News Column

Social Media Impact Can Be Merciless

July 29, 2013

THE wild world of social media is not discriminating and its impact can be merciless. As users, we have benefited a lot from it in much of everything we do today.

There are the pluses and minuses, but what is clear is that the impact it has on intended or unwitting victims in content that go viral can be devastating.

Take the furore over reports last week of non-Muslim pupils of Sekolah Kebangsaan Seri Pristana in Sungai Buloh being made to have their meals in what was initially alleged to be a toilet. (It turned out that it was the school's changing room).

We see the real-time explosion of the story and picture of the pupils in social media and immediate responses that you believe to be doing something good. You know people care for the kids.

The problem is that this kind of thing can get out of hand because the spread is unstoppable and because not everyone is sincere in expressing their concern. Even though clarifications have been made.

When I read about these kids having their meals during recess in a toilet during Ramadan, I was naturally appalled. But I wanted to know more, whether it was true or exaggerated.

The picture had obviously been uploaded by someone from the school or a parent. Still, it showed what it was meant to show.

The responses from people showed utter dismay, anger and shock and directed at, who else, school headmaster Mohd Nasir Mohd Noor. And rightly so especially when that was all they knew -- children eating in the toilet during Ramadan.

It was a story you could not miss. Dozens of your friends on Facebook uploaded the image and so many of your twitter friends re- tweeted the story.

You just could not turn the other way. And you would not want to. It is about school kids and mistreatment during Ramadan, for heaven's sake.

The media descended on the school. So did Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan who wanted to see the situation for himself.

But that was not before the 57-year-old headmaster issued an apology and a clarification in social media that it was not a toilet but a clean changing room that had no toilet cubicles inside but sinks for the children and changing cubicles.

The headmaster said the canteen was closed as it was under repair and that the room had been in use for meals not only by non-Muslim pupils but Muslim pupils as well as the staff and teachers. It had been used as a "sub-canteen" since March.

He also said the school had about 1,300 pupils but the canteen could only accommodate 500 pupils.

You may choose to believe him or not. But you see, it is not true that the children had been having their recess in the toilet. No matter what some people want to believe, it is not a toilet. It is a changing room.

Ask the deputy minister and the media. Kamalanathan understood the situation and was convinced that Nasir had the children's wellbeing at heart although he felt that using the changing room was a "misguided decision".

So the story that originated from social media with some wrong facts got mainstream media treatment to set the record straight. Still, it got the school and the headmaster some unwarranted attention.

In social media, the responses seem endless with some going overboard, bringing in race, religion and naturally, politics.

By then, you would have thought that people would have ignored the initial misleading report. But no, they were still crucifying him and calling for his sacking.

Some people were still dissatisfied with Nasir's explanation saying that using the changing room which is next to a toilet, for the children to have meals was unacceptable.

In my humble opinion, it is acceptable if no other decent space is available and I believe Nasir, the school and the parent-teacher association had good intentions.

Unfortunately, that unwarranted attention has sparked some unpleasantness - a group of very angry people hurled abuses at Nasir and the school. Also, Nasir reported that he received a death threat. So did the parent who uploaded the picture.

The Seri Pristana story may have provoked some unpleasant responses but it highlighted the fact that the school needed a bigger canteen to better serve the pupils.

Stories such as this will continue to be circulated by netizens and we will continue to have this love-hate relationship with this wild and crazy social media. Devastating effects or not, it is here to stay. And the good thing is that we have learned to live with and revel in it.


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Source: Copyright New Straits Time (Malaysia) 2013.


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