GE13: Technology and democracy, like a horse and carriage
By A. Asohan April 4, 2013
- While GE13 will be won at the ballot box, most Malaysians expect cyberspace to be a key front
- While the Internet may not directly influence votes, its role in democratization cannot be under-estimated
MALAYSIA goes to the polls within the next 60 days now that Prime Minister Najib Razak has announced that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (the official title of the country’s ruler), Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah, had consented to the dissolution of Parliament.
The 13th General Election (GE13) is expected to be the most closely-fought ever in the country’s history. The ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, is fighting to regain the two-thirds majority it lost in the 2008 election, while political pundits believe the Opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat, has a credible chance to end 56 years of Barisan rule.
With the stakes so high, and a possibility of a new party sitting in Putrajaya, the country’s administrative capital, it’s no wonder that Pakatan politicians have predicted that GE13 would be the “dirtiest election” ever.
And while the war will be won at the ballot box, most Malaysians expect cyberspace to be a key front, especially social media channels. According to 2011 data from the World Bank, at least 61% (nearly 18 million) of Malaysia’s population of 28 million has access to the Internet, while other studies, including TNS, have painted Malaysians as voracious users of social networks – about 80% of its Internet population has Facebook accounts.
It’s no wonder then that Najib said that GE13 would be Malaysia’s first social media election. “Of course, it will not be the biggest factor in the elections, but it is certainly increasing the tempo of political debate,” he said after launching the Malaysia Social Media Week 2013 summit, English daily The Star reported in late February.
With all the mainstream media outlets either directly or indirectly owned by the political parties of the Barisan coalition, and with a slew of laws to keep the traditional press in line, many Malaysians turn to the Internet for alternative views and usually more balanced and objective reporting.
Because the Opposition has little or no access to mainstream media outlets, it has always depended heavily on the Internet to disseminate information to the rakyat (citizenry). Its unprecedented wins in the 12th General Election in 2008 was largely attributed to its skillful use of online media, especially social media networks such as Facebook and the then nascent Twitter.
It’s a lesson that Barisan has taken to heart, and despite its control of the mainstream media, the ruling coalition has launched many offensives to win back the online population. This includes initiatives led by the youth wing of the dominant party in Barisan, Umno (United Malays National Organization).
Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin recently launched a Barisan Nasional Youth Cyber Activists gathering attended by 500 Barisan “cyber activists,” adding that 3,000 such “cyber-activists have been trained,” The Star reported.
“The cyber world is the Opposition's mainstream media as they have been using this platform for a long time,” he was quoted as saying by the English daily. “In the cyber world, we (Barisan) are the ‘away team’.”
With smartphone penetration having reached about 30% of the population, and with 4G-enabled smartphone shipments expected to grow by more than 400% this year according to IDC, Khairy also announced that Barisan was developing a smartphone app for the iOS and Android platforms. The app will feature news and updates on issues related to the general election, The Star reported.
The Barisan is hedging its bet though. Last month, industry regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission – which is not an independent body but sits under the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture – was instructed by the ministry to look into suitable methods to “monitor and control the use of social media” during the election.
Social media war … not
While pointing out the declining circulation of mainstream newspapers in Malaysia and the growing influence of the Internet and social media in particular, Associate Professor Dr James Gomez recently said that the ‘social media election’ is already over.
Writing in independent news portal The Malaysian Insider, he said, “… it is the net impact of social media’s political influence in the last five years and not just the campaign period that analysts need to consider.”
While conceding that most news will be transmitted via social media, he however said that “the unfettered influence of social media during the election campaign is likely to be negligible because of the short campaign period in Malaysia. Further, social media’s direct impact on voter preference during any election campaign period is additionally difficult to prove accurately.”
“Hence, the focus of observers should be social media’s role and influence in between elections and its political impact in this upcoming general election,” added Gomez, of the School of International Studies at Universiti Utara Malaysia.
It is a view which concurs with those of Dr Meredith L. Weiss, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University at Albany, the State University of New York, in a study she did for the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).
The FES is non-governmental and non-profit making Foundation with offices in almost 90 countries throughout the world, which supports the process of self-determination democratization and social development.
In her report Politics in Cyberspace: New Media in Malaysia, Weiss says that “there seems little evidence thus far that the rise and increasing availability and range of new media have given real reason to expect different political outcomes on grounds of new patterns of mobilization, particularly given a persistent ‘digital divide.’
“What has been happening, though, is an increase in politicization broadly, and especially among urban youth, who form a formidable and aggressively-courted portion of the voting public. Those young voters with a partisan preference are more likely now than previously to exercise that preference, not just by voting, but also by finding and engaging with information and like-minded communities online or off.
