BN’s traditional media falls in disarray; social media battle looms ahead of polls

Source: The Edge, 27 November 2017

Will big data analytics and voter profiling on social media be enough for the BN to counter the groundswell of disquiet over the rising cost of living, wonders Anil Netto.

The circulation of Malaysia’s mainstream print media, apart from a business weekly, has dipped over the last few years – and this could dent the BN’s media propaganda strategy and force it to focus on other options ahead of the general election.

Sure, newspapers have, reluctantly in some cases, embraced the internet – but they still face problems. Even though advertising revenue has shifted from print media to digital advertising, media firms are clearly not reaping much from this shift. Instead, it is social media giants like Google and Facebook that have grabbed the lion’s share of such revenue.

Television stations in Malaysia have suffered too. Let’s face it – when was the last time you watched TV3, once envied for its ability to draw eye-balls and hence, ad revenue?

Young people tend to follow the latest Korean dramas or English Premier League football on satellite television while more Malaysians are getting their news through website links forwarded by their friends over Facebook or Whatsapp, thus bypassing traditional media channels.

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No wonder Media Prima, the largest media conglomorate in the country with close ties to the BN, is in dire straits. Three of its main publications have suffered huge drops. The circulation of Harian Metro plunged by 62% between the second half of 2012 and the same period in 2016, New Straits Times by 42%, and Berita Harian by 30%. (The same pattern may be seen in all the major newspapers in the country as total newspaper circulation dropped from 4.1m to 2.8m.)

By the end of October 2017, Media Prima’s share price had fallen by about half compared with four years ago. It comes as no surprise that the group has just had crisis talks with its staff. Employees have reportedly been encouraged to go on unpaid leave – “career break”, they call it – of up to a year or work half a month for half pay. These are tough times: what are the staff going to do?

Given that the BN can no longer rely too much on its traditional media, it is likely that the ruling elite will turn increasingly to social media.

Selangor Barisan Nasional, for instance, recently announced it would form a special social media team to counter the other side. “We will launch the team very soon.. at the moment we have 16 people who monitor every news and issues written about the party and government,” said Noh Omar on 10 November.

“Fake and disparaging news being hurled against the government and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak are becoming rampant and we want to prevent this,” he added.

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So a social media team of 16 – and that is just for Selangor, mind you. It surely does not include the hordes of other pro-BN internet propagandists – cyber troopers, as they are known in Malaysia – out there.

It is in this context that we should view the BN government’s concern about fake news.

Social media is one area that the BN does not have an upper hand, despite its array of cyber troopers.

While no one in their right mind likes fake news – and quick clarifications should be immediately made – few countries I know have an official website dedicated to countering fake news like – and this in a country that ranks low in press freedom.

While the website does play a role in quickly countering baseless issues that may raise alarm, it leads us to another question: is the truth only to be found in the official line and pronouncements of various government bodies?

The over-emphasis on countering ‘fake news’ may mask other motives. Banging on about fake news may have the effect of sowing an element of doubt over any negative statements (about 1MDB, for instance) that may affect the credibility of the government or Umno leaders – even if some of those statements may be true.

In the last election, we witnessed a battle on social media between the BN and Pakatan. This time around, with the stakes higher and public concern over the cost of living and other bread-and-butter issues rising, expect an all-out tussle in social media between the two sides – with the traditional media having less of an impact than before.

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The BN has the resources and the funds to deploy the latest methods to target and tailor its messages to suit various groups on social media, especially Facebook. Recall how Trump used “military-grade data firepower” in his presidential campaign complete with voter profiling and behaviour targeting. This is one area where Pakatan could be at a disadvantage. Expect to be barraged on social media by such targeted campaign messages.

But will even the best data analytics and voter profiling be enough to counter the groundswell of disquiet over the rising cost of living and removal of subsidies?

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