Thanks to Suresh
, I saw this letter in The Star
, and it got me thinking about a few points about Malaysian political discourse, and discourse on blogs
MOST, if not all, bloggers demand transparency from everybody else, especially the Government and its agencies.
This is a classic attitude that treats all bloggers as one homogenous group. In fact, most bloggers hardly talk about politics at all; although the most visible are those who are reported in the MSM such as RPK
or Jeff Ooi
However, it is true that there is a strong ethos of openness in blogging – i.e. that people should be allowed to say what they want. On the other hand, most bloggers will agree that they are allowed to censor comments any way they want. So, there’s a bit of a dilemma here – where some commenters will loudly complain that they have been censored, and others respond by saying ‘It’s my blog and if you don’t like it, &%@# off!’.
There is a fundamental difference with the MSM though, in that anyone can start their own blog – so the opportunity of freedom of speech is not channelled through the bottleneck of corporate, political and social imperatives that are inherent in the various media that make up the MSM. On the other hand, it’s clear that not all blogs have the same audience, so there is not a true equality of access to the public sphere; if I publish a post on this blog, maybe 50-100 people will read it eventually – but if I put a comment on Rocky’s Bru
, thousands of people will probably read it.
The letter goes on to argue that “Most of the bloggers, whoever they are, do not practise what they preach” because they use pseudonyms, and let commenters be anonymous or use pseudonyms too; and also says that most comments are “useless and utterly distasteful”, and concludes
They cannot be transparent and truthful if they allow just about anyone to post anything just to disparage anyone.
Bloggers in Malaysia have not grown up; they are still the spoilt brats that they were before. And they have also started to believe in the filth their commentators write.
As long as they do not have the decency to write truthfully and get those who comment not to use pseudonyms, they cannot demand that others be transparent.”
It’s a curious argument. Transparency and truthfulness are being seen as two side of the same coin. In relations to governance issues, transparency means being able to trace actions to particular persons – for example being able to see exactly who approved such-and-such a government contract, or what are the exact terms of the road toll contracts. This means that people can be held responsible for decisions that affect the public interest: whether they want to be honest or not, their truthfulness is guaranteed by the transparency of the system they work within
However, in relation to a blog, is it necessary to know who
said something in order to assess its truthfulness? Reading this blog, you can find out that I am Julian Hopkins, but does that make any difference to my arguments in this post? This is why newspapers will normally allow letter-writers to use a pseudonym, although they do require them to supply a name and address. When bloggers do not write truthfully, they are often exposed to the severe criticisms of other bloggers, and possibly the MSM or even the legal authorities. True, an anonymous blogger may slander someone and hope to get away with it – but as anyone who pays any attention to blogosphere goings-on knows, online anonymity is not as easy as it seems.
And they [the bloggers] also have the guts to say that they deserve the right to post comments by their readers, whom they don’t know personally other than the identities that they had registered their email accounts with, which may not be genuine.
Why do these readers, too, have to hide behind pseudonyms in the first place?
Is it because they want to tell everybody that they are not truthful, and worse, they cannot be trusted. No wonder they have to hide their true identity and present a false one.
So, the argument in this letter seems to be: ‘bloggers’ should not be trusted as voices in the public sphere because they may hide their identity. This ties ‘truthfulness’ to personalities, and (possibly) sectional interests; ‘transparency’ is also tied to ‘truthfulness’ so what the person is really saying is – ‘If I don’t know who you are, I won’t believe what you say’.
This sentiment also pervades the blogosphere, I think: the most influential bloggers are those who are not anonymous, precisely because people are less likely to trust an anonymous person.
The ideals of the democratic public sphere always want to have us judging ideas purely on their own merits – but in practice most of us will want to know who is saying something in order to make a judgement. Just look at how much elections are based on personalities and not policies.
Anyway, to round up this somewhat rambling post, where I’m not sure what I want to say, I guess I can conclude by saying that the potential anonymity of blogs do threaten this habitual association of personalities and trust, and thus generate a strong reaction. Perhaps, in Malaysia where much of politics revolve around patronage and sectional interests (race, region, religion, etc.) – which are often embodied in the person, blogs are even more of a threat to the established system. And thus generate stronger reactions.