Habermas’ (1989) concept of a public sphere is to have a platform where everyone can express their views and assist in the issues of importance. Habermas’ public sphere paradigm can be described as equivalent to the present day social networking site (SNS), for example, Facebook which has appeared to be a new space for public sphere where political matters and identities are bound to be discussed. This essay will look specifically at comments posted as well as the SNS profiles to study the identities of the Facebook users represented on the online public sphere and its effectiveness on Malaysians politics.
Based on the analysis on the government supporters’ identity represented online, it is understood that they are basically a group of individuals who is portraying a ‘true nation’ identity. Matthews (2009) and Connor (1994) defined true nation identity as an identity that centred on the sense of nationhood and homogeneity, that consists of a social group which shares ideology, culture and language. In comparison to the troll identities who tried to construct negative images for the prime minister, the true nation identities were observed to do the otherwise as they were seen as more supportive and tried to construct the prime minister’s image in a favourable way, particularly through hashtag activism. In the context of social media, Rappoport and Tsur (2012) explained hashtag as a string of characters headed by the hash (#) symbol. The traces of interactions on the prime minister’s page led to the hashtags that seemed purposively use and possibly aim to shift the negative dogma away from the prime minister as well as to restore the trust of other supporters. The reason why such possibilities arise is due to the 1MDB scandal that the prime minister was recently accused to be involved in and criticised with. A few examples of the use of hashtags on the prime minister’s Facebook are #SupportMyPM as well as #RespectMyPM. With its blue colour, it is easy for the ‘flood’ of supportive hashtags on the prime minister’s Facebook to be noticed by his followers and to show up in the non-followers’ hashtag stream. Certainly, this valuable hashtag activism has indirectly contributed positive image for the prime minister himself, because through the hashtags he is depicted as well respected and adored by the public. This in a way confirms the claim made by Jeffares (2014) that the hashtag on social media is not just a mere string of letterings added with the # symbol, as it can be political and serves as a symbol of control. Based on the analysis, it is unexpected to see the government supporters still maintain their supports toward the prime minister despite he has been accused in such scandal, therefore more analyses are conducted to further examine whether this has any significance on the supporter’s identity.
Analyses of the prime minister’s Facebook profile found that the supporters generally consist of the Malays, the original ethnic group of the nation and United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) that is recorded to be the first founded political party in the entire nation of Malaysia. Aside from the fact that the party is led by a Malay which is the prime minister himself, UMNO’s objective is also to restore Malay sovereignty by protecting the Malay rights, language as well as the culture. Hence, UMNO can be recognised as a political party established by Malays for Malays. This is somewhat related to the claim by Cerutti et al., (2011) on political identity, that the citizens’ loyalty to a political party, are linked to a cultural similarity that can only arise in the context of nation-like communities. To have a deeper understanding of the true nation identity holds by these Malay-supporters, it is important to understand Malaysia’s history which has contributed to the supporters’ Malay-centred political ideology as it is today. The early history of Malaysia which formerly known as Tanah Melayu (that literally means Malay Homeland) began with the existence of an ancient Malay kingdom ruled by a state called 'Gangga Negara' dating back to the second century. However, around the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the British colonialists have brought in a massive number of non-Malay immigrants to Malaysia to work in the agricultural sector. With the position of the colonialists at the top, and the special positions received by those immigrants whom the British respect for their work ethics, had resulted in the Malays to be at the bottom ranks in their own land. The reason behind this brief historical explanation is to enlighten the initial reason why the Malays show strong support for UMNO as they have fears of being governed by other races. Consequently, the Malays see the need to safeguard their identity and rights as the original ethnic of Malaysia (Maier, 1988) so by supporting a Malay-centred political party they hope Malayness can be strengthened. For them, scrapping off Malay governance would mean an end to Malay political dominance and will be disadvantageous for them. To put it simply, the Malays choose to support UMNO in order to secure their rights as the original ethnic of the nation and to ensure other parties or ethnicities have no chance to be in power. Government supporters’ true nation identity is thus an identity that has emerged based on a mutual political view, and from a social identity that has politically comfort. This validates Burns’ (2010) view that the desire to be in a certain group has been due to few reasons including social identity, self-gain or contentment, and attachment.
