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Article

Social Media Impact


on Malaysias
13th General Election

Asia Pacific Media Educator


24(1) 95105
2014 University of
Wollongong, Australia
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/1326365X14539213
http://ame.sagepub.com

James Gomez

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Abstract
In the run up to Malaysias 13th general election, observers were curious to
know if social media would be able to impact the electoral outcome. In the
2008 general election, it was widely accepted that alternative online content
disseminated by blogs, party websites and alternative news portals determined
the electoral outcome. The opposition then, for the first time, denied the ruling
coalition a two-thirds majority in Parliament. By 2013 the role of social media
received widespread attention because of its exponential growth in Malaysia
since 2008, where there were 800,000 Facebook and 3,429 Twitter users to
2013 when the number increased to 13,220,000 for Facebook and 2,000,000 for
Twitter users. This commentary examines the role of social media in Malaysias
2013 general election and assesses its impact on the electoral outcome.

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Keywords
Electoral outcome, general election, Malaysia, political impact, social media

Introduction

Studies on social media influence in electoral campaigns and voter behaviour


show that the number of social media users or supporters online does not
necessarily translate into electoral success, such as the midterm election in
the US (Livne et al. 2011, p. 208) and the general election in Sweden in 2010
(Larsson & Moe 2010, p. 14). (Social media in the context of this commentary
is defined as the collection of online social interaction tools such as Facebook,
Twitter and YouTube.) In the Asia-Pacific, social media is likewise touted
as instrumental in garnering voter support by the incumbents and opposition
for example, the use of Facebook in President Benigno Ninoy Aquino IIIs
election in the Philippines and the use of Twitter by the Red Shirts in
Thailand (see Behnke 2010). However, popularity on social networking sites
such as Facebook does not necessarily result in electoral success (Leng Ho
2012, p. 108). The predictive power of Twitter in forecasting election results has

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James Gomez

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also been questioned, for instance in the case of the 2011 general election in
Singapore (Scoric et al. 2012, pp. 25892590), which is attributed to the digital
divide and unequal access to the mainstream media by opposition parties, such as
in Malaysia.
The electoral outcome in Malaysias 2008 general election where the ruling
Barisan Nasional (BN) lost its two-thirds majority control of parliament was
attributed by analysts to the online contents disseminated through blogs, opposition party websites and alternative news portals (Azhar 2013; Mohd Sani &
Zengeni 2010; Ndoma & Tumin 2011; Rajaratnam 2009; Suffian 2010; Weiss
2012). The former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi admitted that his biggest
mistake was to ignore cyber-campaigning over the Internet, and this was a
serious misjudgment that resulted in BNs loss of crucial seats in the 2008 polls
(AFP, 25 March 2008).
Social media usage in Malaysia had increased exponentially in the run up to
the 13th general election in May 2013.The total Internet penetration rose by about
15 per cent from 2008 to 2012. It is expected to increase by about 40 per cent to
reach 25 million in 2015 (New Straits Times 25 October 2013). Social media saw
a similar exponential growth. In 2008, there were 800,000 Facebook pages and
3,429 Twitter users in Malaysia. By 2013 these numbers had increased to
13,220,000 for Facebook and 2,000,000 for Twitter users (Forest-interactive.com
2013). This commentary, thus, poses: to what extent did the exponential growth in
social media erode the dominance of the mainstream media and influence voter
behaviour in the 13th general election?

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Malaysias Changing Media Landscape

Since the last general election in 2008, two mainstream Malay-language


newspapers, Berita Harian (weekend edition Berita Minggu) and Utusan
Malaysia and (weekend edition Mingguan Malaysia) saw a decline of 22.4 per
cent in its combined circulation (890,446) from 2008 to 2012. Similarly, The New
Straits Times, The Star and The Edge saw their combined circulation drop by 13.1
per cent to 813,994 in the same period. The dwindling circulation is also marked
by a drop in press freedom ranking by Reporter Without Borders and Freedom
House (see Tables 1 and 2).
Table 1a. Index of Press Freedom in Malaysia (Reporter Without Borders)
Index
Press Freedom
World Ranking
World Score

