Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Delivered during the Amnesty International Western USA Conference in Los Angeles, November 5, 2011. Thanks @KalaMendoza for the invitation

We already know that social media is a powerful information and communication tool. It has wonderful uses: Monitor, share, and create news; build networks, enhance communications; reach a broader audience while at the same time engage public authorities. From being an innovative aspect of our work, it’s now an essential component in achieving our goals. It’s already part of an organizer’s daily tasks. Why? Because it’s effective as a platform to promote good governance, transparency, and human rights.

A government which has many things to hide is afraid of social media. It limits web access, censors web content, and even punishes cyber dissidents. But since the social applications of social media are increasing, a repressive government is sometimes forced to relax web restrictions in order not to antagonize its non-politicized constituents.

It’s suspicious when the government becomes the cheerleader and unlikely protector of web freedoms. This happens when the government guarantees the ‘freedoms’ of internet users: freedom to criticize another country, freedom to look and act like fools in the web, freedom to worship entertainment stars, freedom to praise the royal family, and freedom to cheer and heckle during sports events.

Suspicious because it’s during these ‘normal’ times when governments build consensus on questionable and controversial issues. Yes the internet promotes democracy but it can also spread hate, racism, and xenophobia. Furthermore, it’s a very reliable surveillance weapon. Beware of Big Brother and the ‘thousands of little brothers’ who are monitoring our online activities. Despite its usefulness, unfortunately, the internet can also harm the security and privacy of individuals and most especially activists.

We are told that the internet gives us a broader perspective of the world. This is partially correct. On my way here to Los Angeles last night, I saw a glimpse of the whole city. I realized that the satellite view of LA in the evening makes it almost indistinguishable from other cities of the world. From that vantage point, it’s difficult to judge whether a city is rich or poor, well-planned or disorganized. We don’t know if the bright street lights serve a rich neighborhood or an urban poor village. We don’t know if the houses are foreclosed or not. We don’t know if the congregation in the park is a religious event, musical festival or political rally.

To acquire more accurate information, we need to be on the ground; we need to integrate in the community. It’s through our conversations in the social media that we learn the nitty gritty details of our world.

But the internet is flooded with so many irrelevant details. We are constantly bombarded with tons of spam and trashy information. We can google a person, place, event, and we get instant results. We can fact-check everything, even the spelling and grammar. But it doesn’t always improve our understanding of the world. Often, the results we get fail to provide context of the situation.

Who will give the necessary context? Who will identify the stakeholders, the actors, the victims, the aggressors? Human rights activists have a big role to perform in mainstreaming the use of social media for democratic causes. It’s crucial that we recognize that the popular social media tools were encoded not to advance human rights but to generate profit. Therefore, we must persevere as we promote the human rights agenda in the public debates.

Let me cite a few creative and inspiring examples of how activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens in our region have tapped the potential of the internet to campaign for human rights and democracy.

When Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was released from prison last year, the government banned the news journals from reporting about it. Since sports news are often uncensored there, a news journal carried these seemingly harmless headlines: “Sunderland Freeze Chelsea,” “United Stunned by Villa” & “Arsenal Advance to Grab Their Hope.” But they were intercepted as a code since the paper used light-color letters in the headlines to highlight this message: “Su Free. Unite & Advance to Grab The Hope.”

The Bersih democracy movement in Malaysia. is another outstanding example of netizen activism or citizen media participation in the political sphere. The event which was initially organized to ask for electoral reforms became a pro-democracy political action in the end because of the massive participation of the civilian population in the streets on one hand, and the exaggerated and violent reaction of the state on the other. Bersih is now the revolution’s name in Malaysia. And social media was maximized to broaden Bersih’s appeal among the apolitical segments of the local internet community. More importantly, it gave Malaysians the opportunity to imagine the formation of a united and patriotic community of individuals committed to the defense of democracy. Social media’s prominent role in Bersih proved that it’s more than a useful tool in elections exploited by politicians and professional political groups. It taught us that the intelligent use of social media can help us win more freedoms in the cyberspace and in the real world.

Facebook profile pictures ‘disappeared’ in the Philippines when activists asked their friends to remove their pictures during the International Day of the Disappeared in remembrance of the disappeared in the Philippines and around the world. When a lawmaker proposed a ban on planking protests, it provoked students to post more planking photos. Suddenly, planking has become a legitimate form of protest.

A curry solidarity action was organized in Singapore after it was reported that a couple were told by authorities not to cook curry when their complaining neighbors are at home. #hiogat became a popular hashtag in Thailand during the elections after a woman raised a placard while the Prime Minister was delivering a speech. #hiogat means He Is Only Good at Talking. A mapping project in Cambodia revealed the poor state of prison facilities in the country. In Indonesia, netizens launched a successful fund drive to support a housewife who was sued by a hospital for sending an email complaint to a friend.

What are some lessons we can highlight? Weak IT infrastructure in many countries of the region didn’t prevent the spread of internet use. And despite restrictions, activists were able to maximize the political value of the internet. However, we must stress that the campaign for human rights should also include the demand to improve internet access since the government’s initial attempt to ‘tame’ the internet is to make it expensive for ordinary citizens.

This is already obvious but I must still emphasize the reminder that grassroots organizing is superior over our internet activities. Campaign strategies are more effective if online activities are linked to offline solidarity actions. On the other hand, cyber activism becomes a potent force only if it is fused with grassroots activism. Online activism minus the essential offline component is impressive and creative but politically impotent. It gives a false impression that change is possible by being aggressive and passionate only in the virtual world. It prevents the educated segment of the population from developing a genuine link with the working masses. Last month, Occupy Singapore was announced on Facebook and it generated a lot of media interest. But it seems Singaporeans were preoccupied with something else since nobody showed up in the protest. Lesson: Before and after we ‘occupy’, we must organize.

Next reminder: We shouldn’t underestimate the sophistication of government censorship which filters alleged ‘immoral’ web content. Governments justify the imposition of draconian measures by invoking the name of innocent subjects like the children who need to be protected from dangerous influence in the cyberspace. The top prohibited contents are subversive political ideas and pornography. For example, Thailand has blocked more than 400,000 ‘harmful’ webpages. It hired cyber cops who report websites that ‘insult’ the King. Meanwhile, regulators in Cambodia appealed to ISPs last January to censor anti-Khmer websites which unfortunately included the popular blog platform Blogspot. Blogspot’s only fault was that it seemed to be the preferred online portal of various opposition groups and critical media networks in Cambodia.

The media is often fascinated with trending topics, hashtags that drive internet traffic, viral videos, and popular memes. Our task should be to create new hashtags; and to highlight the topics that didn’t trend, webpages that didn’t generate many hits, and issues that were underreported by the mainstream media.

The internet is able to document our protest activities in realtime but not all human rights defenders can afford to reveal their identities. We must protect the safety of activists, including those who rely on the internet for their political activities.

Language is also an important issue. Translation of statements, petitions and speeches written or delivered in other languages; documentation of protests by migrants, refugees, and people who live outside the internet zone. Our activists must reach these places.

Activism in the 21st century features new action words like texting, retweeting, clicking, chatting and social networking. But 20th century action words are still more persuasive and powerful – like talking, organizing, marching, pushing and rallying. Everyday, we should combine words like virtual and real, Facebook like and picket chant, hashtag and occupy.

One Response to “Southeast Asia: Social Media and Human Rights”

  1. […] netizens quickly reacted and demanded the restoration of Blogspot access. It’s when netizens are prevented from exercising their right to post their favorite photos, the right to share, like and comment on […]

    Mong Palatino » Blog Archive » Statistics, Hashtags, and Political Blogging

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