Moving on to the opposition supporter’s identity on the online public sphere. Based on the analyses it is understood that they are basically a group of individuals whose identity is wavering. ‘Wavering identity’ could be understood as someone who is constantly wavering between ‘settling down’ in an identity and achieving another identity. By analysing one of the opposition supporters’ Facebook profile, we can see that apart from being identified as an opposition fanatic, he is also associated in few other groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Surprisingly, he recently has started to give his support towards Tun Mahathir, a former government elite who recently launched ‘war of words’ towards the prime minister. It is kind of fascinating to learn about the support because previously Tun Mahathir was hated by the opposition supporters. Besides that, he is seen particularly active participating in Facebook’s profile picture-changing campaigns, where participants usually change their profile picture to the campaign's graphic or visual, which technically signifies adoption of identity. For example, if your profile picture is tinted with the colour of the rainbow, that manifest your identity as a part of the LGBT's group. According to Brzuzy et al., (2013) among the reasons for individuals within a group to have multiple identities but yet dislike to be defined by the group’s identity, is because they wanted to be seen visible and unique. Simply put, they have the desire to belong to a particular group, but at that same time they wanted to be noticeable too, hence their conformity to the group can be deduced as a participation that aimed to seek attention from other users. A further finding from the analyses shows that the opposition’s supporter mostly supports deviant movements. Examples of the campaigns he supports includes opposition party’s political campaign and the ‘LGBT Pride’ campaign, which is worth to note here that in Malaysia LGBT is perceived as a deviant act. Thus, this strengthens Sageman (2004) claim that deviant acts grow out of a weak or wavering personal identities, who deviate to seek attention. Hence, it is not a surprise to see deviant individuals seek attention by causing disruptive deviant behaviours like spamming and trolling others due to their desire to feel belong. Krappitz et al., (2012) noted that individuals who feel incompatible with the present social structure will have the tendency to deviate, and next will find a new group with different values to satisfy their desire to belong. But even so, it is not necessary for them to join the group that hold the same deviant views with them, as Fichman and Sanfilippo (2016) noted there is a probability for an individual to purposely deviate in order to belong to the existing groups of deviants.
In the context of social media, the clarification of the term spam could be established as copious of ‘unwelcome’ comments which usually are useless or pointless. Hess (2003) described the conductivity or activity of spamming itself as ‘producing a great volume of text that its amount is offensive regardless of its content’. According to Stivale (1997), spam is ambiguous in nature, due to its motive that lay in between ‘playful’ and ‘pernicious’. Spam ambiguity is to the extent that jokes can be viewed as aggression while the undertaking of aggression can also be accepted playfully. The traces of interactions on the prime minister’s page led to the discovery of vomit-emoticons spams, which started as a silly and inoffensive joke but later had eventually turned to something that is irritating and even annoying for those who had to deal with these detrimental spams. And from the analyses of vomit emoticon spam, it is found that by responding to the spam in the same manner (e.g. using the same emoticon) and disengaging with them, will help in breaking in the vomit emoticon spamming. This shows those ‘spammers’ are in desperate need of attention and wanted to be noticed, a trait that links to the nature of troll itself. In analysing further on trolls nature, usually, the trolls try to pass as a real participant by first liking the prime minister’s official page, acting like sharing the same interest with the in-group and later mocking the prime minister’s status hiding in the name of ‘concern’. Thus, trolls can be regarded as having multiple identities who put an act as a ‘sincere’ online identity, who in reality possess ‘insincere’ trolling identity. One of the ways to check on the identity is by looking through at their social media profiles, where personal preferences were often reflected based on the information and images posted. Research on one of the trolls’ profile, found that even though the troll ‘liked’ the prime minister’s official page and following his updates, ironically he is actually the opposition party supporter, as there are lots of information and images associated with the opposition were shared by him, thus confirm Dahlberg's (2001) statement that trolling is a game of identity deception.
Today, social networking site like Facebook has become a fixed platform for Malaysians to get involve in their political discussions, as it offers active online engagement for both government and oppositions’ supporters. Moreover, although Facebook has been discovered as the new medium for the public interactive sphere, it has also been found to be the medium that breeds segregation, closed-mindedness, and impoliteness among its users. For example, the existence of the trolls and spammers which have given impacts on the Facebook itself and the sociality. The major success that Facebook has been achieving throughout these years is somehow linked to how the site can offer an established, viable and justifiable data. However, the existence of trolls in their very nature of ‘whoeverness’ and ‘whateverness’ would ruin the site’s usefulness that could be beneficial to other users. Since the troll twists the validity of information, it may indirectly cause a distortion for Facebook users, which at some point will affect the relevance of Facebook as well as result in Facebook losing their avid users. In addition, trolling also may end up ruining the social aspects of the Facebook community. Facebook is convenient to link up beneficial interactions, but according to Van Dijck (2012) of late the site is somehow has been misused by those uninvited users who trolls to share the negative contents and creating bad relations. With the existence of trolls, it will not be a surprise to see ‘open groups’ is converted to ‘closed groups’, new friend request is left unapproved and users’ accessibility would be socially limited. Besides that, the political discussion on the prime minister’s page can be somehow concluded as “unproductive”. With the existence of different political and ideological identities in one medium, it can be summarised that although the comments by the government supporters are positive and supportive but they are yet off-topic. Whereas, the comments under government opposition are mostly negative, shorter (memes and hashtags) as well as rude in describing the prime minister they opposed. Nevertheless, this online public sphere could still be seen successful in bringing disagreeing parties together and creating a space for them to express their opinions, which is similar to Habermas’ views.
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