CHALLENGING the authorities on matters of community and social significance can leave one feeling a little helpless. Getting the government to change its mind on an issue can feel impossible – whether it involves constructing high-rise buildings in green lungs, or deciding to build highways through heavily built-up neighbourhoods. Where does one even begin?
The digital age has provided some tools for the budding activist. With smart phone technology, the internet and social media, it has become much easier to document one’s thoughts and disseminate them to a wide audience.
The recent public campaign opposing the construction of the Kinrara-Damansara Expressway (Kidex) is a good example of how a small group of internet-savvy campaigners can effectively publicise their cause. What lessons can we learn from the anti-Kidex movement and other causes on how to take on the government in the digital age?
Record everything! Upload everything!
A pivotal turning point in the Say No To Kidex (SNTK) campaign was the uploading of video clips on YouTube of a controversial meeting between Petaling Jaya residents and the chief executive officer of Kidex Sdn Bhd. The video clips allowed those not present to verify what occurred at the meeting and observe the various participants’ demeanour.
In the clips, everything from basic smartphones to Canon 7D cameras can be seen in action, documenting the words and actions of attendees, as well as officials from Kidex and the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ).
The most basic smartphone now possesses video recording capability. With a data plan, videos can be uploaded to YouTube at the touch of a button. This means that every person with a smart phone has the power to counter public officials who conveniently forget or deny their statements. And, once uploaded on YouTube, it ensures those records are stored and available for reference by others in the future.
Digital evidence in the form of photographs and video recordings challenge the government’s power to control the narrative and addresses the unequal balance of power in the provision of information to the masses. The Bersih rallies are an example of how video and photographic evidence was used to successfully counter government news – from misinformation on attendance levels to denials of police misconduct.
In the SNTK case, video documentation of the meeting ensured that government and Kidex representatives could not claim that they had been misreported or misquoted. Members of the public could hear for themselves exactly what was said and, more importantly, how it was said. All parties are being kept honest.
Content is king
One of the earliest steps taken by the SNTK committee was to set up a Say No To Kidex Facebook page for their cause. It also has a blog, and SNTK committee member Mak Khuin Weng, who is a columnist on The Nut Graph, is active on Twitter.
SNTK’s Facebook page contains links to every article written on Kidex. Its blog supplies information about the highway’s impact on various neighbourhoods and educates residents on why the campaign is being mounted. SNTK also has links to YouTube videos that range from full recordings of meetings with the highway developer to educational public service announcements.
The SNTK committee also conducted a fun Poster War campaign, where they distributed “Say No to Kidex” posters and asked PJ residents to send in photographs of themselves with the poster.
The lesson here is not so much about getting on every platform or being on Facebook; rather, it is about the importance of ensuring regular content for those platforms. Blogs need to be regularly updated and Facebook news streams have to be constantly populated to ensure virality by encouraging “shares”. And, despite the power of user-generated content, it is not possible to rely solely on it when taking on the government. Every campaign needs people who can write letters and articles for web portals and newspapers, thereby keeping the story alive.
Campaigns also need video editors and photographers who will record footage and produce public service announcements and short videos that briefly and effectively convey the campaign’s cause. Graphic designers are also needed to come up with easily understandable infographics for virality.
Crowdfunding your resistance
Ngerng had posted an article questioning the government’s use of the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a social safety net for retirement. In five days, he raised SGD70,000 (RM180,000). Crowdfunding his defence helped him not only draw attention to his plight and his cause, it also enabled him to tap into a tremendous wellspring of public support and claim moral victory.
As former Publicis Asia Pacific vice chairman, Calvin Soh, wrote on his Facebook page:
“What if Roy raises SGD500,000? It’s not just the sum; crowdfunding shows you market size. What if people don’t support Roy, but want this to go to court so the CPF issue will be brought up?”
Crowdfunding your resistance can be done through something as simple as e-banking, or, for the more sophisticated, PayPal or various professional crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo.
Crowdfunding ensures resources for the campaign in the long run, generates publicity and, most importantly, allows for broader participation. Malaysians who contribute, both here and overseas, will feel like they are taking part in the cause or supporting it, in whatever little way that they can.
Still, technology alone without people means nothing. As noted internet entrepreneur and investor Esther Dyson wrote:
“The internet can help foment revolutions, but the hard work of democracy takes place mostly offline.”
As Malaysians become aware that the power to make noise and kick up a fuss is now in their pockets, it is hoped that more Malaysians will begin to campaign for civic issues as a matter of conscience. And that this translates to action that will pressure the government to pay more attention to opinion on the ground and ensure more participation from the public.
Then, and only then, will the internet’s once vaunted role as the great democratiser at last become a reality.
Bernice Low is a former blogger for CNET Asia. When not skewering someone in her blog, she’s busy dreaming up Hollywood blockbuster movies in her other life as a screenwriter.