On new so­cial media, em­pow­er­ment can be en­joyed by ev­ery­one

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

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.

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