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Malaysians take to Web with Anwar protest
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Spin-doctoring public opinion
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High tech flexes its political muscles

An alternative voice

The incident illustrated the unique dynamics of spreading the word on the Internet. Only a minority of Malaysians had access to the Internet in their homes and offices back then--less than half a million in a population of 22 million. But that minority triggered the many to spread the message by more traditional means--fax, phone and word-of-mouth.

The snowball effect that the Net triggered may have been partly due to the fact that bloody riots in neighboring Jakarta were still fresh in people's minds. But the manner in which the public lent credence to the rumors, some reasoned, was because traditional sources of information--whether the media or government--is distrusted.

The authorities came down hard on the four individuals they believed to be the original perpetrators of the electronic hoax. The message was clear--you could get into serious trouble on the Internet. But even this was not enough to stop the explosion on the Net that was to take place just the month after.

The sacking, arrest and subsequent beating of Anwar was to amplify public discontent like never before.

Just days after his sacking, a Web site called Anwar On-line, supporting Anwar's cause, had already been set up. This was to be the first of over 50 pro-Anwar Web sites that were to emerge in the following months.

"There was no other choice--all the media was against us, without exception," said the Web master of Anwar On-line who declined to reveal his identity. "The Web site's success was enormous. There weren't a lot of graphics, but access became slow because of the traffic. I didn't expect so many responses. People even thought the government was blocking the site!"

The speed with which the reformists embraced the Internet was in marked contrast to the government's use of the technology. More than three weeks after Anwar's sacking, the Prime Minister's own Web site still featured the photograph of his smiling ex-Deputy, complete with a glowing biography.

Related Internet forums received a flood of traffic and new subscribers, the bulk of postings being overwhelmingly pro-reform. New discussion lists emerged, and it was not unusual for the avid subscriber to receive up to 200 new messages in his email box daily in the early months following the sacking.

Like the Chow Kit rumor incident, the message spread far and wide, well beyond the computer screens of Malaysian netizens. Anwar's letters from prison, eyewitness accounts of demonstrations and foreign news reports of the political crisis were printed, photocopied, faxed and mailed out in the thousands.

Copies of Internet articles appeared in parts of rural Malaysia where there wasn't even power supply or telephone lines--let alone computers.

A British journalist described how pleasantly surprised he was to witness translated copies of an opinion piece he had written, available on the Internet and being distributed during a demonstration.


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