As Malaysia gets ready to head to the polls its politicians are surveying a notably different landscape to the one they campaigned on in 2008.
Back then, Twitter was a nascent social media startup and Facebook was a blip on the Malaysian population of 29 million, with barely 500,000 users. Today, it has more than 13 million users and, along with YouTube, is now a powerful means of engagement for Malaysia’s highly vocal electorate, which is heading to the polls in the coming weeks.
Political parties have ramped up their social media activity in the run up to polling day, aware perhaps that as long as they’re engaging on its various platforms they’re less likely to end up a wreckage on its shores.
That said, social media hasn’t been kind to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, with a couple of high profile gaffes earlier this year. In January a video clip emerged of a student forum where the head of the government-aligned Suara Wanita 1Malaysia (SW1M), Sharifah Zohra Jabeen, interupted and then admonished a student campaigner.
It wasn’t a serious incident, but her repeated demands to “Listen, listen, listen” was quickly picked up and the video was shared and pilloried by netizens and bloggers. The original clip has amassed 1.3 million views while two spoofs of the incident have both surpassed a million views each.
Similarly, a video of Prime Minister Najib getting booed by a crowd in Penang at a Chinese New Year concert featuring the K-Pop star Psy quickly became a lightening rod for social media discussion.
“I can confidently predict that this will be Malaysia’s first ‘social media elections’,” Najib told audiences at a social media event last week. “Of course, it will not be the biggest factor in the elections, but it is certainly increasing the tempo of political debate and bringing more voices into it.”
Malaysians are Asia’s most active Internet users: they consume 35% more digital media than Internet users in China and 150% more than users in India, according to global consultancy McKinsey, who added that most of the time is spent on social networking sites.
That trend has made it a necessity for politicians to engage voters through social media. The Prime Minister currently has 1.3 million followers on Twitter, a fan base of over 1 million on Facebook and a new Instagram profile. Opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, is also a prolific Twitter user with more than 20,000 Tweets to his name.
With large circulation drops since the larst election, Malaysia’s once powerful print media is confronting an existential crisis: fewer Malaysians are relying on it for their daily political news, which some experts attribute to a growing lack of credibility among voters.
“In terms of social media, I think politicians are ‘playing’: but the old organs are discredited and I don’t think they have the platforms to push their agenda online… they’ve lost a lot of traction with voters,” says Associated Professor, James Gomez, from the School of International Studies at Universiti Utara in Malaysia. “I think there is a shift in the mindset of the voter [in 2013]… the voter is less fearful.”
The coming weeks are likely to see a surge in online activity: in 2008 there was a 30% spike in the number of unique readers to blogs the day Malaysia’s Parliament was dissolved ahead of the election.
Almost every socio-political blogger enjoyed a surge in attention last time around: five prominent opposition coalition bloggers were eventually elected to the federal parliament.
Gomez says, that while the ruling BN coalition may have learned its lesson about engaging voters online, the ‘social media’ effect isn’t as significant as people think, even though it has done an enormous amount to open up public discussion in Malaysia since 2008.
“Social media has been influential in the intervening years by keeping important political issues in the forefront, on many occasions pushing the current government onto the back foot. In this regard it has been one front where the momentum for change in Malaysian politics has been kept bouyant,” he says.
However, on voter’s preference over the campaign period it is difficult to prove accurately how much influence social media will have, Gomez adds. It it is unlikely to win the election for either candidates because the time frame is too short.
“Whatever is going to happen [in Malaysia] is more or less happening already,” he says.