2004

20082009

20122013

Not Free
122nd
39.83

Not Free
132nd
39.50

Not Free
145th
42.73

Source: www.rsf.org

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Social Media Impact on Malaysias 13th General Election 97


Table 1b. Index of Press Freedom in Malaysia (Freedom House)
Index
Press Freedom
World Ranking
World Rating

2004

20082009

20122013

Not Free
154th
69

Not Free
141st
65

Not Free
146th
64

Source: www.freedomhouse.org
Note: Status: Free (030), Partly Free (3160), Not Free (61100).

Table 2. Malaysian Internet Penetration by Online Media on February 2012


News Online Media

Number of Penetration
2,221,763
1,171,578
769,772
1,858,649
1,117,124

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thestar.com.my
utusan.com.my
bharian.com.my
malaysiakini.com
themalaysianinsider.com

Source: Malaysian Digital Associations (MDA).

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In Malaysia, the pole position of public broadcast media has been replaced by
a fragmented viewership base. Viewers switch easily between public and private
broadcasters consuming a mixture of free-to-air, subscription TV and videos
on-demand for their entertainment needs, leaving those interested in political
news to turn to alternative news portals, which reportage are deemed to be more
independent and critical of public interest issues.
This drop in circulation of print media, low press freedom ranking and a
fragmented broadcast base coupled with political ownership of selected media
companies underscore the declining credibility of the mainstream media. An
election media monitoring by the University of Nottingham and Centre for
Independent Journalism in Malaysia noted that the alternative online media
were most even-handed in their election reportage than mainstream media
(Malaysiakini 2013b). Online news sites, such as Malaysiakini and the Malaysian
Insider, which are not covered by the countrys restrictive Printing Presses and
Publications Act, were deemed to be the medium of choice for the middle-class
Malaysians and those in living in urban areas (Asohan 2013; see Table 2).

New Media in GE12 (2008)


In 2008 the countrys opposition coalition were credited for using new media
blogs, party websites, Twitter, Facebook, alternative news portals and YouTube
to counter a hostile pro-government mainstream media to break the BNs
two-thirds majority control of parliament. Then, the only parties that had established a YouTube Channel were BN and the Democratic Action Party (DAP),
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Table 3. Index of Internet Freedom in Malaysia


Index

2004

Internet Freedom Status N/A


Total Score
N/A

2009

2011

2012

2013

Partly Free
41

Partly Free
41

Partly Free
43

Partly Free
44

Source: freedomhouse.org
Note: Status: Free (030), Partly Free (3160), Not Free (61100).

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a Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition member. Later, another PR coalition member, the
Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) created its channel in 2009.
The BN and PR coalition did not have a Facebook account in 2008, although
Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) established a Facebook page after the 2008 general
election. With regards to Twitter, DAP was the only party that started a Twitter
account one month after the 2008 general election results. The opposition leader,
Anwar Ibrahim, was the only politician who had a Twitter account before the
2008 general elections.
Although the Internet in Malaysia has been deemed to be free under the
Multimedia Bill of Guarantees, since 2008 Freedom House and Reporters Without
Borders have lowered their rankings of Malaysias Internet freedom (see Table 3).
The Freedom House reports attribute its low rankings to the periodic harassment
by government authorities and politicians who resort to civil and criminal
legislation to take action against bloggers and alternative media for posting antigovernment information on their websites.
It was against this backdrop that social media emerged as a popular platform in
the run up to the 2013 general elections. It was expected that most of the news
associated with the general election would be pushed through social media
platforms. It was thus not surprising that on March 2013, just a month before the
election dates were announced, the Malaysian Communications Multimedia
Commission (MCMC) declared that it was going to monitor the social media for
any abuses and seditious postings during the election (Bernama 2013).

