Twitter confusion causes diplomatic incident between Malaysia and Philippines

Social media is so often an excellent resource for media; however, it has been acknowledged that leads and information cannot always be guaranteed on this platform. Any media developing stories from leads revealed on social media should always check their facts before jumping to conclusions.

The Philippines and Malaysia have just witnessed an incident which highlights the responsibility that the media have in fact-checking information and the chaos and confusion that not doing so can cause.

Yesterday afternoon, a fake Twitter account (named @BikMama2U) set up to imitate the “Husband of the Prime Minister of Malaysia” sent a message on Twitter which stated Malaysian opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, to be “pro Christian” and labelled Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal, an “infidel Malay”. The tweet tagged a number of other Twitter users including Dato Zainab (@datozainab), the wife of Dr Ibrahim Saad, Malaysia’s Ambassador to the Philippines, and Ibrahim himself.

Details of the message come from ABS CBN News:

The offensive tweet states, “@BikMama2U: @datozainab Biasala tu, @anwaribrahim mmg pro-Kristian, pemuja Jose Rizal si Melayu kafir tu! Oh ya, jgn lupa.”

A rough translation of the tweet sent by @BikMama2U to @datozainab means “That’s usual. Anwar Ibrahim is clearly pro-Christian, an admirer of Jose Rizal the infidel Malay! Oh yes, don’t forget…”

Zainab replied with “Inshaallah,” or “God willing,” which Muslims sometimes use as a way to shrug off a question.

Rather than simply replying with a one-off message, Zainab responded quoting the tweet with her dismissive message “Inshaallah” at the start of the tweet. Yet it remains unclear how local reporter Jarius Bondoc of the Phil Star, misconstrued the messages and interpreted it as coming from Zainab, the ambassador’s wife. But subsequently, after doing so, he went on write a column about the ‘incident‘, claiming that Zainab had insulted both Anwar Ibrahim and Jose Rizal.

After an initial shock at the allegations and having read the news report, Zainab issued a series of  Twitter responses to clear her name which included the following:

While her husband, Dr Saad, used Twitter to clear the issue up:

Unfortunately, the damage had already been done as Bondoc’s article spread across the web.

The article saw former Philippines president, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, weigh into the argument posting a statement on his website that included the following comments about Zainab:

“It appears that in her desire to insult Anwar, she also effectively insulted our national hero Jose Rizal and the Filipino people who regard him with reverence.”

“We must remember that regardless of religion, we are all Asian brothers. Our attitude must be towards strengthening our Malay ties and building our Asian community instead of using religious diversities to sow hatred among nations or ostracize political adversaries.”

At the same time Anwar Ibrhaim, whose Twitter handle was mentioned in the message, jumped into the saga by reposted the Phil Star article to his personal website and tweeting the link to his 70,000 plus Twitter followers.

What followed next was a barrage of criticism aimed at Zainab who patiently responding stating her innocence and asking Twitter users to review her timeline for proof that she had not made the comments.

The whole sorry mess is a result of sloppy work from Bondoc who leapt to a sensational (and incorrect) conclusion based on a couple of tweets which he misread.

The incident goes onto show the importance of fact-checking information received through social media. Not only is Bondoc at fault, however, both Ibrahim and Estrada were wrong to jump into the mess based only on Bondoc’s article. It is clear that neither of them/their teams actually looked up the original messages. Had they done so, and checked Dato Zainab’s Twitter timeline, they would have seen her comment highlighting the mistake.

Both jumped into the action and acted to position themselves as the protectors of their respective countries’ reputations, but it has backfired and made both of them look very silly and naive, alongside Bondoc.

None of the trio are yet to issue an apology, nor have the articles been removed, despite the fact that the truth behind the incident has emerged with ABS CBN News amongst other media to have clarified the issue.

How long will take for them to respond? And will there be repercussions for Bondoc?

Update: I have corrected a few details – the fake account was labelled as belonging to the husband of the Malaysian PM, while Ibrahim Anwar is the leader of the opposition in Malaysia not in the Philippines, of course.