Be on Facebook or be ‘virtually dead’ ?

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Source_MKini:Be on Facebook or be politically dead by Hazlan Zakaria

“Be there or be square”, was once said of ‘cool’ parties that make or break a youth’s social life, but for political parties and leaders in Malaysia, the ‘hip’ thing now is “be on Facebook or be politically dead”.

This, according to a paper presented by Monash University‘s deputy associate dean James Gomez at Universiti Malaya (UM) in Kuala Lumpur last Tuesday, is because the future battlefield of politics is in the bits and bytes domain of the social networking site.

Speaking at the seminar titled “Facebook Politics in Malaysia and Singapore” organised by UM’s Faculty of Administration and Economics’ developmental studies department, Gomez said the evolution of future political activity is very much tied to the development of the internet.

  1. “First were the websites,
  2. then the blogs
  3. and now social networking sites like Facebook,” he said relating the flow of Internet development.

Similarly, Gomez (left) said, the first shots for online political mindshare were fired via_

  1. websites,
  2. alternative news portals like Malaysiakini which thrived in an Internet
  3. unfettered by government control or Temasek Review which hides behind the wall of online anonymity.

The anti-establishment sites were later joined by party websites as political parties made a bee-line for online propaganda and presence.

Then the fight was carried further via_

  1.  postings
  2. and commentaries covering all sides of the political spectrum,
  3. made possible by the proliferation of online blogs aided
  4. by the plethora of opinionated netizens
  5. and paid ‘cybertroopers’ who made a job out of monitoring and posting political articles and comments online.

Politicians more popular than parties

But Gomez(left) believes, the main driver of online political activity of the future will be the social networking site, currently serving over 500 million users.

The lecturer said that more and more, the politics of the future will be a “branding exercise” and rely heavily on the “reputation and popularity” of key political leaders then the ideology and stature of a particular party.

“Politicians are more popular than the party,” contends the public relations lecturer using statistics of his research showing how politicians usually have more ‘likes’ or followers then the party they represent.

A leader’s reputation or brand is what will attract or push away voters, especially among the more Internet savvy young.

He said that this is related to the concept of reputation management as a Facebook presence will allow the personality or his or her backroom staff to “manage” the reputation of the leader in the eyes of the public.


Personal touch vital ingredient

Gomez opined that the personal and immediate nature of Facebook makes it crucial to the battle to secure one’s reputation and break the image of rivals.

More so since the social networking site is the most popular among Malaysians, making it highly likely that anything said or done on Facebook will reach out to a wide segment of the voting public.

Though as in real world politics, the need for the personal touch still applies as his research has shown that the advantage lies with those who make such efforts.

“Leaders who manage their pages themselves are likely to be more popular than those whose page are managed by staff. But it all depends on how well the staff manage the pages as well.”

But, whether his premise is true or false, the research done by Gomez and his co-researcher showed that political parties and politicians are already stampeding onto the social media site.

“Malaysia’s active opposition parties have a presence either directly, through their youth wings, via supporters or through members’ personal accounts on Facebook.”

The three main opposition parties Parti Keadilan (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) which formed the informal opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) during the 2008 general elections are out on Facebook in force.

The dominant ruling party, Umno in the government coalition which leads the Barisan National (BN) as well as its sister components MCA and MIC have also spread their wings to the online site.

Fan ‘mining’ to strengthen party

Other than managing reputations, Gomez contended that Facebook may also be the perfect place to mobilise volunteers for party events and campaigns as the most vocal of active supporters or “fans” of politicians can be recognised and “mined” for recruitment.

But Gomez warned that simply “being there” may not be enough to stop political parties and leaders from “being square”.

“Presence on Facebook must be part of an integrated communications campaign,” said Gomez who is also Monash University’s public relations head explaining that its own Facebook simply provides “weak connections” but can reinforce, connect, create and galvanise existing real world ones.

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