Article: Online News and Public Opinion:How Malaysians Respond to News on a State By-Election

Online News and Public Opinion:  How Malaysians Respond to News on a State By-Election

Shafizan Mohamed*, Syed Arabi Idid, and Kamaruzzaman Manan

Department of Communication, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia, 53100, Gombak, Selangor.

 Source: Human Communication Journal

Online News and Public Opinion:  How Malaysians Respond to News on a State By-Election


 This study articulates the agenda-setting function of online news that are shared on Facebook. Many news organizations today have their own Facebook pages in which they publish news stories or links to articles. Having facebook pages allow the newspapers to reach a wider readership as well as promote reader participation through the comments section in Facebook posts. When audience members read and subsequently comment on news articles on Facebook, it becomes possible to identify the effectiveness of a newspaper’s agenda setting function by scrutinising how the readers respond to the issues covered in the newspaper. Content analysis was done on over 450 news articles from four major online newspapers during the Semenyih by-election in Malaysia. The study found that while the online newspapers and the readers do share some issue salience, the relationship is not as simple and direct. The dynamics of Facebook now enable news readers to become more than just receiver of news. Instead, they disrupt the conventional agenda-setting function by becoming commenters who influence how other readers receive and contemplate news and issues.

KEYWORDS: By-election, Facebook, Malaysia, Public opinion, Agenda setting, Online Newspapers


 The availability of Social Networking Sites (SNS) such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter has enabled traditional newspapers to engage with the online audiences by encouraging them to read, comment, and share news with other users. Today, large numbers of news organizations extend their content and interactions on SNS to get connected to the larger audience. Facebook is generally the primary platform used by news organizations to share their news stories and to encourage user interaction  (Al-Rawi, 2016).

This shift towards encouraging news comments on Facebook is based on the implicit assumption that commenting on social media platforms, especially Facebook, is a better alternative than commenting on online news sites (Kim, 2018). Most news sites have suffered from offensive, insulting, and brutal comments on their websites because of the anonymous character of their comment sections (Coe, Kenski, & Rains, 2014). Facebook, on the other hand, is more open in the sense that users can search about one another through a system of notifying users of others’ likes and comments, forcing commenters to be accountable to their posts (Rowe, 2015). While the ability to create fake accounts still allows for irresponsible commenting, the amount of legit comments often drowns the impact of fake users. Most of the time, fake users are easily identified and apprehended by other users.

Due to the popularity of leaving and reading comments online, these spaces for public discourse have attracted the interest of media and communication researchers. Scholars have examined news comment to understand the impact of interactivity and other content features (Weber, 2014), the quality of news comments (Rowe, 2015), motivations for commenting (Stroud, Van Duyn & Peacock, 2016), personal characteristics of news commenters (Wu & Atkin, 2017), and the influence of news comments on users’ evaluation of news articles and social issues (Prochazka, Weber, & Schweiger, 2016) and their future commenting behaviors (Rösner & Krämer, 2016).

Following the interest in this growing body of study, this study attempts to problematize the relationship between news and news comments by contemplating on whether the sentiments shared by newsreaders in the comment sections reflect the sentiments presented in the news content? And, can these comments be constituted as a form of public opinion?  Ksiazek (2018) proposed that news comments could indicate user engagement with the news, as well as offer insight into how users are participating in virtual discussions of current events.

The emergence of interactive digital platforms for the provision of news has sparked an interest in capturing the ways that users are engaging, experiencing, and reacting to content. When users choose to comment on a news story, they signal a heightened interest by not only processing and reacting to the news, but by choosing to share their thoughts in a public forum. Therefore, news comments offer the possibility to learn about the effectiveness of news stories in influencing user opinions.


Facebook Usage in Malaysia

The media and political cultures in Malaysia have been very much altered by the rapid rise of the online media (Wok & Mohamed, 201). The democratic openness afforded by the social media has especially allowed Malaysians to challenge the country’s conservative political culture by daringly participating in online discourses where there is limited government control. This change in political culture was exemplified in 2018 when Malaysians overthrew a 61 years old government that had strong control over the country’s media and political systems. The social media, afforded Malaysians the avenue to get alternative news and to participate in local politics. Facebook is where most of the political discourses take place (Salman, Yusoff, Salleh & Abdullah, 2018) (Lee, 2017)

There are over 16 million active Facebook users in Malaysia (MCMC, 2017). The popularity of social networking sites (SNSs) such as Facebook was made possible by the improved Internet infrastructure, increase in Internet penetration and overall better exploitation of Information Technologies in terms of mobile phones, computers and Internet access (Wok and Mohamed, 2017). Recently, the Internet usage amongst individuals in Malaysia increased from 57 percent in 2013 to 71.1 percent in 2015, although the digital divide between rural and urban areas remains significant, there is a continuous effort by the government to reduce the gap (Lee, 2017).

According to the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC, 2017), Malaysians access the Internet very frequently (86.6% at least once a day) and are very participative in social networking sites (84.3%). Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Malaysia. MCMC (2017) found that 96.5 percent of the Internet users surveyed owned at least a Facebook account and 53.8 percent of the Internet users accessed Facebook on a daily basis. The study also found that some 18.3% percent of social media users share political views. While the percentage of social media users sharing political views may not be that high, it is still a significant source of information for those who access it (90.1%). 86.9% of those who surveyed identified that social media is one of the main online information portals for them. A study on political engagement among Malaysian voters by Salman et al. (2018) supports the centrality of SNS in Malaysian political discourse. The study found that 63.5% of voters identifies SNS as their main source for political information with 86.5% claiming Facebook as their main SNS platform.

All the major online newspapers in Malaysia have a Facebook page and are actively using it to engage with the readers. They do so mainly because of the decline in the sales of printed newspapers. Advertisers are more interested to advertise on the newspapers’ social media platforms where they can attract bigger number of audiences. At the same time, it is legally and politically more conducive for them to engage with the readers online where the government has limited control. The mainstream online newspapers that have direct link to the old government do not have a comment section in their online news portal. This is to avoid negative and controversial user discussions. However, when extending their news stories on Facebook and allowing for user comments, these online newspapers are able to technically defy the imposed self-censorship and allow readers to interact. Because of this, the Facebook pages of Malaysian online newspapers are definitely more alive and popular when compared to their online sites.

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