Social media and the Malaysia general election


Malaysians went to the polls on Sunday (May 5) to elect their government. 

The ruling National Front coalition (or BN for Barisan Nasional) was returned to power, winning 133 of the 222 in parliamentary seats. The opposition won 89 seats, up from 82. Defeated opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim accused the ruling coalition of widespread fraud.

Quite frankly, I have not been following the election closely. But through the past weeks of campaigning to the actual voting day and result announcement, I have been getting regular updates via Facebook and Twitter from many of my patriotic Malaysian friends. 

Social media brought the news of the Malaysian election to me. I did not search for it or read about it because I flipped open a newspaper or visited an online news Web site.

Think about it: For big breaking news these days, was social media your first information source?

Granted, the shared articles on Facebook or Twitter probably originated from news content sites. But it is still significant to reckon your social circle of friends might determine what news and information you consume — and not the traditional media ombudsmen.

For news publishers, if readers are increasingly getting their news from social networks, is our brand deep enough to still occupy mind-share? Are our readers sharing and tweeting our news content to their friends? This is something to think about for the future of the newspaper business.

Back to the Malaysia election. There were many learning points for me on social media. Here are five key highlights:

  • Video content viral well and very quickly. These might be even more effective in reaching out to a wired populace than TV appearances, given that online videos can be shared and re-shared repeatedly and across geography.

    An example is Bukit Bintang BN candidate Frankie Gan, who launched a series of self-starred music videos, hoping to impress voters with his karaoke talent. The video drew mixed responses, but mostly negative.

    As a foreigner, I was tickled enough by his video to re-share it on Facebook, even though I do not know where Bukit Bintang is or who Gan is competing against. He lost the election, by the way.

  • Parodies come fast and furious. Many parody videos, images, and stories on “magic blackout” surfaced online within 24 hours of the results announcement. Opposition supporters have alleged that BN-tilted ballot boxes had magically appeared at several polling stations after experiencing blackouts.

  • Online show of solidarity can be impressive and impactful. In protest of alleged election fraud by the ruling coalition, many of my Malaysian friends changed their Facebook profile pictures and header images into black boxes. As a foreigner, it is hard for me to not take notice when so many of my Facebook fans transformed into black boxes!

  • Protest to reach the world and world leaders can be done online with minimal disturbance to the public, but can be just as effective in getting the message across.

    Many Malaysians took to commenting on the Facebook walls of other government leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama and my own prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, to highlight their concerns on election frauds. The leaders might not reply to the comment, but others will still read, especially if the comments come in hundreds and thousands.

  • Politics can be divisive on social media, but cohesive at the same time. I see Malaysian friends from both ends, each posting and re-posting content that is in favour of the party he or she supports. This is divisive.

    At the same time, genuine debates sometime surface in the comments. This is cohesive.

    Two friends might not share the same political view or support the same party, but at least there is a platform for them to hash out their differences in a civilised manner. They need not agree with each other at the end of the debate, but at least they have a better understanding of the point of view from the other side.
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