Old Politics and New Media: Social Media and Malaysia’s 2018 Elections

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Old Politics and New Media: Social Media and Malaysia’s 2018 Elections

A closer look at what social media means for the country’s elections and its future.

As the hours count down to Malaysia’s election, the social media blitzkrieg in Malaysia’s last stretch of election campaigning has continued unabated.

In Malaysia, using social media to capture votes is hardly a new phenomenon. Yet even in virtual reality, as seen elsewhere in the 14th General Election (GE14), change is afoot. Those most capable of maneuvering these shifting sands will have an edge in GE14, though it remains questionable if an online advantage will translate into real victories.

Changing Dynamics

This election cycle sees both familiar and new tactics being put into play. Social media’s ability to transcend space and its alternative hue makes it an efficient tool to reach out to first-time and young voters who eschew the standard Malaysian campaign fare of ceramahs (rallies) and walkabouts.

Political parties can also cast their election messaging nets further afield, targeting coastal belts and semi-rural areas that now enjoy better internet coverage than in 2013. Most importantly, it allows silent voters to remain informed while exercising covert support for chosen parties and candidates.

In opposition strongholds like Kelantan, where going to a Barisan Nasional (BN) rally can mean social suicide in certain small communities, social media is used to advance party messages more clandestinely to silent voters. As a result, BN branches in urban areas of Kelantan have been steering clear of large-scale rallies in the capital and focusing on building a strong presence in social media in tandem with door-to-door voter engagement tactics. Given that choosing another party over the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) — for instance, by supporting BN events — is seen as a move taken against Islam, social media outreach can be especially effective in these areas.

This has been supported by campaign messages being designed to be more interactive and entertaining, compensating for the less appealing one-way lecturing dominant at rallies.

Yet, on the whole, social media complements rather than substitutes a party’s physical presence, triggering more creative and diffused campaigning on the ground. The electorate now expects more from real-life campaigns; they want more interaction, entertainment, and opportunities to express their aspirations in less formal settings.

For example, physical GE14 campaigns in Kelantan are considered to be more festive than ever, given the variety of events offered ranging from night markets, daily free-food corners, art performances, informal talks at small cafes and restaurants, and convoys.

Other trends too indicate that it is not quite business-as-usual in the social media election space. For one, Malaysians increasingly depend on WhatsApp and Facebook for news. Controlling narratives requires dominating social media, and parties now cover their bases by creating WhatsApp groups to shower constituents with messages.

For another, technological advancements have allowed for more targeted micro-campaigning vis-à-vis big data analytics. Based on cultivated social media data, campaign messages are tailored and sent to individual users. In certain marginal constituencies, parties pay social media firms to send constituents these messages directly into their main inboxes, ensuring maximum media reach.

Most significantly, perhaps, social media — and the internet by extension — may not be the great equalizer it once was now that BN has launched a greater internet-based campaign apparatus. For the opposition, social media was once a boon that helped them overcome BN’s extensive, well-resourced election machinery. In 2008, the now-defunct Pakatan Rakyat (PR) rode the social media wave to relative victory: the opposition eroded BN’s two-thirds majority aided by popular blogs, as well as burgeoning grassroots support on Facebook and Twitter.

Thus far in GE14, BN’s well-resourced machinery is closing the gap in the online realm, just as the opposition’s social media lead is slowing down. BN has grown savvier with social media as larger funding pools allow it to splurge on more sophisticated campaigns. Rather than cybertroopers alone, for instance, it has started collaborating with influencers and local performers through #NegaraKru – a play on Negaraku (my country), the title of the Malaysian national anthem. BN also launched the augmented reality app Hebatkan Negaraku (make my country great) – all of which have the potential to go viral. Silent voters too will be unable to escape the political advertising blitz.

Comparatively, several opposition parties have largely relied on social media just to announce events in certain constituencies while young, under-resourced parties like Amanah are still playing catch-up in terms of building a sizeable social media presence.

For instance, BN’s viral Kelantanese rap video has alarmed PAS adherents, given that PAS has yet to come up with such a well-packaged campaign. Compared to BN, PAS’s social media space has so far only featured repostings of campaign videos and still images from the ground, as well as announcements, news sharing, and portfolios of candidates. Pakatan Harapan (PH) and its component parties, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and Amanah, have been struggling both financially and structurally to amplify their traditional campaigns across Malaysia. It has not been able to establish a massive internet-based campaign machinery similar to BN.

Additionally, the same groundswell of organic support that carried the opposition parties to clinching the popular vote in 2013 has become relatively muted. Voter apathy and a general unwillingness to publicly declare support due to fear of backlash within increasingly polarized communities may decelerate PH’s momentum in the social media space.

Malaysia’s Future

Given the above, what will social media’s impact be on the election and beyond?

While social media has been used to spread lackadaisical attitudes, it tends to encourage greater political participation. Though the #UndiRosak (spoil the vote) trended online, #PulangMengundi (return to vote) was far more popular as a social media movement.

What is more, social media also has an important role in vocalizing and normalizing dissent by providing platforms for alternative voices — all of which are important elements for social reform. It has the capability to make politics more appealing and relevant to young voters, and encourage grassroot initiatives. In Malaysia, this trend has birthed movements like @CarPoolGE14 and #PulangMengundi (return to vote) — events that may increase voter turnout in what is expected to be the closest-fought Malaysian election yet.

Yet post-election, the pervasive use of social media may see Malaysia go down the path of further polarization. Across the world, the growth of new media has helped catalyze the (re-)emergence of sharp social divisions. U.S. President Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, and the populist takeover in Jakarta’s 2017 gubernatorial election are a few examples of this. The prevalence of fake news, as well as the fact that social media algorithms are designed to create echo chambers, feeds users with information that reaffirms their biases. Malaysia’s new media landscape is at risk of becoming saturated with the same political personalities remaining dominant and the mobilization of identity politics to consolidate political support. This crowds out opportunities for new political discourses to emerge.

BN’s Game?

Social media may be an unparalleled tool for dissemination, but it has yet to prove its merit as a tool for election forecasting. Political allegiances are shifting in Malaysia, but it has become increasingly difficult to capture these movements, seismic or not, as the private, dispersed nature of this form of communication makes it a murky crystal ball.

Despite the hype, it remains to be seen whether a victory in the social media battleground will transform into real voter turnout. What is indisputable, however, is that the implications of social media use during GE14 will echo throughout the post-election fallout.

Najwa Abdullah is a Research Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Amalina Anuar is a Research Assistant with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This is part of a series of commentaries by RSIS on the 14th Malaysian General Election.