The original news article is published on the Jakarta Post

Najib leads in social media catch-up with opposition
Lester Kong, Asia News Network (The Straits Times), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | Wed, 06/13/2012 10:51 AM

From updates on the economy to discussing what to name the family cat, Prime Minister Najib Razak is one of the most active social media users in Malaysian politics.

Since becoming prime minister in April 2009, he has garnered more Twitter followers – 600,000 – and more users who Like his Facebook page – over one million – than any other Malaysian.

Aides say Najib does not outsource his tweets and posts, and actually taps them out himself.

It’s a far cry from 2008, when the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) relied on its stable of mainstream newspapers and television stations to spread its message.

“Barisan Nasional was caught unawares by the social media,” says state assemblyman Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, communications director for the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). “They were confrontational towards it in 2008. Now they are co-opting it.”

It is well known that the opposition wielded new media tools to devastating effect in the 2008 election, making unprecedented gains by winning five of 13 states and denying BN its customary two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Then, Facebook and Twitter were still emerging trends. Only about 3,000 Malaysians used Twitter then, compared to about two million today. But the opposition was hard at work blogging, sharing media content via e-mail and sending mass text messages.

That gave young opposition politicians like first-time assemblyman Hannah Yeoh and Member of Parliament Nurul Izzah Anwar a chance to directly reach voters, a novelty at the time.

They posted statements on Facebook and Twitter accounts on issues of the day, often bypassing the government-controlled mainstream media.

“Most young politicians use this as a strong branding machine, and the public is attracted to the authenticity of these kinds of personal voice,” said Fahmi Fadzil, an aide to Nurul Izzah.

Said Edwin Yapp, senior editor of Digital News Asia, a business and technology portal: “This helped the electorate see them as humans, fighting for truth, justice and ideals, for the people.”

Since then, BN has been playing catch-up in a big way. In addition to Najib’s adoption of Facebook and Twitter, it is building a battalion of BN-friendly “cybertroopers” to post rebuttals and comments on pro-opposition blogs and news websites.

It’s clear that the next battle for public opinion will be fought online.

The number of broadband subscribers have surged from 4.6 million in 2008 to 17.5 million today, with smartphones, tablets and laptops now ubiquitous.

Meanwhile, newspaper circulation in West Malaysia has dipped to about 4.15 million copies compared to 4.22 million in 2008, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Last Wednesday, BN began recruiting a new squad of 10,000 BN-friendly “cybertroopers” to counter messages by the opposition and civil groups like Bersih, which led a massive street demonstration in April that ended in teargas and chaos.

They include well-known BN-friendly blogs like Unspinners and Papagomo, who use edited videos to paint Bersih participants as unpatriotic troublemakers, complete with interviews with ordinary Malaysians.

“What good were they [the Bersih protesters]? They were just making trouble for everyone,” said an unidentified trader in the city in a video on the Unspinner website.

But using cybertroopers as a defensive strategy can backfire. Social media consultants say BN might be better off posting original or otherwise useful content than attacking detractors.

For instance, the Facebook account FriendsofPakatanRakyat regularly reposts articles on good governance and ideas to improve the economy.

“PR’s cybertroopers don’t go around trolling BN websites. Instead, they are busy blogging, posting up creative comments and content,” said Oon Yeoh, a consultant in new media.

“BN would do better if its cybertroopers post positive messages and doing creative things on social media instead of going around to other people’s sites and posting attacks,” he said.

Nonetheless, Khairy Jamaluddin, the Umno Youth chief who has almost 122,000 followers on Twitter, thinks BN is now on par with the opposition in terms of influence and sophistication on social media.
“It does take a while for everyone to get onto social media, but it’s happening,” he said.

It’s unclear how all this will shake out in the election, which isn’t due till April next year, but expected sooner.
“Personally, I don’t think that just because Najib is popular on social media means that this will translate to votes per se,” said Yapp of Digital News Asia. “He might be a well-liked personality personally, but the political reality may be further than just a push of a like or follow button.”

Meanwhile, the opposition is trying new things ahead of the coming election.

In April, the Democratic Action Party launched Fokus PRU13, an online current affairs talk show hosted by opposition politicians.

Recent episodes, shot in high-quality video, discussed current events such as the National Feedlot Corporation scandal and the Bersih 3.0 protest.

It’s similar to the PKR’s website, which has short videos of PKR leaders like Anwar Ibrahim meeting the public and speaking on various public issues, such as the rising cost of living and whether tertiary education should be free.

“We target the younger generation who watch TV programs online,” says Wong Shu Qi, a producer for Fokus PRU13. “Hopefully, they will download the video and take the message home to their families.”