“At any time, media are critical to movements for sociopolitical change, beyond elections. The spread of online news sites, blogs, social networking sites, and other new media increases the odds of media coverage of all sorts of engagement going forward, and may shift the locus of framing away from the state,” she adds, however.
“The result is unlikely to be revolutionary, and could simply entrench existing patterns of identity politics all the more deeply, but is more likely to make Malaysia more participatory, and hence, more democratic in its politics,” Weiss says in the report, which can be downloaded here.
Democratization via technology
While the Internet may not directly influence votes in the actual GE13 campaign, technology’s role in democratization has been bandied about for decades. In the late 1990s, then US Vice President Al Gore said that the Internet was going to usher in an age of “participatory, Athenian democracy,” while Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates predicted it would become the ultimate “town hall.”
The role of the Internet in nurturing a more participatory democracy has not been lost on the Malaysian people either. Feminist activist Jac sm Kee, who works on issues relating to Internet rights, and graphic designer Ezrena Marwan have established the Elections Malaysia: Promises & Propaganda Facebook page and crowd-sourcing site.
“Elections are an important period where a lot of things are brought into sharp relief,” says Kee. “We find a surge of political posters, leaflets, paraphernalia, SMSes, etc. – some are just about branding, some with claims to achievements, and some on promises of things to come if elected.”
Closer to the actual polling date, “we can even find very locale-targeted leaflets that aim to smear the character of candidates who are being fielded -- sometimes with very sexist or racist remarks,” she adds in an email to Digital News Asia (DNA).
‘Promises & Propaganda’ wants to keep track of these for a variety of reasons, says Kee, with the first being to promote transparency and accountability during elections, and to ensure no empty promises are made.
They also want to keep track of sexist, racist or any other types of “divisive politicking that happens in this period, including any targeted racial- or cultural-mapping in different areas,” she says, including billboards or posters that use a single race to appeal to a certain demographic.
“We want to document this to also see how political parties shape identity-based differences in different areas around Malaysia, and how this can impact our sense of belonging, identities and the nation,” says Kee.
‘Promises & Propaganda’ was kicked off by Ezrena and Kee, although they are hoping that more people would help and participate. The effort is an offshoot of the Malaysia Design Archive project which looks at design as important historical artefacts that can uncover some of the social, political
and cultural tensions and priorities throughout different periods in Malaysian history.
The duo also want to get a sense of the resources being expended for mobilizing communications during the campaign period, including budgets and how much is being spent on advertising in which platforms and media.
There is also the matter of principles, like privacy. “How do some political parties know our mobile numbers and can aggregate this by race? And even our home addresses?” says Kee (pic), also a director at the Center of Independent Journalism (CIJ) Malaysia.
Malaysia’s Personal Data Protection Act 2010 (PDPA) was supposed to have come into force on Jan 1 this year, but social media channels have been rife with complaints from citizens saying they have been spammed via SMS and email with pro-Barisan messages, or with questions from purported research houses asking them which way they were going to vote.
‘Promises & Propaganda’ is also doing this to “archive and document an important aspect of our political history, so it won't be simply forgotten,” says Kee. “It's also about keeping track of the
visual narrative in this area, so (we can get) a different form of discursive construction of who we are and what we aspire towards.”
Act, don’t just vote
Key to all of this is public participation, which is something Kee and Ezrena hope to encourage. And they believe that the time is ripe for such a crowd-sourcing project.
“We have a very active and participatory online communications culture,” says Kee. “Apparently, more than 80% of our online population is on Facebook alone – and we can see the kinds of mobilization and exchange that happens through interactive platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, blog sites, etc.”
“Generally, we are engaged, we just don't have a lot of places to go to actualize our participation. Traditional mass media is tightly controlled and public spaces are increasingly regulated. This (Promises & Propaganda) just makes it easier to pull people into one shared space and to host a collaborative action, and given that it’s about the GE13, it will resonate no matter where you are.
“The challenge really is to be clear enough so it’s easy for people to know what it’s about, and how to be part of this,” she adds.
The duo hopes the crowd-sourced map will be the central repository for all this, so that they can also pinpoint who said what, where and when.
“We’re not sure if this will work, it remains to be seen,” Kee admits. “Not all of the submitted images have geolocation tags, and some are online or through SMS, so are not necessarily physically located.”
And they hope, ultimately, to be able to make some kind of analysis “to add to the thinking and understanding of the dynamics of our political processes and democratic participation,” she says.
“Either way, we hope to keep this project alive beyond GE13. It’s also important to be able to keep track through the different stages of our nation’s political development.”
Tomorrow: All eyes on the media