Cyber Clout


16 March, 2008
SONIA RAMACHANDRAN and AUDREY VIJAINDREN surf the sea of opinions and facts to find out THE more frequently a person surfs the internet to read election-related news, the more likely he is to vote for the opposition.
This is what a survey on the role and influence of the Internet on voters conducted in 1999 found.
This finding was echoed in a similar survey during the 2004 general election.
And this is probably what happened in the 2008 general election, especially with the SMS (short messaging service) frenzy joining the bandwagon.
Politicians and voters cite the alternative media -the Internet and the SMS -as a contributory influence on the voting trend this time around.
In the 1999 survey – carried out during the general election period – 85.2 per cent of those polled said the Internet would play a major role in the outcome.
The 2004 survey too showed that whichever party was adept at tapping the power of the internet, including online journalism, as well as SMSes, would garner more votes, especially among the younger generation.
Almost 40 per cent of the respondents in the 1999 survey agreed the Internet had influenced their voting choices.
The surveys were led by Associate Professor Dr. Baharuddin Aziz of Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) who is currently tabulating the results for this year’s survey.
Baharuddin expects the 2008 survey to show public political speeches to be the main source of information for the voters.
The Internet, he said, played a role in relaying the date, time and place of the event to the public.
On the swing to the opposition at the recent election, based on his observations, Baharuddin said the results would likely show the Internet played a role.
“Voters felt the government was strong and capable but certain arrogant utterances by some ministers and parliamentarians which were posted on the Internet upset and disappointed them. So, they chose to vote for the opposition.
“Images posted on Internet of Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) and the dispersion of crowds during demonstrations also had a negative impact on the people. It just made the public feel lousy,” he said.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia academician Datuk Prof Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin said the government was totally unprepared for the impact of the alternative media of the internet and SMS during the general election.
A New Sunday Times street poll also found sentiment among the general public was that the government had underestimated the power of the alternative media.
And former Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek said Barisan Nasional component parties had not fully utilised the alternative media to their advantage.
“They only tried to shut down what they thought was very critical of the government and even tried to block the blogs.
“Some of the SMSes are also misleading and false, but people still believe them.”
On the recent election, Baharuddin said visuals of the ‘keris’ wielding incident at the Umno general assembly posted on the Internet also had an impact.
“Imagine these images being distributed to Chinese school teachers the day before election. Some of those we spoke to felt that as an education minister (Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein), should have been more cautious. ”
Another example, he said was the Lingam video tape. “If the tape was not posted over the Internet, it would not have attracted so much attention. ” Bahar uddin’s findings from the 2004 survey on the role and influence of the Internet and the SMS found that 81.9 per cent of respondents were of the opinion the Internet was an important alternative channel for political and current issues.
Interestingly, 32 per cent said the Internet had influenced their voting choice while 61.7 per cent said it had no bearing. on their choice.
The survey polled 600 people aged 21 and above in peninsular Malaysia on election day. Others in the team were associate professor Abdullah @ Kassim Mohamad, Mohammad Yaacob and Zulkifli Abd. Latiff, all from UiTM.
The 2004 survey found 35 per cent had never received any politics-related messages while 8.7 per cent said they received such messages very often.
But on the whole, 73.2 per cent claimed they were not influenced by “political” SMSs. They had mostly used the SMS to check the electoral register for their polling centres.
“The respondents added they paid more attention to messages on the date and venue of political speeches instead of those that involved jokes,” says Baharuddin.
The survey also found that those between the ages of 20 and 35 were the most frequent users of the Internet and SMS.
“The Internet and SMS are important to mobilise people to attend public political speeches and to raise funds. ”
Although in 2004, the Internet and SMS did not have a profound influence, Baharuddin said it sensitised people to issues.
In the 1999 survey, the Internet ranked third after public political speeches and television as a source of information.
Newspapers ranked fourth.
In 2004, however, the Internet ranked fifth as a source of information even though the number of users increased.
“This was because of the ‘Pak Lah’ (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) factor.
“People were looking forward to giving him the mandate because of his ‘Mr Clean’ image,” says Baharuddin This time, the situation was different.
Academician Shamsul said the government should learn from the experience and to become “AD and not BC”.
“This is because the government is made up of BC (Before Computers) representatives. The government has to be AD (After Digital),” he said.
Shamsul, who is a current affairs commentator as well as founder-director of UKM’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, said the government was not prepared to respond to the allegations made against it through this medium.
How deep was the influence of this alternative media? “It allowed people to make informed choices which were expressed through the ballot box. The problem, however, is the quality of information provided.
“The public accepts this information as the truth and the government is not able to contradict it due to its BC mentality.
“Whether the alternative media had a big or small impact, I don’t know. But it did definitely play a role.” in this general election,” he said.
Another factor was the scope of this media. “Everyone in the world can participate in it because it’s borderless. This includes the thousands of Malaysian students abroad as well as those who had migrated and were just venting their frustration.”
* BC (Before Computers); AD (After Digital)