GE13: Politweet aims to make sense of social media noise

  • Social media may not win you votes, but its effectiveness as a communications medium cannot be underestimated
  • Politweet hopes to make sense of it all with non-partisan research and analysis on the political use of the medium

THERE has been much written about the Malaysian people’s ‘political awakening’ since the last general election in 2008, with many attributing much of it to the increase in Internet penetration and the growth of alternative media, blogs and social networks.
 
In fact, just before he was ‘ousted’ because the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, had won by only the slimmest of margins, former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told an investors' conference that it had been “a serious misjudgement” on the Barisan’s part to have relied solely on the government-controlled mainstream media.
 
The Opposition, having little or no access to such media, had instead depended on the Internet and new media platforms.
 
His successor Najib Razak was keen not to make the same mistake, launching two personal Facebook pages and a Twitter account, and even maintaining a blog of sorts on his 1Malaysia site. The Barisan itself has also trained what it calls ‘cybertroopers’, to counter what it describes as lies and misinformation on the Internet.
 
The mainstream media has run many stories on how the Malaysian ‘Twittersphere’ reacted to news of the dissolution of Parliament on April 3, to pave the way for the nation’s 13th general election (GE13), while Najib has described it as Malaysia’s “first social media election,” The Malaysian Insider reported.
 
GE13: Politweet aims to make sense of social media noiseThere are currently about 13.6 million Facebook users in Malaysia out of a 28.3 million-strong population – or a 48% penetration rate, according to monitoring website socialbakers.com. The Oxford Internet Institute says that Malaysia, along with Brazil, has the highest Twitter use in the world, the independent news portal reported.
 
But while others have also argued convincingly that the Internet, in particular social media, does not directly lead to political change, there is no denying that there is a lot of focus on the role social media is playing in the political sphere, and will play in GE13.
 
With so much focus comes a lot of white noise too. This is where Politweet hopes to come in: To separate the wheat from the chaff and figure out what’s really going on in cyberspace.
 
Politweet is a non-partisan research firm analyzing interactions among Malaysians using social media. We have been monitoring politics and activism on Twitter since 2009 and expanded to include Facebook last December,” its founder and admin Ahmed Kamal Nava (pic above) tells Digital News Asia (DNA).
 
There are three main areas his organization looks at, he says in an email interview:

  1. Researching the socio-economic and political interest of Malaysians;
  2. Developing analytical tools for Twitter research; and
  3. Creating interactive, data-driven sites about socio-economic and political topics.

In terms of research, Politweet is looking into:

  • Determining the number of Malaysians interested in politics and domestic issues on Twitter/Facebook;
  • Estimating the partisanship of Malaysians on Twitter/Facebook;
  • Determining what topics get the most response;
  • Determining the effectiveness of social movements on Twitter/Facebook;
  • Creating a predictive model to identify trends;
  • Discovering behavioral patterns and social groups within the Twitterverse;
  • Establishing metrics to describe influence; and
  • Identifying influential Malaysians and politicians on Twitter

 
Hardening mind-sets
 
Not surprisingly, Ahmed Kamal believes that social media will play a major role in GE13, especially in urban areas, although he adds it will also have an impact in semi-urban and rural areas – but perhaps not in the way political parties think.
 
“Urban areas have the most users, and candidates in these areas will benefit the most from using social media,” he says. “But many people work in townships and have families staying in small towns and kampungs (villages). They will bring home whatever political message they acquired in the city. It’s not easy to measure that sort of real-world impact.

“Having said that, it’s worth pointing out that social media enables us to be more connected with like-minded people. It hardens the mind-set of people who are leaning towards either Barisan or Pakatan Rakyat (the Opposition), making it harder to convert people from the other side.
 
“When it comes to socializing with each other, we tend to live in our own bubble online,” he adds.
 
Ahmed Kamal says he has also been trying to convince political leaders for years that Twitter is the place people will get the latest ceramah (political addresses) updates from -- both in terms of live reports and notifications of venue.
 
“But they keep seeing Facebook and Twitter as ‘the same thing’ when they are actually complementary mediums of communication,” he says.
 
GE13: Politweet aims to make sense of social media noiseThe chaff
 
The problem with the Twitter followers and Facebook friends of many politicians’ or party accounts is the high number of ‘egghead’ or ‘silhouette’ accounts – accounts that seem to have been set up to primarily to artificially amplify messages or shore up a leader’s popularity.
 
For instance, applying the Fake Followers tool to the Twitter account of current caretaker premier Najib, who boasts of nearly 1.5 million followers, shows only 20% (or 300,000 – still a respectable number) that are truly genuine (click pic on right to enlarge).
 
GE13: Politweet aims to make sense of social media noiseThe same tool applied to Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim shows a much higher incidence of genuine accounts at 40% (click pic on left to enlarge) of 266,000+ plus followers, but for a total of approximately 106,000.
 
