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The use of online media in Malaysian national elections

by Dr Hah Foong Lian

The Internet has been hailed by many new media scholars as having the ability to promote democratic ideals and practices by facilitating the free flow of information, providing a space for rational public discourse towards the process of decision-making, and becoming a platform for citizen scrutiny of power.

Such positive views seem to revolve around the idea that the Internet can potentially turn into a marketplace of ideas, where access and participation is unlimited and inclusive, collapsing the boundaries of space and time, and, possibly, loosening the control of information by old media.

The assumption is that the new media, particularly the Internet and the World Wide Web, are also transforming the practice of journalism by making the new media more democratic, through the practice of citizen journalism, thus, giving the people greater freedom to participate in open democratic debates.

Those celebratory views about the Internet may be undeniable in certain situations but the optimism is technologically deterministic and does not take into consideration the prevailing social and political realities of a society.

This article argues that the existing realities have to be taken into consideration in order to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the extent to which the new technology can enhance or restrict the democratic ideals and practices.

Now, I will begin with the ways in which the online platform can be used to facilitate diverse opinions, provide information of electoral campaign activities and mobilisation of political participation in the 2008 and 2013 Malaysian national elections. I will also provide evidence from my research to narrate some of the factors that may render the Internet less appealing in promoting democratic ideals and practices.

Based on my research which examines the use of new media by three relatively distinct groups of people, namely contesting politicians, political party members or so-called partisan bloggers, and civil society bloggers, some of the notable uses of political blogs and Facebook pages were to mobilise the reading public for political action, keep the people informed of campaign activities and electoral candidates, and voice diverse views.

During the campaigning period of the 2008 and 2013 elections, the contesting politicians used the online platforms as a political marketing tool to highlight their views and electoral pledges. Some of the blogs and Facebook pages contained YouTube links of their speeches or those of party leaders.

The objective is to convince the voting public to throw their support behind them on polling day. This is particularly so for contesting politicians who have limited access to the mainstream media and the online tool has enabled new ways of campaigning for the contesting politicians.

The online platform, on the contrary, was restricted in its ability to generate extensive public discussion. An examination of the comments left behind by readers on the blogs and Facebook pages revealed a lack of extensive discussion of the online contents. Interviews conducted with the political bloggers also indicated that some of the contesting politicians were not keen to use their blogs, which were predominantly their private thoughts, for discussions with their party members.

Although there were several civil society bloggers who revealed that the online tool had helped to generate public discussion for particular topics, such as religion and issues of development, there were also some others who indicated otherwise.

For example, discussions on the development plans for Penang generated much online debate on the issue. However, interviews with some of the civil society bloggers showed that they were concerned that the country’s restrictive laws were inhibiting free speech and discussion.

Some of them narrated the fear of prosecution and intimidation while others noted their suspicion of fellow bloggers whom they felt were out to get them into trouble with the authorities as reasons for not being able to express their views online. The new technology was limited in promoting the notion that the online medium was a democratic tool.

Some of the civil society bloggers even went to the extent of saying that they did not allow readers to post comments on their website although they realised the action was un-democratic. Under such circumstances, the online tool was limited in facilitating free speech and discussion.

The study also addressed the socio-political realities during the 2008 and 2013 elections to demonstrate the need to consider them to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the function of the Internet in electoral politics.

The research found that the participation of former media and political elites in the cyber warfare during the 2008 election was not an egalitarian one. It provided glimpses into how the online agenda could be appropriated by former media and political elites to promote a particular discourse through framing and priming of the information flow in cyberspace.

According to political communication scholar Robert Entman, framing and priming are ways in which news slants and bias views can be propagated in the media. In similar situations, the online platform was used to form an informal group, made up of a sub-group of partisan and civil society bloggers, which was framing certain political rivals in a negative light in an attempt to remove them in the 2008 election.

Subsequently, the informal grouping disintegrated after the 2008 election as the former media and political elites began to pledge their allegiance to the national leadership in the 2013 election.

During the 2013 election, the cyberspace battle for voter support saw a clear demarcation between pro-opposition and pro-ruling coalition bloggers. The opposing political forces were competing keenly online, with each hoping to sway public opinion to their side. Cyber warfare attacks and counterattacks were planned, resulting in various blog campaigns and Facebook pages created to tarnish political rivals.

To conclude, the study shows that the online media can facilitate the free expression of ideas and provided new ways of campaigning during the elections. The contesting politicians were able to promote their image as credible candidates for the elections while those with little access to the mainstream media were able to resort to the new media. However, the democratic potentials of the new tool can be stymied by the socio-political realities in which the online platform is used.

Dr Hah Foong Lian is a lecturer of media and communication at Curtin Sarawak’s Faculty of Humanities. This article is taken, in part, from the book entitled Power Games: Political Blogging in Malaysian National Elections, published this year by ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies) in Singapore. Dr Hah can be contacted at 085-44 5070 or by email to hah.fl@curtin.edu.my.