Intended or otherwise, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s labelling of election 2013 as the “social media election” may have been acknowledging what is blindingly obvious to Malaysian voters: that the influence of its traditional media has somewhat diminished.
As with other countries who have headed to the polls in recent years social media has usurped print media as the main channel to access voters. With more than one-quarter of the Malaysian electorate voting for the first time this year and a Facebook ‘population’ of some 13m, more emphasis has been placed on the social media effect, just as bloggers dominated alternative media ahead of the 2008 election.
But the election might yet prove a watershed for Malaysia’s slavish newspapers, which are struggling to remain relevant in the digital age, with readers and influence ceded to their more vocal online counterparts such as Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today.
The print and broadcast media in Malaysia remains dominated by large media companies with close links to political parties associated with the ruling National Front coalition, and its international standing has been hammered in recent years.
The country fell 23 places in Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 World Press Freedom Index to 145th out of 179 countries ― the country’s worst showing in the benchmark since 2002. That placed it lower than Southeast Asian neighbours such as Brunei, Indonesia and Cambodia.
While its major English language dailies – The New Straits Times, The Star and The Edge – have seen readers desert since 2008, they aren’t circling the plughole just yet. But the upcoming election might entrench the idea that the old media hasn’t moved with Malaysian voters.
Among its front page covers in recent days The New Straits Times has run photographs of Mr. Najib waving his index finger above the headline “Choose wisely”; articles about the danger posed by a government run by Opposition leader Ibrahim Anwar are regular too.
Newspapers in Malaysia have, for all intents and purposes, become an extension of the ruling Coalition, and the rising popularity of alternative news platforms and social media shows Malaysians are turning their backs on this cozy power alliance.
The irony is that Malaysia’s political leaders have already acknowledged which way the winds are blowing, opting to promote themselves and their policies more through social media.
Since the last general elections in 2008, Malaysia internet penetration has risen by over 300%. Total internet penetration in Malaysia has increased from 1,718,500 in 2008 to 5,839,600 in 2012.
Social media monitoring website Social Bakers has Najib’s profile as one of the fastest growing political pages on Facebook, ahead even of US President Barack Obama, with Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim also adding a little more than 18,000 Facebook users last month.
Malaysia is one of the region’s fastest growing countries on Facebook, with more than 13m active users, but experts have doubts about its impact during such a short election time frame. Facebook and Twitter will host feverish debate and discourse among younger voters, but they may not do enough to sway sentiment one way or the other.
That being said, no one is taking any chances: the Malaysian Communication Multimedia Commission (MCMC) announced recently that it was going to monitor all users of social media during the election period for possible abuses – a sign that authorities are preparing for weeks of ‘social’ disruption.