SHAH ALAM, Nov 30 — The credibility crisis plaguing the country's mainstream media has led to a worrying reliance by Malaysian youth on unverified news gleaned from social networks, said former Umno deputy minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah.
With the country still caught in throes of a fractious 13th general election, Saifuddin suggested that the mainstream media could still play a key role in fostering national unity, even as youths continued to embrace the social media that — despite concerns — the former lawmaker said was inevitable in the country’s path towards greater democracy.
“The mainstream media must reform itself so that the people can begin to trust them,” Saifuddin, who is also the chief executive officer for Global Movement of Moderates, told a forum on “Newspapers, Democracy and the Challenge to Racial Intergration in Malaysia” in UiTM here.
The former deputy minister noted that a survey by pollsters Umcedel shortly after the May 5 general election showed 96 per cent of youth, a key demographic that forms close to half of Malaysia's 13 million voters, relied on social media for information on the elections.
This reflected the diminishing trust for the mainstream media, he pointed out.
While an ardent fan of social media himself, Saifuddin felt that complete reliance on the new platform as a source of information was a cause for concern.
“What we are worried about is the validity of the information, we have a reason to be concerned,” he said, although he stopped short from enumerating the problems.
As Malaysia becomes more connected online, the advent of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook has levelled the playing field for opposition parties in urban areas, allowing them to reach out to an audience that was previously inaccessible due to government control over traditional media outlets.
Saifuddin made no specific reference but suggested that social media, just like the social movements that brought down autocratic governments in the Middle East, gave Pakatan Rakyat the popular vote in Election 2013.
And with urbanisation growing, the new medium is set to shape Malaysia's future, he added.
“In the semi-urban areas, about 33 per cent rely on social media for information. But these semi-urban areas become urban as (tech savvy) voters from the urban areas return to vote,” he said.
Saifuddin previously warned his fellow Barisan Nasional colleagues that with voters becoming more empowered through social media, the ruling coalition could face demise unless it reformed.
Traditional media outlets such as newspapers have seen their reach decline following the emergence of social media and Internet news portals, although the phenomenon is not unique to Malaysia.
Among the hardest hit has been Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia. Its fortunes today are a far cry from its heydays before the Internet led to a boom in online news companies, when it used to register a healthy average of 350,000 copies in daily circulation.
Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed that the right-wing newspaper averaged a little over 181,000 copies daily over the first half of 2012.
It was a slight improvement to its 2011 average of 173,000 daily copies, but mainstream papers linked to or owned by pro-establishment groups have been suffering a progressive decline in commercial success over the years.
It has been reported that sales for Malay-language papers like Utusan, Berita Harian and the English-language New Straits Times, which are all either directly or indirectly linked to Umno and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, have suffered a decline of up to 20 per cent in daily circulation between 2005 and 2009.
Utusan has over the years been accused of being racist and taking hardline positions on issues that are seen to challenge Malay rights and privileges.