The definition of war is changing through time. The 21st century witnesses the shift in both tactics and battlefield. The new war is fought in the absence of weaponry, advance arsenal and physical combat rather than employing the new media as the spear-head in the cyberspace propaganda done by certain individuals or party.
Social media, as defined by Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein (2010) is a group of internet-based applications that sprung upon mutual ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0 which has created the opportunity of exchanging data and information. It also served as the hub that centralised, thus propagating shared information with speed and ease, regardless of geographical boundaries. Social media is also seen as an effective medium for both constructive and destructive tools.
The emergence of social media has transformed human’s communication and activities to an unprecedented level. Common applications and tools for social media include online forums, blogs, micro blogs, social networks, bookmarking sites, online videos, podcasting and Instant Messages has made social media feasible to the masses. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter were a few examples that effectively implements the stated tools and applications.
A China-based newspaper, People’s Daily voiced a concern over manipulation of social media as a tool for culminating propaganda in the guise of promoting freedom of information (He Qinglian, 2008). The editorial also highlighted the online warfare sponsored by America through the implementation of “cyber army” which had created a civil unrest in Islamic Republic of Iran after the election in that country (Ibid, 2008).
Exponential Rise of Users
Since its introduction, social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have had attracted millions of followers consequently incorporate these media as a part of their daily life. There were numerous numbers of social media with varying approach, content and interest which shares common technological features though commanded a huge spectrum of sub-cultures. Whilst most retain the pre-existing format, some were seen promoting to unite people based upon common interests, political views, or activities (Boyd and Ellison, 2007).
In these recent years, Malaysia had seen an exponential rise of internet users. The Nielsen Company’s Mobile Insights Survey (2011) reported in 2010, 41 per cent of the population has the access of internet, a 15 per cent rise over the previous year. Internet World Stats (2012) also shows that 17,732,000 internet users, who comprises of approximately 60.7 per cent of the population has an access of internet by mid-year 2012 (30 June 2012).
Youth, aged between 20-24 is the prime group of users identified, composing almost six out of ten (57 per cent) use it on regular basis with an average of 22.3 hours online weekly, where social networking sites tops the most visited sites whilst online. The introduction of wireless technology has made internet feasible and accessible anywhere and anytime.
Notebooks and smart phones were the favourite devices used by the Malaysians to connect themselves to the internet, where 55 per cent of the internet subscribers were reportedly use laptops and netbooks, while 11 per cent was contributed by smart phone users – 9 point gain from 2009. (Ibid: 2011)
Potential Instrument of Propaganda
The media can be identified as a system which conveys information and relays messages to the masses. It functions by providing amusement, entertainment, information as well as to instil the individuals with the norms, values, and beliefs to be incorporated to be a part of a larger structure of a society. It acts as mediator, medium, transmitter and formulator of propaganda. The case is evident through news, columnist, editorials, advertisements, photograph, headlines and even cartoons. Even journalism itself could be labelled as propaganda.
Systematic propaganda is required in order to realise these roles (Durham & Kellner, 2006, p. 94). Merrill (1977) has quoted that the existence of propaganda would not be possible without the modern day mass media, since they were symbiotically dependent.
Since media itself is considered as a mean of propaganda, thus, it is safe to surmise that social media also falls into this criteria. The method of propaganda played by opposition political parties in Malaysia could be seen during the 2008 general election. The manipulation of blogs, mobile phones and websites has impacted the voting pattern. Suffice to say, through the implementation and manipulation of technology and new media, the opposition had seized control of three states – Penang, Selangor and Kelantan.
In the early 90s, when social media was still newly developed, it was often overlooked and dismissed as a potent media of propaganda. Nowadays however, has shown a reversal trend, where conventional media is losing its potency especially amongst the youth.
Almost all of the world’s political movements realised the potential of social media as coordinating tools. Through it, strangers could place themselves in a familiar environment by having mutual beliefs, interest, or desires thus creating a collective thought and understanding. The successful campaign of Obama’s presidential election 2012 has been largely associated with effective use of social media technology (Claire Kiss & Joseph A. Calvello, 2013). Social media is now seen as a new medium of propaganda, aside the conventional mediums.
A study done by Zentrum Future Studies Malaysia, done between February 20 and March 2008, clearly shows a distinctive pattern that most of the young Malaysians were inclined to be affected by alternative media comprising social media. In this study, Azizuddin, (2009) has stated that blogs and alternative internet news portals had shattered the hegemony of conventional media controlled by the government to the point of swaying the voting trends towards the opposition.
