How is social media affecting the 13th Malaysian general elections?

Malaysia's political landscape is facing one of the most fiercely contested elections in history, and you're able to witness this through the displays of hundreds of flags, buntings and banners as well as from the noisy ceramahs of the various parties vying for your vote.  Well, the 'noise' levels on cyberspace similarly, has gone up with the rise of social media usage.  We decided to find out what it all means by having a chat with social media research firm, Politweet.

From 2,400 people tweeting about politicians in 2010 to 450,000 users chatting about politics on Twitter, three years later.

That is how much Malaysia's Twitter base has grown, reflecting how much the interest in politics has grown too.

We spoke to Politweet's Ahmed Kamal to find out if the noise being made on social media should matter in the upcoming elections. Politweet is a non-partisan research company that specialises in the analysis of interactions of Malaysians using social media.  One of the goals of the firm is to develop a set of tools for other researchers and journalists to analyse social media.

“The social media usage has definitely increased.  We have one to two million Twitter users in Malaysia and over 13 million Facebook users, with over nine million of those above 21 years old.

“In 2008, people mainly turned to blogs for political information. Today the conversation seems to have moved to Facebook and Twitter.”

Seeing this is a technological age, and that more people are getting connected, it's a no-brainer that more Malaysians have created Twitter or Facebook accounts so they could keep up with the trends.  But what has that done for political parties, particularly during hot election campaign periods?

Ahmed, in his research, finds that like its political rival, BN is making use of Facebook and Twitter in its political campaigns. The 'problem' though, lies in how they are using it.

“You don't have many supporters that are having conversations with users and trying to build up that rapport (with users) to convince them to switch over to your side. Instead they are trying to employ methods, like flooding the channels with links to articles or blogs or news about what BN politicians are doing.”

That is a different style to how PR is using these tools to connect to their constituents.

“Maybe they don't have as many paid people doing it, but whatever (PR) supporters they do have, they are usually strong and they will invest time in conversations that help to change people's minds.”

He is certain of the fact that BN and PR use this new medium differently in their efforts to spread their political messages, which affects the results of the research on social media. 

But who is winning this battle?

Ahmed does not even see an even playing field to begin with, for these two alliances.

“It is very hard to measure the competition between PR and BN.  Based on the tweet levels (of both coalitions), BN does not seem to be trying very hard.”

Normally, in political campaigns, BN would lead PR by big margins in terms of mentions. But the results this time indicate both alliances are close to each other.

“It does give me the impression that they (BN) have shifted their attention towards traditional media instead of social media.” 

There is a sense that BN could be falling back on the 'old' media or traditional media to push their messages, which is something that Ahmed did expect.

With close to 10 million Facebook users possibly becoming first time voters on May 5, we wanted to find out if this was a wise strategy.

Ahmed feels BN isn't pushing social media as 'hard as they could', and people can see their messages through the many billboards, buntings and newspaper advertisements displayed across traditional channels. PR does not have the resources to do the same.

“It does seem like a battle between old media and new media, but we won't know how effective this is until after the elections.”

He was quick to point out as well that being very popular on cyberspace does not necessarily translate into votes for politicians or parties.

Prime Minister Najib Razak trumps Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim in the number of Twitter followers, despite having a larger number of inactive followers or 'manufactured accounts'.

Based on Politweet's census done in February, Najib's has 1.2 million followers, with only 48% being active accounts.

Anwar has 236,000, with a higher percentage of active accounts of 61%. 

But if you break down the numbers, Anwar's genuine 144,000 followers are tiny compared to Najib's 582,000.

Ahmed Kamal finds that Najib's popularity is also the driving force behind BN's overall popularity. PR on the whole has 59% active followers, compared to BN's 43%. But, if you take Najib out of the equation, it could mean a different scenario.

According to reports, Ahmed Kamal joined PKR in 1999 but was inactive after that year's elections. He worked for Anwar in 2007 and did some freelance work for PR after March 2008. 

He now focuses on remaining non-partisan and began monitoring social media trends in 2009.  Politweet's detailed research can be found here (