Social Media in GE13 (2013)


The Prime Minister, Najib Abdul Razaks online presenceFacebook, Twitter
and blogsafter the 2008 election elevated BNs engagement with the electorate
leading up to the 13th general election. By April 2013, BNs Facebook boasted
55,000 likes while supporters of the PR had 92,000. Other fan and supporter pages
reflected smaller numbers (see Table 4).
On the Twitter front, Najib had 1,460,000 followers; Anwar Ibrahim had
267,000, Nik Aziz 94,000 and Lim Kit Siang 89,000 (see Table 5). Put together,
Pakatan leaders combined could only muster a third of Najibs followers.1 When
the numbers of BN and Najib were combined with that of PR and its leaders,
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Social Media Impact on Malaysias 13th General Election 99


Table 4. Fans Page on Facebook of Political and Leader Parties in Malaysia on April 2013
Political Party

Like Fans Page Party Leader

Barisan Nasional (BN)


Pakatan Rakyat
Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)
Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)
Democratic Action Party (DAP)

55,000
92,000
29,177
138,317
510,230

Like Fans Page

Najib (BN)
PR Leaders
Anwar Ibrahim (PKR)
Nik Aziz (PAS)
Lim Kit Siang (DAP)

1,58,000
80,000
480,000
889,000
120,000

Source: www.facebook.com (17 April 2013).

Table 5. Twitter Followers of Political and Leader Parties in Malaysia in April 2013
Followers

Najib (BN)
PR Leader
Anwar Ibrahim (PKR)
Nik Aziz (PAS)
Lim Kit Siang (DAP)

1,460,000
267,000
94,000
89,000

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Source: www.twitter.com (17 April 2013).

Party Leader

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24,000
1,900
27,000
1,200
27,000

Followers

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Political Party
Barisan Nasional (BN)
Pakatan Rakyat (PR)
Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)
Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)
Democratic Action Party (DAP)

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it placed the ruling coalition well ahead in social media numbers on the eve
of elections. In February 2013, two-and-a-half months before Malaysias 13th
general election (GE13), this prompted the Prime Minister to declare that the
country would experience its first social media election (Zahiid 2013).
Apart from the use of Facebook and Twitter, one key social media observation
in Malaysias 13th general election was the extensive use of online videos to
spread the message. In the run up to the elections there was already a consolidation of online video-based platforms in Malaysias alternative media landscape.
These included the re-branded KiniTV (formerly Malaysiakinitv), MobTV.my
and the staronline.tv. Others like Free Malaysia Today had videos embedded in
the homepage. Political parties and candidates were also uploading their own
election video messages, but the bulk of the video postings came from individual
citizen journalists. These comprised videos of political spoofs, scenes outside
nomination centres on nomination day, clips of parties and candidates on the
election campaign trail, attendance at political rallies, incidents at polling stations
and news reports.
Noteworthy were videos and pictures of those caught on camera for election vandalism, mischief and thuggish behaviourcaptioned as the samseng
videoswhich quite often went viral. One video captured aggressive election
flag installers planting BN flags in between Pakatan flags (YouTube 2012a).
When confronted by supporters from the other camp, the installers damaged several Pakatan flags and hurled abuses before taking off. In another video, several
youths in BN T-shirts on motorbikes and carrying BN flags were captured shouting abuses across to the opposition camp on the shoulder of the road. The video
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later showed BN supporters physically attacking PR supporters. The video clip at


the end urged viewers to reject election violence (YouTube 2014). Other incidents
captured on video and posted on YouTube include car vandalism or disruption
of campaign activities and election rallies by rival factions. One video shows
UMNO supporters trying to disrupt a public rally where Anwar Ibrahim was
scheduled to speak (YouTube 2012b). It is unclear, however, if the videos had an
impact on party supporters, especially the youth, in translating negative feelings
into violence.

