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Instant Media's Got Malaysia
Online media, already a major factor in Malaysia's 2008 general election, has exploded this time around with newer platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and others transforming electioneering for both the opposition and the government..
In a country where virtually all mainstream media outlets are owned by pro-government political parties, the rapid growth of social media outlets is not just a social phenomenon but also a key part of the political process.
According to statistics, there are 2 million Twitter users in the country, compared with only 3,000 in 2008. Any large political event is amplified by millions of tweets and posts as dramatic pictures are passed around showing tens of thousands of supporters attending opposition rallies. Who cares about the front page of a newspaper? If violence threatens, as it often has, witnesses record the action, posting it immediately on Facebook, which has 13 million user accounts in Malaysia, and YouTube, where 67 percent of all online videos end up.
The online media is crucial to the opposition, which is nearly frozen out of traditional print and broadcast outlets. "Watching the Watchdog," a study released this week by Malaysia's Center for Independent Journalism in conjunction with the UK-based University of Nottingham, found just how biased the mainstream media can be. Drawing from data gathered the week of April 7-15, the chart below shows the ruling Barisan Nasional, or BN, getting 97.5 percent favorable or neutral coverage in the mainstream media, against less than 20 percent for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition.
By contrast, news coverage on the Internet was far more even, with the volume of coverage slightly higher for the Barisan, at 49.42 percent against 47.14 percent for Pakatan Rakyat.
Malaysians "are being deprived of fair and objective information about political parties and coalitions which are taking part in the elections," the report concluded.
"The only news sources which do not conform to the above trends are the online news portals, which give approximately equal quantities and quality of coverage to both Barisan and Pakatan Rakyat," the report found.
There are times, however, when attempts to look cool via YouTube can backfire. Earlier this week, 13 candidates running under the pro-government Malaysian Chinese Association banner were widely ridiculed online as they butchered an old 1970s disco song called "Love is in the Air." It would be hard to imagine this doing anything good for a party already suffering from a host of popularity problems. The video went viral, generating comments like this, from a user named teosamhean: "LOL!!! What a bunch of morons!!"
Social media is now a vital part of any political campaign strategy in Asia, but Malaysia may be running ahead of countries with a freer press since it does not impose restrictions on the Internet, making it a free-fire zone for the opposition. Online platforms were crucial to opposition gains in the 2008 election, when the Pakatan Rakyat was largely denied use of the conventional media, which is still largely the case. The government parties have had no choice but to join in the fray.
"Online media is replacing print and broadcast in terms of being sources of news," said Masjalizah Hamzah, the executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism. "Both sides are using social media to their advantage in terms of sharing information. In GE12 [the 2008 polls, Malaysia's 12th general election], it was only Pakatan, because of the lack of access to the print media."
Immediately after the 2008 election, virtually every Barisan politician in Malaysia, seeing the effectiveness of the medium by the opposition, acquired a blog. However, in the current intensive campaigning, blogs have become obsolete as the technology has swerved away from the Internet and computers to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.
The difference from 2008, Hamzah said, is the huge budget allocated for social media by the Barisan. "You can only look at the product. It is very well done - infographics, lots of Facebook pages. The use of Cybertroopers paid to do work promoting candidates or attack work against the opposition."
The effect of all the chatter is questionable. As Hamzah and others have pointed out, most of it is preaching to the faithful. Videos and tweets tend to be shared with people of like disposition.
"In terms of bridging the divide, I am not sure how much is actually happening. You could argue that it's all partisan online anyway. The fast pace of social media - it is all about sharing things, infographics, videos, really."
The prize, for both the Barisan and the opposition, is the 2.5 million young voters who are eligible to vote for the first time. As an indication of the falling influence of the conventional media, nine of 10 young voters use the Internet as their main source of political news, according to Shaharuddin Badaruddin, a political scientist at Universiti Teknologi Mara in Malaysia, quoted by the Straits Times of Singapore. By contrast, only 15 percent get their political news from television.
Asked who is winning the cyber war, Hamzah said she really didn't know. "How do we measure who wins? I'm not sure that question is important at this point in time. I think what's important is how much is being spent. Where is the money coming from? Are these public funds? I don't know what the answer is. But those are the questions I am interested in. It's so intense, feeling and support and emotions are quite high."