ON SUNDAY, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi advised members of ruling party Umno (United Malay National Organisation) to learn how U.S. President Donald Trump manages public perception by mastering the use of social media.
The nation’s Number Two pointed to how the business magnate, despite his controversies, managed to defy the odds to clinch the U.S. polls and become the 45th President of the United States. Zahid also said the same of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, noting that both men have been successful in changing the public’s perception of them.
Zahid went on to say that false news should never be repeated because they can become accepted as truth, and that Umno members should devise a strategy to counter the negative perception of them created by social media users.
Before Zahid’s remarks, Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Minister, Salleh Said Keruak, also from Umno, has raised the issue of fake news several times before. He has accused the local news media of disseminating false information, although he hasn’t quite backed up his claims with concrete evidence.
It is funny how Trump is regarded a good example to follow when he has quite a reputation for how he treats the media. He is often reported accusing the media of spinning the truth – like the time he refused to answer a CNN reporter’s question after alleging that the entire organisation was churning out fake news.
And remember what he did right after his inauguration last Friday? He immediately berated the press. He accused the media of lying in reports claiming the turnout for the ceremony was poor. He insisted that the crowd stretched across the National Mall and that about 1.5 million people were there.
His press secretary, Sean Spicer, also held a press conference at the White House to say that the turnout was the biggest ever at a presidential inauguration and that the actual numbers weren’t available. He accused the press of deliberately lying about the size of the crowd.
What’s funny is that all the press did was to place actual photographs of former President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 and those taken during Trump’s inauguration side by side (see above).
The pictures, of course, show a significant difference, leaning to the advantage of Obama.
The media also reported that according to numbers obtained from Washington DC’s train system, it clearly showed more used the trains during Obama’s swearing in. In 2009, it is estimated that 1.8 million people turned up for the presidential inauguration.
So it appears that in this case, the facts are really on the press’ side and Trump and his aide have likely been spouting unsubstantiated claims. At the very least, they could have provided something to prove their remarks true and the media wrong.
So this is how Trump handles negative perception – repeating untruths regardless how many times they are disproved.
How can this be a good example for Malaysian politicians to follow? Should our leaders take the Trump route – persevering by repeating what appears to be half-truths and hoping their constituents would eventually buy into it?
At least in the U.S., media outlets aren’t so easily cowed into submission. Judging from reports filed in the aftermath of Trump’s tantrum, they have instead banded together, each one demonstrating in their own way how they would not be intimidated by the world’s most powerful man. To do this, outlets have been republishing facts and evidence to prove the president and his aide wrong.
They have also come together to express disdain for Trump’s treatment of the press, saying it was not something the country’s president should be doing. From the many opinion pieces, articles defending previous reports on the inauguration turnout and comments issued so far, their message is clear – they won’t back down until Trump backs off.
But for the rest of the world, this episode could still prove dangerous.
When the leader of the free world makes moves that appear to infringe on key democratic principles upon which the U.S. is founded, it sets a precedent for others to follow. It tells others that attacking the press is the new norm, and that it is okay to do so.
In Malaysia, politicians across the divide have been berating the press for a long time. The difference is that our local outlets usually obey, fearing they’d lose their licenses and be out of jobs. So while the press may be united, they don’t go out to name and shame the politicians who try to dictate the news.
In fact, it looks like the local media is so conditioned by this that they accept it as the norm. And now with the President of the United States and his administration doing it too, it just reaffirms to the politician that this is acceptable.
Now that, to me, is rather unsettling and frankly, quite scary.
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