Post-mortem done on 12th General Election (GE-12) (2008) has shown a clear benchmark on how digital democracy has evolved tremendously. GE-12 also showed significant trend amongst the voters in Malaysia in regards of social media propaganda. Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition faced the most daunting electoral performance in its history, losing two-thirds majority in parliament, and lost three states to the opposition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) (formerly known as Barisan Alternatif), although after a series of debacle, BN won over Perak state, when several state assemblymen left PR and declared themselves independent. A sharp increase of visitors of campaign-related websites during the week after the nomination period was another interesting factor that happened during GE-12 (Rosmadi Fauzi & Amer Saifude Ghazali, 2012).
Even former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi admitted that the defeat of Barisan Nasional in general election in 2008 was due to the influence of the alternative media. Quoting his speech at the opening Invest Malaysia:
“…We didn’t think it was important. It was a serious misjudgement. We thought that the newspapers, the print media, the television were important but young people were looking at text messages and blogs. (The influences of alternative media) was painful.” (News Straight Times, March 26, 2008, p2).
The cyberspace, seen as impartial from restriction and control from the ruling party was seen as bias-free sources for the masses, and has been utilised to its maximum by both parties. It is forecasted that the party that successfully utilised new media has a brighter chance of winning the hearts and votes of young voters, since 70 per cent of them were heavily influenced by the alternative media. Subsequently, the next GE will show the first battle field of social media campaign (Mohd Najib Abdul Razak, 2013).
The main factor that drives this trend is that alternative media, especially in the country, are not confined within the Printing and Press Act which enables it to raise certain issues which would be censored through the conventional means. A study done on online news validates the finding that alternative media is becoming more preferable source among the public (Nguyen & Western, 2006), and (Krumsvick, 2006). They were seen to fill in the vacuum on reporting certain news where the conventional media cannot.
Nowadays, perception is the currency of war for power and may sway and ultimately determine the victor. Poorly managed public perception would undoubtedly incite rumours, then speculations, and eventually be viewed as the truth, thus went on to become a bone of contention, even amongst party members, which may lead to one’s demise. Yet, if a party is successfully manipulated the public perception towards their advantage, they already won half the war. The formation of perception is also a crucial step in determining the direction of strategies.
Perception and political speculation played the key role in the political agenda. Managing perception spins or propaganda has become a must in all the dealings concerning both business and politics. More often than not, success comes with proper perception management. The ability to harness the potential of effective perception management impacts greatly especially in the fields of advertising, marketing, political campaigns, public policy debates, lobbying, propaganda and military affairs.
No political party can remain oblivious to popular perceptions. They take steps to dispel a negative perception or enhance a positive one. Therefore, in order to maintain or restore power, political parties should take into account the perception of the voters as perception is a major factor in politics that can affect the sentiment of voters – proportionally increase or reduce their supports. In short, perceptions were often seen more powerful than reality.
The idea on how and when to release vital pieces of information is essential in directing on how people would perceive, react and accept certain situation. A collective mind and understanding can be mould and directed in accordance with one’s ideals through effective implementation and manipulation of media. For instance, repeated portrayal on how Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak handling 1MDB issue by the Pakatan Rakyat (PR), if done continuously through social media, may undoubtedly diminish his good name, as well as UMNO, whom he represents. Thus, in order to shield, or to counter such tactics, political party in our country, UMNO especially, must take an active approach by bolstering the role of social media in their arsenal.
According to Heath, Anderson and Sinnott in the “Do Less Informed Voters Make Mistakes? Political Knowledge and Electoral Choice,” (2002), sympathetic and convincing political campaigns has had immense impact upon a society who lacks accurate information of political situation of the country. The study also found that voters, as a whole, have the tendency to surmise solely on popular opinion rather than judge the matter seriously with tangible facts.
The scandal of 1MDB which allegedly involved the abuse of funds and power by Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak had formed a negative perception, even in reality, the matter is still under investigation and the truth has yet to be confirmed. This scandal however, has shaken both his credibility and also UMNO’s, with PR, seeing this issue as potential source of propaganda, constantly framing it in a negative light. Failing on managing the public perception may trigger confusion and false opinion amongst the people, resulting in losing their confidence and inevitably their votes as well.
To Win Hearts, Supports, Trusts, and Votes…
War and political campaigns involves contradicting agenda and beliefs, thus, to win hearts, supports, trusts, and votes of the masses, propaganda was used. The government has better chance on controlling on people through propaganda, rather than by the means of force.
Social media undoubtedly has played a role in shaping popular opinion. These media, works by attempting to distribute, fabricates, and build perceptions based on current trends and issues. The way they address the issue is crucial since it provides insights and alternative view, aside from the mainstream media, thus in a way impacts the people’s opinion. Hence, in order to form a positive or negative perception, the capacity of media especially social media, effectively apply and manipulate to ensure good perception management.