SOCIAL media will play a major role in the next elections in Malaysia, a report said.Partisan manipulation is also expected as the country heads into the 14th general election next year, the annual Freedom on the net 2017 report by American civil group Freedom House said.Growing internet use in Malaysia has fuelled political mobilisation and a challenge to the government, it said.

“Past elections have seen increasing manipulation of content online, and Umno is already ramping up its social media activities.

“In January, Umno urged its members to master the use of social media to win the war of perception ahead of the elections.”  

The report said Umno has also called on its local divisions to activate newly formed IT bureaus to counter slander on social media.

The government also launched a website – Sebenarnya – in March to combat what it termed as “false news”, the report added.

“And although officials said the portal is non-partisan, comments by Prime Minister Najib Razak highlight how easily a government campaign against inaccurate content can become politicised when he accused ‘the government’s opponents’ of spreading ‘false propaganda’,” said the report.

Last week, Umno held its own social media convention at PWTC where Najib and other senior party leaders, such as Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, gave keynote messages.

The annual report said while internet penetration and average connection speeds had improved over the years, several websites remained blocked for reporting on a billion-ringgit scandal that implicated Najib.

“The government blocked news websites in relation to political corruption for the first time in 2015 and 2016. No new websites were blocked in 2017 but most of the blocked sites remain inaccessible.”

Three international websites that remained blocked include Sarawak Report, Asia Sentinel and Medium.

UK-based whistle-blower site Sarawak Report was blocked over articles linking misappropriation of funds from 1Malaysia Development Bhd with Najib.

Local websites, such as Malaysia Chronicle and the now-defunct The Malaysian Insider, were blocked in October 2015 and March 2016 for publishing articles on 1MDB.

The report said the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) admitted that it had blocked 1,375 websites in 2016 and 2017 for “false content”.

“In March, the government said it had blocked 10,962 sites found to be involved in online fraud between 2008 and 2017.”  

The annual report said that 30 countries around the world were using armies of opinion shapers to disrupt elections.

“Manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 17 countries damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate.”

The report said that the use of fake grassroots movements was on the rise every year since 2009 with just 23 countries in 2016 to 30 a year later.

“The practice has become more widespread with the use of bots, propaganda producers and fake news outlets exploiting social media and search algorithms to ensure high visibility and seamless integration on social media.” – November 14, 2017.