Social Media Election Advertising in GE13

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In the 2013 elections, Najib Razak was the most popular political leader based on
the number of Twitter followers and Facebook fans. In terms of images and messages over social media, the content shows that BN projected a singular branding
with a single image of Najib as the iconic leader. Part of BNs and Najibs strong
presence online can be attributed to monies spent on election advertising. Unlike
previous elections, part of the budget for election advertising was diverted to
online advertising. For instance, the MalayMailOnline reported on 15 August
2013 that according to international media-buying agency Vizeum Media, the BN
government spent an all-time high of RM531 million (USD 162 million) with the
Prime Ministers Department taking up a huge share of Putrajayas advertising
expenditure by spending RM264 million (USD 81 million) for the first six months
of the year, five times more than it did in 2012 (MalayMailOnline 15 April 2013).
The Malaysian Insider reported that BN went on the offensive in purchasing
online advertising space early for the election.
Consumer analyst Nielsen Media Research reported that the Prime Ministers
Office spent RM67.8 million (USD 21 million) on advertising in March 2013
and in February 2013 spent RM36.1 million (USD 11 million) for the purpose
of disseminating propaganda through the media (Zurairi 2013). The Malaysia
Insider reported that the @barisanasional Twitter account had been in operation from May 2012 as a Twitter Promoted Account, which is advertised by
Twitter. The account can cost at least RM45,900 (USD 15,000) for a three-month
campaign using its BN initials to maintain a website, Better Nation with linked
advertisements to other sites (Zurairi 2013).
On the other hand, PR was unable to effectively portray a singular coalition
branding or a convincing single coalition leadership icon. For instance, in all its
posters online and offline, the opposition coalition featured all three of its leaders
and maintained separate social media platforms at the party level. Hence as a
coalition, PRs identity and messages over social media was visually disparate as
three distinct components. PR also had to manage BNs paid negative advertising
in the mainstream media and respond to BNs online strategy to circulate lapses
by the opposition coalition through Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Negative
campaigning and counter campaigning on social media defined the 13th general
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Social Media Impact on Malaysias 13th General Election 101

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election. Yet during the cause of the elections MCMC, which earlier warned
that it will take action against those who spread misinformation and falsehoods
circulated via the internet, did not take any significant action.
Nevertheless, the bulk of alternative materials shared over social media portrayed Pakatan party members as the victims of BNs negative campaigning.
Social media postings during the election period showed that it had become the
consolidated platform for negative campaigning. In spite of the financial and
image disadvantage, social media did act as an election advertising leveller for
the opposition in relation to the establishments mainstream media and directmarketing advantage. Social media acted as a counter-frame to the negative
reporting of, and election advertising against opposition parties and their candidates, by the pro-government mainstream media. This perhaps explains why BN
could not improve significantly its electoral showing.

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Social Medias Role and Impact on GE13s


Electoral Outcome

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In terms of social medias foremost role in GE13, it may lie in its ability to
mobilize high voter turnout. From the context of voter mobilization, for instance,
compared to the 2008 elections when turnout was only 76 per cent, in 2013 the
voter turnout was highest in Malaysian electoral history with 84.8 per cent of
eligible voters who cast their ballots. This underscores the point that the dominant
role of social media in elections lies in its capacity to mobilize and politicize the
citizenry. Here the term social media election, a term first used to describe the
2008 presidential election campaign by Barack Obama, who used new media
technology to motivate young American voters to cast their vote is relevant.
Chang and Bae noted that social media such as Twitter can turn elections
into social elections. The significance of the term lies in the way social media
can influence those who traditionally do not vote to turn out during an election
(Chang & Bae 2012, p. 36). While social media do influence more voters to turn
out during elections, the influence of social media in the Malaysian general election needs to be assessed in the context of the peoples angst with key election
issuescorruption, racial-based policies, cronyism and religious extremism
and unequal access to the mainstream media by the opposition parties. Malaysias
13th general election was arguably not a social media election at least not for the
ruling BN when we consider the electoral results.
In terms of social medias impact on electoral results, despite BNs financial
resources and political advertising in the mainstream media and its online presence, it only managed to secure 133 seats compared to 89 by the opposition PR. It
was the BN coalitions worst electoral performance since 1969, dropping further
from its 140 seats in the 2008 general election. Despite the time and resources
dedicated by both the BN and Najib to improve their online presence in the lead
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Table 6. Malaysian Voters, 2008 and 2013


Matter
Total Votes
Spoiled Votes
Total Votes Received

2008

2013

10,740,227
177,256
7,942,803

13,268,002
173,661
11,256,545

2008

2013

50.2%
46.75%

45.5%
53.5%

Source: spr.gov.my (16 August 2013).

