DURING the recent Umno presidential debate, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi pointed to social media as his overarching strategy to win over the grassroots. His campaign ticket did not reference the reforms expressed by the other two candidates, Tengku Razaleigh Tengku Hamzah and Khairy Jamaluddin.
Instead, Zahid used an aggressive strategy, consistent with how he rebuked other Barisan Nasional components that had failed to muster enough wins in the 14th general election. Following that, Puteri Umno echoed the strategy, harnessing social media as a “catalyst for change” in a political landscape where Umno is no longer the federal government.
To be frank, I do not think Umno knows what it means exactly when it refers to social media as its engagement strategy moving forward. Pre-GE14, only two Umno politicians, arguably, had a grasp on social media as an engagement platform: Now-disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak, and former youth and sports minister Khairy.
The former now uses it as a platform to defend himself and critique the Pakatan Harapan government, while the latter has gone on to criticise his party.
When Umno says “social media”, it is actually saying “online propaganda”. Social media engagement was never about listening to groused Malaysians, who had legitimate reasons for rebuffing BN in the polls.
Like the mass media Umno used to have a grip on, it is a one-way distribution platform. This is made clear in the public statements over the years, where Umno called for an aggressive social media presence to win the perception war. Most notably, over the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, which necessitated the previous BN government to rush through the Fake News Act weeks before GE14 to “control the narrative”.
To contextualise Umno’s understanding of social media, we need to also trace its genesis in the creation of cybertroopers.
Post-Reformasi in the 1990s, blogs, online forums and budding news portals (notably Malaysiakini) populated the internet, a haven for voices critical of the then ruling BN government. Arguably, opposition supporters at the time saw the internet as a space that allowed for freedom of expression, unlike the mass media and public forums, which could not speak for them.
This space of uncensored expression was supposedly secured in the Multimedia Super Corridor’s Bill of Guarantees, what Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has called one of his many “regrets”, but ironically, used to attack his political enemies.
At the turn of the millennium, Umno realised that it was late to the game and stepped up its occupation of the digital space.
Chief among those who led BN into the digital frontier was Tun Faisal Ismail Aziz, who claims to have coined and constructed the term we now come to know as “cybertrooper”, an internet presence to counter oppositional views by the masses.
However, online propaganda was not limited to just nondescript, virgin social media accounts. Part of the machinery comprised social media specialist companies and public relations firms, which also formed the undercurrents of online propaganda.
They did so via blogs, usually anonymously written. Or, online campaigns led by accounts indiscernible from bots. Sometimes, contracted propaganda “expose” videos produced by former media personnel. Occasionally, the simple graphic or long text message forwarded via WhatsApp.
Online propaganda found strength in numbers and disseminated information that the official, established media could not. On top of that, it was more affordable to finance than the mushrooming news portals loosely owned by or aligned with specific politicians or Umno affiliates.
Online propaganda was a game harnessed by both BN and PH – ultimately making it a war of perception.
For Umno, which was beginning to recognise how Malaysians, even those in low-income groups, were being more digitally integrated, social media was a way to influence the masses directly. Whether it was via WhatsApp (a choice distribution platform), or social media sites like Twitter or Facebook, to use social media is to access the public unfiltered, while staying in the grey area of anonymity that the Internet offers. Blogs, too, became a prominent voice.
Take Umno Youth exco Papagomo, who is a well-known blogger and has a strong following. In 2015, he posted incendiary fake news that led to right-wing Malays participating in the Low Yat racial riots. Or more notoriously, Raja Petra Kamarudin, who, years ago, initially tied then defence minister Najib to the Altantuya Shaariibuu murder, and has since turned to lambasting the PH government while indulging in armchair commentary from the UK.
In other words, when Umno says “social media”, it is not saying engagement with the grassroots, as it would like everyone to believe. Instead, it is attempting to reclaim and rewrite the narrative.
“Reform” and “engagement” were never part of Umno’s lexicon simply because the party rejected them – with promises of reform, if any, being merely superficial. This is unsurprising, given Umno’s proclivity for rewriting and reclaiming narratives. There is no better example than the passing of the Fake News Act under the previous BN government – which the new PH government has promised to repeal, but seems to lack proper commitment in executing.
While not saying so outright, the Fake News Act came at a suspect time, after the official media blackout on 1MDB.
While the press could be reigned in by existing laws, the Fake News Act was to blanket the public, who reside outside media jurisdiction. For the past three years since the 1MDB scandal came to light, Umno has undoubtedly been hell-bent on rewriting the 1MDB narrative. And, it most certainly would have, had it not spectacularly lost in the May 9 polls.
So, does it come as any surprise what Umno truly means when it states “social media” as its main strategy going forward? It may have lost its grip on newspapers (save Utusan Malaysia) and broadcasting companies, but it still has the internet.
Given Zahid’s stance, alongside plenty of other Umno warlords, who seem to be in denial over the actual reasons for their loss, and instead, point their fingers at everyone but themselves, this signals a blowback that observers and experts have predicted will be more conservative and right-wing.
We witnessed it during the 2016 US presidential elections, when right-wing sites and fake news purveyors were at their height – effectively paving the way for Donald Trump’s win. All they needed to do was deface Hillary Clinton, and stir the imagination and sentiments of the American public, who wanted to find every reason to undermine the Democratic Party candidate.
In the next five years leading up to GE15, expect the same from Umno, which will have its sights trained on its abdicated throne in Putrajaya. It may have decreased resources, but it does not take much to start online propaganda. All you need is a coordinated team engineering the right message, delivered at an opportune time of heightened sentiments.
PH should know: this was how it swayed public opinion in its favour, after all. – July 17, 2018.
* Aziff Azuddin is a Malaysian sociology postgraduate student.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.