Commentary Local

Can social media effectively replace party machinery?


Written by TheMole

April 23, 2018

by Haresh Deol

IT is 2018 – and the battle ahead of the 14th general election is on social media.

Ceramahs (talks) and speeches are being shown ‘live’ via Facebook while Twitter provides quick updates on the sentiments of politicians and their raging loyalists. Instagram, a hit among the younger generation, gives a visual narrative to what is happening on the ground.

The rural folk have caught on with this latest fad. Even those in their 50s and 60s are constantly fiddling their touchscreen devices, obtaining the latest political “gossips”.

Comments supporting the Barisan Nasional-led government will be attacked with words like “macai” and “dedak”. The opposition seems to have the upper hand in this respect.

One thing is clear – plenty of attention and funds are being spent online.

Pakatan Harapan chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 93, actively engages with his supporters, promoting the coalition’s walkabouts and ceramahs on social media.

DAP’s Hannah Yeoh, Ong Kian Ming and Ngeh Koo Ham can put a party like MIC to shame. The BN component struggles to engage with the online community as evident on their Twitter (@OnlineMIC) and Facebook (@OnlineMIC). Even the ‘Pemuda’ link on the party’s official website is broken.

The advancement of technology raises a question among lawmakers and observers: Can social media effectively replace party machinery in modern democracy?

It already has, according to a grassroots Umno Youth member.

“In fact, 50 per cent of the energy and resources of the party machinery is being spent online,” said the member in his mid-30s who declined to be named.

“It used to be 100 per cent ground work. Today we still meet the voters but we have a good number of supporters spreading the party’s vision online. Even the opposition is doing the same.”

He said in time to come, more efforts will be online.

“Many are shying away from reading newspapers or watching news on television these days, thus we must quickly change our approach. Some 53 per cent of the voters in GE14 are youths … and we rely heavily on mobile gadgets,” he added.

Pauline Leong of Monash University Malaysia had in her 2015 research ‘Political Communication in Malaysia: A study on the Use of New Media in Politics’ written:

“This research found that initially, (the then) Pakatan Rakyat politicians and bloggers were a step ahead of their competitors in using new media for communication due to limited access to traditional media.

However, findings showed that BN, with its deep pocket resources, is trying to “normalise” the Internet and dominate online media, similar to the offline environment where it monopolises traditional media. There appears to be some evidence that supports the Normalisation Theory as BN, to a certain extent, seems to be succeeding in the cyber world with PR losing its previous online advantage.

BN’s online progress is the result of the engagement of cybertroopers, bloggers and social media activists to create content and chatter to support them.

A pro-BN media consultant said he was asked to handle his party’s new media unit, which consists of Facebook and Twitter users, as well as bloggers.

He said the unit has trained more than 2,000 people, 20 per cent of whom are active online … PR was unable to match BN’s financial muscle when it came to online advertising, and their cyber-soldiers consisted mainly of supporters and volunteers dedicated to the cause and motivated by ideology.”

A Politweet study last October showed BN’s popularity on Facebook almost doubled that of Opposition parties.

DAP’s P. Ramasamy was quoted by an online portal last month as saying it was good to use social media to boost a political party’s image nationwide due to the wide reach while Parti Amanah Negara vice-president Datuk Mujahid Yusof Rawa said both approaches had their own effectiveness.

Politicians must be mindful that many a time information is not disseminated to the intended target as loyalists and supporters end up having conversations among themselves. The overwhelming and often over-the-top support by these loyalists towards their ‘bosses’ will result in people shying away, defeating the purpose of garnering support from the fence-sitters in the online community.

As the Umno Youth member summed it up:

“To say social media will effectively replace party machinery … I have my doubts. There will be more and more emphasis online. The walkabouts and meet-and-greet should continue, but the approach will change over the years.”


Haresh Deol is a multi-award winning journalist. He can be reached on Twitter (@HareshDeol) or via email [email protected]



About the author