Fake Followers works by taking a sample of follower data – up to 1,000 records depending on how ‘popular’ the account is – and assessing them against a number of simple spam criteria. “On a very basic level, spam accounts tend to have few or no followers and few or no tweets. But in contrast they tend to follow a lot of other accounts,” the developers say, adding that the results are relatively accurate especially for accounts with more than 50,000 followers.
 
This issue is further complicated by the fact that Barisan has at least 5,000 youth ‘cyber-troopers’ whose only job seems to be to retweet party messages. How does one discount these kinds of ‘sock puppet’ accounts?
 
“I am working on a way to isolate spammers on Twitter. They have gotten smarter since I unintentionally outed them during the #Merdeka55 event,” says Ahmed Kamal, referring to a Twitter campaign revolving around Malaysia’s independence anniversary last year, where the hashtag concerned trended worldwide.
 
“Unfortunately I won't be able to share my methods publicly for fear that they may devise a better way to avoid detection.
 
“For Facebook, there is no automated way to detect fake accounts. Though I have found certain traits Facebook fake accounts have in common with fake Twitter accounts, Facebook’s privacy settings prevent me from going through people’s profiles in a thorough manner,” he admits.

Ahmed Kamal says there are two main types of ‘spammers’ -- one uses Tweetdeck or some other app to automatically spam. “Those are easy to detect, and Twitter does remove them from Twitter Search.
 
“The other type are what I suspect to be real people paid to retweet messages (from or those mentioning certain politicians). Maybe they are all in an office somewhere with multiple web browsers open so they can frequently retweet from certain accounts. It’s also possible they are using a computer program to automate the web browser.
 
“It’s harder to detect these people, so Twitter doesn't block them; but I have found a possible way -- which is the one I can't share,” he says.
 
GE13: Politweet aims to make sense of social media noiseJust recently, Politweet released a report on the total Facebook likes of potential voters categorized by parties (click to enlarge graphic). The Democratic Action Party (DAP), part of the Opposition alliance, had the most at 515,740; followed by the United Malays National Organization (Umno), the mainstay of the ruling Barisan coalition at 332,120; with the Opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR) not far behind at 312,040.
 
“Umno overtook PKR in FB likes this month; in March PKR led Umno by 1,600 likes,” Politweet reported.
 
But why is Ahmed Kamal doing this? He also answered a short Q&A with DNA:
 
DNA: What motivated you to launch this site?

Ahmed Kamal: I've been an avid fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart since 2003. I can probably recognize more American politicians than Malaysian ones.
 
One thing that amazed me about the show was how quickly they were able to compile a list of contradictory statements that a politician said in the past. The only way to do that is with an archive, and in 2009 when I saw Malaysian politicians tweeting I saw an opportunity. I thought to myself, better to grab data first, and figure out what to do with it later.

Over time, as Twitter made more data available for public use, I found other ways to use the data and developed some goals for Politweet. Those goals are outlined in our site.

DNA: When did you experience a political awakening?

Ahmed Kamal: I joined PKR in 1999, though after that election I was quite inactive. I worked briefly in Anwar Ibrahim's office in late 2007 and did some freelance work for Pakatan politicians after March 2008. Today I focus on being non-partisan and don't involve myself in any internal party matters.

DNA: How many people help out at the site?

Ahmed Kamal: I handle all the research and some of the coding. Someone else helps out with some of the coding. When there is need for data entry work I get people to assist. If you’re talking full-time, it’s just me as unfortunately, Politweet does not earn any income.

DNA: What do you hope to achieve?

Ahmed Kamal: I hope to develop a set of tools for journalists and researchers to track their own topics. If I had time I would also open up subscriber access to Politweet's data to share statistics and summaries on politicians (for the public).
 
I have had many conversations with Twitter's legal team and the only way I can share detailed data with others is on collaborative projects. So I cannot share what would be most useful, which is an archive of every tweet and mention of politicians on Twitter. But summaries are okay.
 
I’m also looking into the possibility of using sentiment analysis to gauge public response to an issue, as done previously for (PKR strategy director Rafizi Ramli's) proposal to abolish PTPTN (student loans), and the response to Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat (an Opposition rally held in January).
 
I would also like to do consulting work because few people can offer detailed statistics like I do. I am still working on some other metrics and services to offer to social media marketing agencies.

DNA: I hope you will resist the temptation by the politicians to get you to manipulate the data to the advantage of their party!

Ahmed Kamal: I try to balance what information I put out so it’s not too biased to either side. I have a number of friends involved in Pakatan campaigning, so sometimes I get to know about their events sooner than Barisan events. My Barisan supporter friends do not campaign for the coalition, so I don't have a good channel to find out about important events on Twitter like #ManifestoBN (when the ruling coalition announced its Election Manifesto).

I have been told by certain individuals to focus my site on only one political side, but I refused because you only know how good you are if you have statistics from both sides. Hardcore party supporters don't like to hear that, and they're the ones who are most likely to know about upcoming events.
 
I also have to deal with misinformation. It is very difficult to stay fair, but I am committed to that. 
 
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