading on these Web platforms as mainstream ideology becomes increasingly challenged.
In the flight of ideas, the butterfly effect is unstoppable. Both good- and ill-intentioned notions will continue to be disseminated, but the very fact that the game has changed, that people are learning to be smarter and daring to be bolder, bodes well for the future. This is an editorial published by The Nation on Aug. 1.