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How politicians manipulate the media to divert public attention

We urgently need media reform, writes Ng Miao Ling


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Many fans of Taiwanese American singer-songwriter, actor and producer Wang LeeHom were stunned by the allegations of multiple infidelities by his former wife, Lee Jing Lei (which Wang refuted – though he later apologised for not living up to standards in his marriage).

It is worth reflecting how influential celebrities can manipulate the media to influence public opinion easily. 

There are two media manipulation tactics observed:

  • To build a “talented family man” image that favoured Wang for 26 years, his team allegedly used the media to amplify information that fitted the image, whilst cracking down on news that revealed his bad habits
  • In the face of a public row, Wang referred to Lee by her former Japanese name. Lee claimed he hoped this would trigger hatred (towards the Japanese) among netizens in order to control the tide of online discussions

Parallel between Wang and politicians 

In light of increasing media crackdowns and the lack of social media regulation, politicians can easily exploit oppressive laws, ‘cybertroopers’, bots and more to create biased news or comments to spread propaganda or divert the public’s attention from important issues.

For example, to divert attention from the mismanagement of Covid, then US President Donald Trump claimed Covid to be a “Chinese flu” and shifted blame to the World Health Organization.

In Malaysia, after over 100,000 Malaysians took to the streets when the 1MDB scandal erupted, the then government played the race card and framed the event as a ‘Chinese rally’ to topple the government and muddle public discussions. 

Over in the Philippines, experts also alleged that the employment of controversial Filipina singer, actor and political blogger Mocha Uson – who has five million followers on Facebook – as part of the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was meant to spread disinformation and gloss over extrajudicial killings under his administration.  

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Diverting attention

The recent Timah controversy (over the name of a Malaysian-made whisky) and Budget 2022 occurred at the same time. But media and public discussions focused on the Timah controversy instead of Budget 2022. Why is that so?

The Timah debate was only about a product label. On the other hand, the Budget was about the advancing the economy, creating job opportunities, promoting better education and more.

Compare the public uproar over three pages of Jawi in a textbook to the relatively quieter reaction over the release of allegedly corrupt politicians and the fake halal meat scandal.

Why were Malaysians angrier with three pages of a textbook than politicians squandering enormous sums of money or the rampant corruption that caused many Muslim to unknowingly consume meat that may have infringed on their fundamental right to practise their beliefs?

Why are such things happening in Malaysia? Because some of the media can be manipulated.

In light of the twin problem of media suppression and information disorder, some media outlets have unfortunately become political tools to further politicians’ interests.

What is the way forward?

We need to raise public awareness that fabricated or played up race or religious topics such as the Timah controversy and the three pages of Jawi in a textbook are political tools aimed at distracting Malaysians from holding those in powerful positions accountable. Do not react to such issues.

Instead, direct the discussions back to important issues such as economic advancement and job creation. The shift in our discussions will naturally lead to a change in media focus.

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We also urgently need media reform.

The establishment of an independent Malaysian media council is essential to regulate problematic media content.

The council should be managed by an independent panel of experts to regulate politically or commercially motivated content that could be damaging to public discourse. The council should also play a role in promoting more ethical and investigative journalism. A pro tem committee was set up when Gobind Singh was the media and communications minister, but the full establishment of the council was unfortunately put in abeyance after the Sheraton Move.

We need to pressure social media to contextualise their regulatory standards on hate speech and disinformation and improve their advertisement policies. For example, the Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s controversial post that Muslims had the right to “kill millions of French people” for the massacres in the past was removed by Twitter within an hour. [Mahathir claimed his remarks had been taken out of context.]

Social media is responsive to hate speech recognised internationally, but not contextualised hate speech in Malaysia such as “Chinese rich, Malay poor” as there is little or no measure to curb its spread. In light of the proliferation of damaging content, the need to review and contextualise content moderation policies is pivotal.

We must abolish oppressive laws such as Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act and the Printing Press and Publication Act, which are often abused by politicians to silence dissent.

In 2015, The Edge was shut down for three months after it reported on the 1MDB scandal, and the reason given was that it was reporting issues which went against the public interest.

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Youth activists who attended the #Lawan protest last year were also charged under the Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act.

The removal of these oppressive laws will encourage investigative journalism and help to keep the powers that be in check.

Most importantly, start working on media reforms, especially those advocated by the Centre of Independent Journalism, a 20-year-old NGO at the forefront of promoting media reforms and tackling mis/disinformation, in light of the information disorder. 

Ng Miao Ling is programme officer in charge of media strengthening with the Centre for Independent Journalism Malaysia

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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5 Jan 2022 11.01am

Oos shopping mall units in seberang perai under distress bec high mpsp,management charges…
.total closures….asas dunia,summit,looking gd,aeon perda,megamal,,yet appprovals for new Prai,gems,,Uda along jln Prai…..,,why s no coordination, supply demand nos,??

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