I expect the general election on May 9 will have some surprises, not just in terms of contestants and parties. The space to watch, I think, is social media, where a break from the norm is foreseeable.
I was surprised and encouraged to see the hive of activity online to mobilise Malaysians to vote. Ordinary people are helping fund others who can’t afford the journey back home to vote. Others are arranging car pools or offering free rides. And a number of groups on Twitter and Facebook are organising impressive initiatives to raise funds and charter buses.
In the space of a week, #UndiRabu (Vote Wednesday) collected RM140,000 of funds (as of last Wednesday) for 1,000 free bus seats on 40 journeys across the country. Now their challenge, according to one of their organisers, Lee Wai Hong, is finding the buses to ferry people!
#PulangMengundi (Return to Vote) is doing something similar. It quickly went viral, and at one time was the top Malaysian trending topic in Twitter. Three days after it was started on April 13, its website had already had 25,000 visits.
Despite being targeted by cybertroopers and spambots, stopping some looking for assistance, the organisers are carrying on and cleaning up the site. Other initiatives include a few Jom Balik Undi (Let’s Go Back to Vote) groups on Facebook and #CarpoolGE14 on Twitter.
This is an amazing show of support. But I expect there’s more to come, going by what has happened elsewhere. Since Barack Obama’s win in the 2008 US Presidential election, partly credited to a strong web-based campaign, the impact of social media has been a rising force in elections around the world.
“There are two things every election expert agrees on: what happens on social media, and Facebook in particular, will have an enormous effect on how the country votes; and no one has any clue how to measure [this],” wrote Alex Hern in The Guardian last year on the British elections in June. He described social media as “one of the most powerful players” but also “opaque”.
Every modern political campaign now has a dedicated social media team waiting for the right opportunities to grab online attention, Liam Corcoran observed last year in Newswhip, a news data analytics company.
The official Facebook page of French President Emmanuel Macron put up an average of 10 posts a day in the final week before elections last May. During the week of elections in Germany, the right-wing AfD party posted 60 times on its Facebook page, with an average engagement rate of almost 10,000 per post, Newswhip reports. And it managed to establish itself as a political force in the election results – social media provides a platform for voices barely heard once.
Now consider this: Malaysians are very active social media users. The number of Malaysians online rose to 77% in 2016, a survey found – a big jump from 56% in 2013. Most of these Internet users (around 70%) have a social media account. According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital New Report, our use of the WhatsApp text messaging tool is one of the highest in the world.
I can attest to these figures personally. Only a portion of my British friends are on Facebook and some are barely active. (Some younger Brits prefer Instagram and Snapchat.) But the vast majority of my Malaysians friends are on Facebook and are active.
What implications does that have for the election? Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli, who heads Invoke Malaysia, a data analytics firm that works with social media, has said that social media will be the “number one battleground, more important than the ceramah” (public talk).
It seems to me that local politicians aren’t leveraging this that much, relatively. When I asked a political pundit friend about this, though, he disagreed. Lots of politicians are using social media, he said. They just aren’t doing it in English.
Still, Umno was concerned enough to mobilise an army of 4,000 “cyber troopers”. And Umno Supreme Council member Datuk Seri Hasan Malek has called on party members to fully utilise WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter to reach people.
But there’s a wild card out there. The most active on social media are the young – but will they even bother voting? Watan, a civil society group encouraging youth voter registration, has been trying to address this. A joint survey last August by Watan and pollster Merdeka Centre found the majority of young people were disillusioned by politics; 66% did not trust politicians. Watan believes political parties need to consider how they are engaging young people.
It’s worth considering that the young elsewhere have used social media to flex their political muscles beyond the ballot box. US politician Les Gibson was running unopposed for the Maine House state seat when he insulted prominent teen leaders who are gun control advocates and survivors of the February mass shooting incident in a Parkland school in Florida. A strong backlash followed online – and Gibson eventually dropped out of the race.
Perhaps an issue might capture our youth in the upcoming election. Then maybe they too will become a show of force.