Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Media more than blogs

Thursday September 18, 2008
New Media more than blogs

The Internet has become such a key component in the political battleground that any party which ignores its importance is likely to find itself handicapped.

RIGHT after the March general election, there was a sense of urgency amongst Barisan Nasional politicians to get aboard the New Media bandwagon.

There was talk of requiring current and aspiring MPs to set up their own blogs.

But harnessing the power of New Media takes more than just setting up blogs. It requires a sound understanding of how public opinion is shaped through online means and how political news and views are disseminated in cyberspace.

“The Barisan’s attitude towards bloggers, blogging and the blogosphere has been reactionary, erratic and inconsistent,” says political analyst Ong Kian Ming, who recently did a study comparing the use of New Media by Barisan and Pakatan Rakyat.

Barisan did get off on the right footing after the election, Ong notes. Information Minister Shabery Cheek declared that the Government would engage with bloggers and he even went as far as to invite some bloggers to appear on a TV interview show.

One of the first online personalities on this programme was none other than Raja Petra Kamarudin, whose website, Malaysia Today, was subsequently banned and then later reinstated.

Currently, he’s being detained under the dreaded ISA for stuff found on his website. “RPK’s case demonstrates the schizophrenic nature of the Barisan Government’s attitude towards bloggers,” says Ong.

Six months after the election, how much have the Barisan representatives responded to the call to set up their own blogs?

Not much, says Ong who found that of the 85 Barisan MPs in Peninsular Malaysia, only 13 of them currently have their own blogs (15%).

In contrast, 59 out of the 79 Pakatan MPs from the peninsula (almost three quarters of them) have their own blogs.

Note that he did not include independent MP Ibrahim Ali in his survey as he is neither with Barisan nor Pakatan.

Nor did he include East Malaysian MPs in his survey because blogs are not so important there.

In the past, the Barisan could rely on the mainstream media not to report or under-report any offensive remarks that may have been made by a Barisan politician.

Now, it is likely that such remarks would be picked up by online news sites or observant bloggers. Once such news leaks into cyberspace, the fallout is instantaneous.

And the mainstream media, which has already been emboldened since the election, will pick it up too. We’ve seen this phenomenon of blog scoops trickling into mainstream news happen in the United States and now it’s starting to happen here.

The Barisan is not used to playing the role of the underdog in the political sphere. But it is clearly outmanned and outgunned in cyberspace.

The number of independent blogs which can be categorised as anti-Barisan significantly outnumber the blogs which are supportive of the Barisan, says Ong, who adds: “It’s hard to name a single influential blogger who can be categorised as pro-Barisan.”

Barisan cannot overcome this disadvantage in cyberspace by throwing money at the problem. Even if it paid a whole army of bloggers to set up pro-Barisan blogs, it wouldn’t work as their credibility would be suspect straight away.

Mercenary bloggers just can’t match the passion of the ones who do it as a labour of love, who do it as a matter of personal commitment.

This is not to say that New Media is a lost cause for the Barisan. Even if it can’t get the blogosphere to support it immediately, it can set a good example by having its MPs and senior leaders maintain good websites or blogs.

They can start by emulating DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang who began embracing the Internet in the mid-90s.

He even bothered to learn HTML just so his party could have its own website and was one of the key drivers in continuously upgrading the party website, publishing the press statements and also encouraging its MPs to start blogs of their own.

Anwar Ibrahim’s website is very comprehensive and it has sections where one can make financial contributions, request Anwar to speak at events and view his past speeches and op-eds.

He also has a blog which has his public schedule, YouTube videos, related news items as well as press releases.

Even Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has joined the blogosphere with over six million visits to date, a remarkable achievement by any standards.

In stark contrast, no senior Barisan leader can claim to have the same kind of Internet presence or traffic.

The most vilified person in the Malaysian blogosphere, Khairy Jamaluddin, does have his own website and it includes a blog.

It will take more than having his own online presence to counter all the negative postings about him but Khairy did garner some attention recently when he criticised the MCMC’s decision to block access to RPK’s website.

Perhaps other Barisan MPs can follow his lead and be willing to express their views frankly and openly through blogs.

The online advantage that Pakatan enjoys does not guarantee them electoral success.

There is no replacing the ‘offline’ activities that are part and parcel of what political parties and politicians need to do – the constituency servicing, the face-to-face meetings, the ceramahs, and so on, says Ong.

“But the Internet has become such a key component of the political battleground that any party that ignores its importance is likely to find itself handicapped,” he adds.

> Oon Yeoh has been blogging since 2003. You can check out some of his postings at

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