From left to right: Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng from Penang Institute, Chow Kon Yeow, and Kamala S Lakhdhir, the former US Ambassador to Malaysia

TechCamp is a public diplomacy program coordinated by the US Department of State in various countries around the world to connect technology experts from the private sector with key groups such as journalists, NGOs and civil society organisations to develop and apply technology solutions to global issues. In October 2020, Penang Institute, supported by the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, organised the first TechCamp in Malaysia, themed “Building Trust & Media Literacy in the Digital Age”.

Participants from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines with different backgrounds ranging from journalists and educators to activists and social media content creators gathered virtually for five days of intensive training guided by experts in the fields of journalism, media literacy and data validation. Over the course of two weeks, TechCamp participants explored practical, technology-based solutions to face challenges in countering disinformation and hopefully steer the public towards healthier consumption of media and better civic engagement.

The theme for TechCamp Malaysia, Building Trust & Media Literacy in the Digital Age, is one that is timely and pertinent to Malaysia. Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw a concerning increase in the spread of disinformation and misinformation, misleading news have already dominated the political and social landscape of Malaysia. False rumours, biased information and propaganda have been disseminated to the public with the agenda to influence public views or incite divide among groups, sometimes to detrimental effects.

The idea of an informed populace who are able to make independent and reasoned judgment is the backbone of a healthy democracy. It is especially relevant to the Penang2030 vision, which aims to stimulate citizen participation in policy making. This not only requires the people to be well-informed and knowledgeable but also capable of distinguishing factual and unbiased information from the onslaught of misinformation and disinformation that pervades the Internet.

Political misinformation is particularly harmful as it undermines voters’ capacity to make informed political choices and eventually lead to the erosion of the democratic institution itself. Hence, it is all the more important to rebuild public trust in the news media by raising media integrity and at the same time, inculcate an awareness in the public towards both consuming and creating media.

Historically people have relied on journalists and newspapers for information, but the advent of technology has made information widely and instantly available to Internet users. The onus of verifying facts and sifting through biases now lies primarily with the populace instead of on media and information professionals. Therefore, media literacy should no longer be merely considered “good practice” but an integral concern in policy making.