social media detoxJULY 27 — My neighbour is the sweetest old makcik. She buys her vegetables from a Chinese man who drives to the neighbourhood in his truck. We greet each other all the time, in our coming in and going out.

We complain about the weather a lot, but rarely talk about politics, though she has occasionally criticised the previous government.

So I was surprised when she shared a PAS member’s Facebook post that questioned several Malay-Muslim Cabinet ministers for not carrying out their purported promises to defend Islam.

On Federal Territories Minister Khalid Samad, the Facebook post questioned the Amanah lawmaker’s pledge to restore local council elections in Kuala Lumpur and said this would allow “kaum China” to be mayor.

I won’t get into the merits of local elections in the capital city that has been robbed of direct representation since 1974, when Kuala Lumpur was ceded from Selangor as its state capital and placed under federal administration instead as a federal territory.

What I want to highlight is the apparent disconnect between a person in real life and in the online world.

I love the way social media has dismantled structures of power that once only gave airtime to the rich, famous and powerful so that now, anyone with a keyboard has access to the public. (The Facebook post mentioned above had almost 3,000 shares and over 5,700 “likes” at the time of writing).

But I also find it disturbing the way social media creates some cognitive dissonance between people we think we know in so-called “real life” and their digital selves.

Friends I know who are completely reasonable, knowledgeable, and intelligent in real life sometimes turn into enraged people online who curse at others — mostly politicians, sometimes ordinary individuals with different beliefs — with a viciousness that would be very alarming if carried out in real life, physically in front of the target in a crowded room.

My mother sometimes complains about how nasty Malaysians are online, from superimposing the picture of a certain former prime minister onto a tombstone, to talking bad about other races.

I keep telling her not to read online comments, which I said should not be taken seriously since people generally turn into trolls on the internet.

Having said that, it is easy to dismiss strangers online, but not so simple to understand the cognitive dissonance in friends, neighbours, and people whom we know personally.

If anything, perhaps this illustrates the need to talk more in person, not on the screen, so that we understand each other better.

Writing alone, especially in short emotional bursts of messages, doesn’t always fully capture one’s intended meaning, since facial expressions and physical cues that complete the act of communication are missing.

As technology advances, our ability to communicate seems to regress. We don’t seem to know how to disagree anymore.

We end up shouting at and shaming people with differing views online, forgetting that there is a real person behind the profile picture.

Unless we are willing to actually insult, yell, and swear at someone we don’t really know right to their face, then we should probably try to refrain from engaging in such toxic behaviour on social media.

I won’t post a comment on my neighbour’s sharing of the PAS member’s disturbing Facebook post. But I will talk to her the next time I see her and maybe hint that I have harboured ambitions of being KL mayor.

Maybe she’ll be okay with me because she knows me.

Perhaps that’s all it takes to overcome suspicion and distrust in this country — to talk more in person and less online.