PETALING JAYA: In the 2008 general election, blogs and news sent by SMS shaped the political conversation in urban areas.
Those two campaign tools were seen as the main contributors to Barisan Nasional losing its two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time in history.
The 2013 general election was seen as Malaysia’s first “social media election” as politicians from both sides of the political divide aggressively used Facebook and Twitter to engage with voters.
GE14 has been called the “WhatsApp election”.
Apart from instant messaging platforms, political parties are doubling down not only on social media platforms but also on big data analytics and other new technologies.
Most Pakatan Harapan ceramah were streamed live on Facebook. Its chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 93, made his Instagram debut a month before Nomination Day.
“In the previous election, political parties were posting on social media organically, meaning they were not sponsored posts,” said Daryll Tan, co-founder of marketing technology agency OpenMinds Resources.
“But now many have big budgets to buy ads, sponsored posts or videos to reach a larger audience.”
The digital campaigning has gone beyond targeting a wider audience; political parties are also going after very specific demographics using big data analytics.
PKR vice-president Rafizi Ramli also heads Invoke Malaysia, an Opposition machinery that leverages on big data analytics.
Barisan Nasional Youth executive secretary Zaidel Baharuddin previously told The Star that it uses social media APIs (application programming interfaces) to gauge public sentiment on any particular topic.
The data helps to analyse voter sentiment, voting trends and statistics on voter demographics, allowing the user to micro-target fence-sitters and customise social media campaigns to individual voters.
This means different voters will have vastly different experiences and interaction with the political advertisements they are served on social media, said Dr Julian Hopkins, senior lecturer in communication at Monash University Malaysia.
He said such “dark advertising” – the ads are only visible to the publisher and the intended target group – has also been used in the United Kingdom and the United States.
He added that WhatsApp and mobile media are more important tools now than in GE13 as more people are accessing news through social media.
The Digital News Report 2017 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University found that Malaysia is the global leader for WhatsApp in terms of news consumption.
Tan noted that WhatsApp messages may be effective in reaching a wide audience but they have also become a channel for fake news.
For Tan, the most interesting digital trend for GE14 is how it has empowered out-of-state voters to participate in the elections despite the challenges of distance, postal voting and a mid-week polling day.
“Malaysians around the world are using social media platforms to gather and help one another get home and vote via the #PulangMengundi hashtag.
“There are also people coordinating help to bring back ballot papers for overseas voters,” he added.
On Twitter, cybertroopers – those paid to disseminate political propaganda on the Internet – have been replaced by automated accounts known as bots.
Reuters reported on April 20 that bots are flooding Twitter with tens of thousands of messages.
Twitter Inc told Reuters that it had suspended as many as 500 accounts that had been posting spam or malicious comments about the election.
It is unsure who is behind the bot activity but a flurry of such tweets drowned out the #PulangMengundi hashtag designed to help voters find sponsors for their travel expenses.
Hopkins said it will be seen tonight whether online sentiment is a reflection of ground sentiment when the results are announced.
The sentiments people share online are real, but he noted that not everyone shares what they think, so it is difficult to get an overall picture.
People do not vote solely based on what they see on social media and what they see on mainstream media, Hopkins said, adding that they will vote based on their life experiences and what they feel is best for the country.
Did you find this article insightful?