Spotlight trained on Malaysia’s 'social media' election

  • All eyes will be on how social & new media tools are used in GE13; high potential to influence younger voters
  • As widespread social media tools are used, netizens must question and use common sense to filter out noise, make judgment wisely

Spotlight trained on Malaysia’s 'social media' electionPeriscope by Edwin Yapp

THE Malaysian Parliament was finally dissolved last week. Many stories have been circulating as to why it took so long for Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to dissolve the august Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives), and many of these reasons, excuses and conspiracies have popped up – no prizes for guessing – in 'new media' channels.

From Facebook entries and Twitter feeds, to blog sites and private messages circulated on instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Line and WeChat – there are literally thousands of stories originating online, in one form or another, espousing various views from both sides of the political divide.
 
As I reflect on this, my mind was brought back to a story I wrote in 2007 for regional news portal ZDNet Asia. I had covered the story of how the then popular Malaysian grassroots community leader and uberblogger Jeff Ooi threw his blogging towel in to become a politician.
 
Spotlight trained on Malaysia’s 'social media' electionA question I asked back then was whether social media and alternative online news media could possibly make a difference in the 12th General Election (GE12), which was eventually called on March 8, 2008.
 
Ooi, who eventually won a Parliamentary seat in Jelutong, Penang in GE12, said that while blogs can play an important role in politics, opposition politicians would still have to resort to the traditional method of communication when campaigning in Malaysia's general election.
 
“I think when it comes to the election, we will still have to resort to traditional methods [such as] meeting people on the street, face-to-face communication and printing traditional flyers to get our message through.”
 
“But the Internet can be used to mitigate issues that may occur at the last minute, and I'm counting on volunteers in the blogsphere to spread the word if need be," Ooi had said then.
 
His Democratic Action Party (DAP) colleague, Tony Pua, the then economic advisor to the DAP and a blogger himself, added that blogging can be effective to communicate alternative views which the mainstream press may choose not to report.
 
“Urban citizens who have access to broadband and the Internet can be reached through new media tools, such as blogs and podcasting," said Pua, who eventually won a Parliamentary seat in Petaling Jaya Utara (north) in GE12.
 
That said, Pua admitted that due to Malaysia's low broadband penetration rates – about 3% in 2007 – not everyone was connected.
 
Pua told me then that while the country cannot be entirely reached through the new media, it can energize those who have access to it so they in turn can reach others who do not. They can then be a catalyst in spreading the word to those who cannot receive information.
 
What Pua made sense at the time, but some three years later, I was still wondering whether social media could really make a political impact in Malaysia. In a column for local news portal The Malaysian Insider in November 2010, I questioned whether social media protests would make a difference in the political realm.
 
In it, I quoted what notable author and columnist Malcolm Gladwell posited – that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter cannot change the real world.
 
Gladwell argued in his original article entitled, “Small change, why the revolution will not be tweeted,” published in The New Yorker, that while social networks are very effective for some communication between friends on social media, such as alerting like-minded acquaintances of social events, they do not “promote the passionate collective engagement that causes individuals to make commitments that result in social change.”
 
Facebook “likers”, he argued, “are not sitters-in or non-violent activists.” They are not even marchers or candle-wavers; they may wish to associate themselves with a protest, but the nature of their medium means they do so with negligible risk and therefore negligible effect.
 
In all honesty, at that time, I ended that column open-minded, not fully persuaded if Gladwell’s arguments had merit or not.
 
But that was two years ago.

I’m now more convinced that new media tools such as social media, alternative news sites, and other forms of Internet-based tools can make a difference in political Malaysia – especially in an election, and not the overthrow of a government.
 
Why do I say this?
 
For starters, we are a more connected nation than five years ago. Household usage of Internet hovers at over 60% in Malaysia and smartphone penetration stands at about 30%, according to various analyst estimates.
 
As I’ve said before, these increases lead to information being disseminated in a more distributed manner, often allowing alternative or dissenting views to be spread. This gives the power to the people to be truly liberalized from one-sided viewpoints and claims from government-friendly media organizations.
 
Secondly, the liberalization brought about by the Internet and the participatory nature of new media tools have also allowed people to galvanize their views, share a common solidarity in voicing out against bad policies, and inspire each other to speak out -- which would otherwise not have happened without the democratization brought about by the Internet.
 
A good example of this has been touched by my colleague A. Asohan, who in his column highlighted how activist Jac sm Kee and her colleague graphic designer Ezrena Marwan have established the Elections Malaysia: Promises & Propaganda Facebook page and crowd-sourcing site.
 
Spotlight trained on Malaysia’s 'social media' electionSpeaking to Digital News Asia (DNA), Kee said she believes that Malaysia has a very active and participatory online communications culture and that generally, citizens are engaged but they “just don't have a lot of places to go to actualize their participation.”
 
Thirdly, in the Malaysian context, there are some over three million new citizens eligible to vote for GE13, and many of these, as have been pointed out by both sides of the political divide, are younger people who are the people connected to the Internet, and can be influenced either way by social media and new media tools.
 
But notwithstanding all these developments, I must end by saying that as the viral use of social media, blogs, and alternative video and picture-sharing escalate, a word of caution is necessary.
 
With so much information being spread around, there will be a high tendency of misinformation being spread about through the viral use of these tools.
 
If experience is anything to go by, social media and new media tools can, and will likely, be used to spread vindictive ideologies about politicians from both sides of the divide.
 
So this is why readers/ users must stay objective and not be carried away by the emotion generated online, as well as use common sense to filter out all the 'noise' and identify the real issues that matter during the election, and act accordingly based on facts and nothing else.
 
This is how I believe discerning Malaysian netizens should act in this coming 'social media election,' for the sake of greater democracy and a better Malaysia.
 
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GE13: Technology and democracy, like a horse and carriage

Google launches dedicated site for Malaysia’s general election

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