Preparing for a WhatsApp election

As the 14th General Election draws ever closer, politics takes centrestage in discussions among the Malaysian public. However, the perceived apathy and indifference amongst the nation’s youth towards politics makes the subject a hot topic.

To shed some light on the matter, the alumni of the School of Social Arts and Sciences, Monash University Malaysia organised a public forum - Insta Elections: Youth, Politics and Social Media.

The panelists included Dr Pauline Leong, senior lecturer, Sunway University; Fahmi Fadzil, Communications Director, Keadilan; and Zaidel Baharuddin, Special officer to the deputy minister of home affairs.

The session was moderated by Jowee Tee, educator and freelance writer, Monash School of Arts and Social Sciences alumnus.

“We at the school are very pleased to engage with our alumni. This is our first event of the year, and it’s a very timely and exciting one,” Professor Helen Nesadurai, Head of School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia said. She also added that it was a great start to more engagement with the alumni.

While many would assume that social media tools such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter would play a pivotal role in affecting the outcome of the upcoming elections, all three panellists agreed the prominence of WhatsApp would ensure it plays a crucial part towards moulding and shaping the views of the public about the upcoming elections.

Zaidel dubbed GE14 as the “encrypted election” as many are receiving or discussing news over WhatsApp, which encrypts its user’s messages from end-to-end. He added that there are some 24.5 million internet users in Malaysia, constituting to some 76.9% of the country’s 32 million population.

“Fifty one percent of this 24.5 million (people) consume their news from, or at least get some of it or discuss it on WhatsApp,” he said, quoting a report from Reuters, before adding that many people from all walks of life are in a WhatsApp chat group.

Similarly, Fahmi opined that GE14 would be a “WhatsApp election” as the messaging app is ubiquitous and omnipresent, while its encrypted nature makes it difficult to gauge public sentiment over political issues as there is no way of knowing what is being shared.

Further extolling on the role of the messaging app, Zaidel explained that SMS was used extensively in the early millennium, but that it was not cost-efficient to send an SMS blast to 10,000 people when each SMS costs 5 sen.

WhatsApp has provided them with an economical solution, enabling them to share and communicate messages with large groups of people while savings costs.

He added that it was also important to create content that is “perfect for the WhatsApp ecosystem”, such as videos that is no longer than one minute and 15 seconds, while WhatsApp has also given them a platform to debunk fake news quickly by responding to queries directly.

While mediums such as Facebook still play an important role in the dissemination of information, Leong highlighted that there is a concern among Facebook users over the legal ramifications of content they can share online, with users turning to WhatsApp instead as a safer option to avoid legal action being taken against them.

“Because WhatsApp is encrypted and at the most, you have to trust the people who are in your group that they won’t screen capture it (conversation) and give it to the authorities,” she said.

When speaking about how to bridge the gap between urban and rural constituents, Fahmi opined that “social media is necessary, but it’s not the be all and end all”, adding that shoe-leather politics remains pivotal.

“It’s hand to hand, door to door combat. It’s convincing person by person, heart to heart,” he said.

“One of the misconceptions that many politicians and political parties have is they believe social media is going to win them the war,” he said. While it remains important for politicians to connect with people at the grassroots level, Fahmi explained that it was also important for them to connect with the public beyond what has been said via social media to maintain authenticity.

Fahmi opined that social media and the internet would disrupt how political parties function in GE15 and GE16 when digital natives outnumber digital migrants, adding that what politicians or political parties may wrongly perceive as voters apathy among the nation’s youth, may lie in the fact that they do not know how to connect with them.

Zaidel explained that those within the 21 to 40 age group are a big chunk of voters and that it is important to continue engaging with them while Leong opined that many youths may be observing the political landscape, but that it would only be a matter of time before they realise how politics will affect their lives.