Jostling for presence

PETALING JAYA: Much resources are being poured into free news portals as political parties compete to control the narratives ahead of the 15th general election (GE15).

In the past few months, new portals have sprung up and there were even negotiations to buy over existing ones.

These point to the importance placed by parties on putting their spin on current events, according to veteran journalists and political analysts.

Parliamentary observer and former journalist Ong Ooi Heng said it has been overstated that political parties can effectively secure votes by having its own media agency.

“Owning a media (asset) can help to push forward certain narratives. But you need to take into consideration other factors when talking about securing votes,” he said.

While there may still be non-partisan news portals that are unbiased, Ong said the reality is media establishments would have taken a stand on what to highlight and who would be given publication space.

Effectively, they cannot remain unbiased as they have political paymasters even if it is by proxy, he pointed out.

Former Bernama editor-in-chief Datuk Zakaria Abdul Wahab said news portals could narrate according to their political masters’ whims and fancies, but he believes it would not have much influence on voters for GE15.

“Voters now have many avenues to get information other than news portals,” he said.

“They know where to get the official news if they want to check the facts. The most powerful media to influence voters would be WhatsApp and other social media platforms.

“The last GE was won by political parties that were able to penetrate social media and Barisan Nasional (BN) failed because it focused too much on government media machinery to promote itself and that was boring (to readers).

“BN failed to penetrate social media although it had war rooms, cybertroopers and sophisticated software to mine social media.

“To win the next GE, political parties need to continue to focus on social media and narrate believable stories to the voters,” Zakaria added.

Veteran newsman and former group editor-in-chief of The New Straits Times Datuk A. Kadir Jasin feels the proliferation of news portals would be a blow to journalism in the country as it would lead to a cyberspace battle between cybertroopers and social media activists.

“Mainstream media will be pushed further into obscurity. It will be reporting facts and fallacies for the digital illiterates only to be contested, denied and lampooned by digital and social media,” he said.

“Unless newspapers, TV and radio stations are able to match the independent news portals, they will suffer a more severe rejection than during GE14.”

Kadir pointed out that the rush to acquire or to start news portals is an admission that online media will be the lynchpin.

“Journalism and quality reporting will suffer further. Already, a large number of senior and experienced journalists have been laid off in post-GE media bankruptcies and reshuffles,” he said.

“Truth may not count for much. Voters, especially the first-timers, will be influenced more by perception than the real thing.”

Political commentator Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi said the battle for hearts and minds of voters will be more effectively executed on social media platforms and through free portals.

“The reality is that political parties or people with political interests will be proactive in social media to gear up for GE15 by preparing their cyber warriors, in an attempt to influence public opinion,” he said.

“Usually, a cyber warrior will create content based on any non-issue and turn it into an extremely big issue. They will also counter those unfavourable news by phrasing the issue into a more palatable manner. They can manipulate the content and pass it on to social media like WhatsApp. I know a person whose only task is to share news through WhatsApp.”

Tajuddin said the party that will win (the narrative) will be the team with the most motivated cyber warriors.

“People are interested in defending religion, race and class struggles, they are no longer bothered about the truth,” he added.

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