Social media and the future of Malaysian democracy

The recent general elections in May 2013 confirmed that the impact of social media in the 2008 general elections ‘tsunami’ was not a one-off, and social media have become cemented into the media strategies of the competing political parties, including members of the civil society.

There is as yet little in-depth research into the role of the social media in the 2013 elections, but some of the academic staff at the School of Arts and Social Sciences in Monash University Sunway campus already have some insights and are able to point to ways forward.

Dr Hah Foong Lian - School of Arts and Social Sciences
Dr Hah Foong Lian - School of Arts and Social Sciences

“Social media is important because it’s a new tool and everyone is using it, and it obviously played a big role in the 2013 elections among the Internet-connected, urban and middle class voters,” said Dr Hah Foong Lian, Lecturer in Journalism.

Dr Hah began her research into the role of blogs after the 2008 12th general elections.

“My doctoral research focused more on looking at whether blogging, specifically, could promote public discussion on national issues.Now, I’m generally looking at the same questions and trying to see how both sides of the political divide are using social media,” she said.

Dr Hah said while most observers said that it was blogs that won the election for the opposition in 2008, she believes that this is a “rather simplistic understanding of social media.”

By simple comparison of the use of social media and the 2013 election results, the online medium did not seem to have helped the ruling coalition. On the other hand, the Opposition use of social media has not managed to topple the Barisan Nasional in the just-concluded elections.

The socio-political environment must be considered in order to obtain a better understanding of the impact of new media on electoral politics, she added.

Dr Julian Hopkins - School of Arts and Social Sciences
Dr Julian Hopkins - School of Arts and Social Sciences

Dr Julian Hopkins, Lecturer in Communication, and also from Monash University Sunway campus, agreed, saying that voters did not vote against or for a government based only on what they read online, but following life experiences.

Nonetheless, online media cannot be ignored: “With social media, even politically apathetic people may be forced to face social and political issues. For example, if my friend on Facebook posts something political on his wall, I’m in a way compelled to think about it and maybe also respond,” he said.

He also pointed to the use of political advertising, “In the recent elections, advertisements on YouTube were an important way in which messages were pushed to people who may otherwise not pay attention - especially the younger generation. In some cases, videos that were already being circulated online by pro-opposition entities were shown in these advertisements.”

Dr Hah said that it would be interesting to watch the cyberspace over the next couple of months to understand the dynamics and political play during the coming Umno elections in October.

One interesting study would be to compare the coverage of the mainstream media and the postings of bloggers in the lead-up to the Umno election to obtain a better understanding of the power struggle and tension in the country’s dominant ruling party, she added.

Dr Hopkins pointed out that BN had developed a sophisticated and extensive social media campaign, mirroring corporate branding strategies. Nonetheless, both Dr Hah and Dr Hopkins agree that in spite of these many efforts, the effectiveness of the social media for BN has not yet been proven.