LAST week, the Chief Minister’s Office made a police report over a Facebook post which claimed that Sarawak had petitioned Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II for a review of the Malaysia Agreement 1963.
The chief minister’s press secretary Ambrose Cheng, accompanied by political secretaries Buang Bolhassan and Petrus Igat Mathias, lodged the report at the Gita police station in Kuching to deny that Chief Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg had divulged information to anyone that a petition had been presented to the queen.
“The posting is not true and we leave it to the police and Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to investigate,” Cheng said in a statement.
He was referring to a post by a user named “Aman Shah” claiming that Queen Elizabeth II consented to accept a unanimous petition from the state’s assemblymen that had collected 630,000 signatories. Citing “inside sources” from the Chief Minister’s Office, the post also stated that the lawmakers and state Cabinet had unanimously sought a review of the Malaysia Agreement from the queen, whom it claimed was an “important party” involved in its signing.
Chief political secretary Abdullah Saidol said he supported Cheng’s action in filing the police report because such postings were untrue, frivolous and made with malicious intent.
“This is not an attempt in any way to choke the freedom of speech or expression. We welcome constructive criticism but when there is an attempt to create public chaos and social prejudice, we will not tolerate that.
“Some people may think that such postings in social media should not be taken seriously but we deem it as an attempt to undermine the Chief Minister’s office and position and also an insult to the members of the Sarawak Legislative Assembly,” he said.
Leaving aside the issue of whether or not a police report is necessary in such cases, this incident shows once again how quick people are to believe – and share – what they read on social media.
This particular post made some pretty incredible claims, but what’s just as astounding was the reaction to it. Many comments on the post were expressions of support and congratulations for the Sarawak government and asking if the Sabah government will follow suit, some even after the news of the police report was posted in the comment thread.
A number of commenters did question whether the post was true. Some people also pointed out that the photo accompanying the post, which showed the British monarch receiving a document from a man dressed in a black-and-gold baju Melayu and songkok, was actually one of the Brunei High Commissioner presenting his credentials to the queen in November 2014.
The sceptics, however, were the minority. Many people, it appeared, accepted the post unthinkingly at face value – and this is a matter for concern, perhaps even more so than the fake post itself.
After all, fake news isn’t something new and there’s plenty of it out there. The problem is that social media has made it so much easier to spread, coupled with our eagerness in these politically-charged times to believe things which support our preferences and prejudices, that we seem to have lost our ability to think critically and verify whether something is true or not.
Instead of making us smarter, the technology of social media, it seems, is making us more gullible. Certainly it’s making us lazier. It’s easier to click “share” than to take the trouble to do some research and fact-checking about what we’ve just read on Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter. Some people will re-post something and ask “Is this true?”, expecting someone else to do the legwork. Then there are those who share something “just in case” it’s true. Well, we should be thinking instead that we’d better not share something just in case it’s not true.
Look again at the Facebook post about the petition. A Google image search of the photo used would have shown that it was of the Brunei High Commissioner, thereby raising a red flag about the veracity of the post. Another red flag is that the post did not name any source for the claims it made. Even if it sounded plausible, a further Google search would show that there are no reports by major news organisations about such a petition being presented to the queen. And finally, when questions directly addressed to the original poster about the truth of the post go unanswered, it should deepen our suspicions.
There are actually plenty of articles online about how to spot fake news (funnily enough, these don’t seem to get shared very often!). The best advice I’ve seen is this: “If you have not, will not or cannot confirm a story, do not share it.”
Really, we’d all be doing ourselves a favour by being more discerning about what we read and checking to see whether it is true or not. And really, we don’t have to share everything we read online.
In these times of fake news and “alternative facts”, a commitment to the truth is more important than ever.
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