WhatsApp: methods and methodologies

In recent years WhatsApp has emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing platforms and one of the most important for consumption and dissemination of news, for political organising and for everyday communication. Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017 shows a flattening out in the growth of social media use for news consumption as people turn to WhatsApp, which is more private and does not filter news algorithmically – a phenomenon reflected in changes in modes of news consumption in Malaysia specifically. WhatsApp also emerged as a significant player in the 2018 Malaysia General election for opposition organising and information sharing. WhatsApp’s growing importance calls out for scholarly investigation, including about how the app may privilege the circulation of certain kinds of information over others, afford certain cultures of use, or shape social formations in particular ways. But WhatsApp cannot be studied using conventional digital methods relying on, for example, the extraction of large scale data sets via accessing platforms Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). In this workshop, we bring together a number of digital media scholars from the region – Australia, Singapore and Malaysia – whose research is concerned with WhatsApp to compare and share knowledge and strategies for researching this platform.

Organising team: Emma Baulch, Susan Leong, Ariadna Matamoros Fernandez

Participants include: Amelia Johns, Natalie Pang, Pauline Leong, Serena Leow, Tan meng Yoe

The workshop opens with a public talk on November 1, 2018, 10am-12pm:

WhatsApp,‘Dark social activism’ and fake news: A view of youth participation before and after Malaysia’s GE14 Election
Amelia Johns, Alfred Deakin Institute

On May 9 th 2018, Barisan Nasional (BN) the longest serving government in any democratic country in the world to that date, was swept from power in Malaysia’s GE14 election. In the lead up, media and political scholars claimed that, as opposed to GE13 where social media participation was understood to have influenced the election outcome, GE14 would be the ‘WhatsApp election’. The explanation provided was that WhatsApp was the main media used in the circulation of ‘fake news’, and, that in a context of increased government surveillance and censure of political chat on social media, that encrypted chat apps enabled a ‘safe space’ for citizens to connect with one another and engage in politics (Leong 2018). This paper will examine these claims in light of findings from a 3 year project involving interviews and ethnographic observation of 30 Malaysian-Chinese youths’ (aged 18-24) and their digital citizenship practices, as well as interviews with key policymakers shaping Malaysian digital citizenship policy.

Amelia Johns is a Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute. Her work spans the fields of youth studies, digital media studies and migration studies, with a focus on youth citizenship and young people’s negotiation of racism and citizenship in digitally networked publics. Her current research project examines Malaysian-Chinese youth digital practices, and the role the digital plays in negotiations of political participation, citizenship and belonging. She is the author of Battle for the Flag (2015), an empirical investigation of youth performances of racism, nationalism and whiteness in the Cronulla riots of 2005. She is also co-editor of recently published book Negotiating Digital Citizenship: Control, Contest, Culture (with Anthony McCosker and Son Vivienne, 2016)