SUBANG JAYA, Jan 26 — Barisan Nasional (BN) has improved its social media presence since Election 2013 and now has a stronger presence online compared to the opposition, an academic said today.
Ross Tapsell, a senior lecturer in Asian Studies at the Australian National University, said that BN had recognised its shortcomings in previous elections and has since effectively mobilised its resources to take on the opposition in cyberspace.
“They have a far stronger presence on social media and on digital media in general in a variety of ways. There are far more pro-government blogs, websites, social media messaging in short there is a clear increase of volume compared to the 2013 elections.
“They know what they are doing this time around, they recognise the importance of new media and are engaged in a big way. Even the Prime Minister Najib has public said they had ‘lost’ the social media front in 2008 and 2013,” he told reporters during an event at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute at the Sunway University here.
Tapsell said this was part of a wider trend around the region, and that effective use of social media campaigns had played a major role in deciding the outcome of Indonesia’s 2012 presidential elections and the 2016 Philippines presidential elections which saw Jokowi Widodo and Rodrigo Duterte win.
“There is no question that they have not only recognised the importance of such new media platforms but have actually captured the initiative as typically we see new media favour newcomers, not the incumbent.
“The social media content coming out of the opposition camp is not as fiery as it used to be and is not gaining traction as compared to what is being put out by the government,” he said.
He even hinted that paid social media campaigners had become a fixture of the political social media landscape but did not elaborate on whether BN or its Pakatan Harapan (PH) rivals had hired large numbers of cyber troopers.
“Any advisor or campaign planning expert will tell you that social media is a must in any campaign and some may even resort to hiring social media campaigners.
“Whether or not that is being done is not something that I can confirm but it certainly happens to a degree and questions may be raised about how genuine and grassroots-led these campaigns are,” he said.
Both BN and PH have accused each other of using hired trolls, fake social media accounts and other means of manipulating social media trends with the DAP having been accused of maintaining a “Red Bean Army” of cyber troopers allegedly to counter similar groups commissioned by BN.
However Tapsell, who had extensively researched the role social media played in Indonesia’s 2012 elections, cautioned against describing the current situation as a “set trend” and said the unpredictability of social media campaigns and trends meant that predictions could be wildly off.
“When we saw the social media campaign by Jakarta mayor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama better known as ‘Ahok’ which made use of social media, especially through an emotionally charged video meant to sway voters backfired dramatically.
“The same goes for those attempting to predict the 2016 US presidential elections. Many rooted for Hillary against Trump and the results ended up being very surprising. They should have monitored sentiments on social media,” he said.
Tapsell also said that the opposition would mobilise its social media resources closer to the elections as they did not have the financial resources to maintain a sustained campaign.
“Basically BN is doing better now on social media than in 2013 and the opposition had done better in 2013 than it is doing now,” he said.