Table 7. Popular Votes for Political Parties


Political Party
Barisan Nasional
Pakatan Rakyat

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Source: spr.gov.my (16 August 2013).

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up to the 2013 general election, they could not arrest the erosion of support
for the government from Malaysian voters, who were keen to hear of significant fundamental reforms and governmental actions in rising costs of living,
public corruption and equal opportunities for all Malaysians. As Leng Ho (2012,
p. 108) notes, popularity on social media platforms need not necessarily translate
into votes.
On the other hand, PR won five more seats from its 2008 results. For two
elections running, the opposition was able to deny the ruling BN a two-thirds
majority in Parliament. Issues such as standing up to corruption, democracy and
human rights, equality for all races and multiculturalism found resonance among
voters (see Tables 6 and 7 for a profile of the popular votes).

Conclusion: Social Media Predictive


Power Remains Elusive
Social media in Malaysia has been influential in keeping important political issues
in the forefront in the last five years prior to the 2013 elections. During this time,
both sides were pushing content through the various Facebook pages, Twitter
accounts and video portals. For the BN it did not significantly alter the results in
its favour. The opposition social media campaign was eclipsed by BNs mainstream media presence and paid advertising, yet it was able to manage some
improved showing at the polls. The influence of social media on the outcomes of
the 13th Malaysian general election is accumulative and culminated during the
period from nomination to polling day.
In Malaysias 13th general election, the difference between the role of social
media in facilitating voter mobilization and its ability to impact electoral result
holds explanatory potential to understand the influence of social media on voter
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behaviour during any election. But the predictive power of social media remains
elusive in the Malaysian political context. The power structure, the ruling coalitions incumbent advantage and access to government resources, and the politicization of ethnicity and Islam by both the ruling coalition and opposition parties
are played out in various shades on the Internet. This explains why the Malaysian
polls ended in dispute over alleged election irregularities.
The opposition led a series of post-election rallies to express dissatisfaction
with the results claiming that irregularities in the electoral system robbed them of
victory. The Election Integrity Project based in the University of Sydney and
Harvard University, which studies the quality of electoral systems against
international standards, scored Malaysia at 48.4 out of 100 points (The Election
Integrity Project 2014). The report identified imbalanced campaign coverage by
the mainstream media as one of the weakest links in the election cycle.
Hence, analysts need to be aware that social media only forms one part of the
media narrative in the Malaysian 13th general election. There are other narratives
formed by the mainstream print media, the broadcast media, paid advertising and
direct marketing. Nevertheless, social media will continue to be an important tool
for the ruling and opposition coalitions in the interim years leading up to the next
elections. However, the political issues that have been simmering for decades will
prove to be more critical in determining the results of the next election in 2018
than the assumed inherent power of social media.

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1. While these numbers are impressive, it is important to note that there are accounts
that can be set up to artificially amplify messages or shore up a party or leaders popularity. Digital News Asia, which reported on the use of an online tool to investigate
the veracity of social media networks argued that only 20 or 40 per cent of a leaders
Facebook followers in Malaysia are genuine (Asohan, 16 April 2013).

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James Gomez, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow at the Estonian Institute of


Humanities, Tallinn University, Estonia. He is a policy and communications
specialist with more than two decades experience in academia, think-tanks, intergovernmental agencies and non-governmental organizations. He has worked
full-time in Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand and the
United Kingdom in organizational leadership roles. For his use of the Internet for
political communication, Gomez was identified as one of Asias 50 most powerful communicators by Asiaweek (2001), An Asian Trailblazer by Newsweek
and an Asian Making a Difference by the Far Eastern Economic Review.
E-mail: jamesgomez@hotmail.com

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