Being Human: Social media a double-edged sword for cyber warfare

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 8, 2017 - May 14, 2017.
-A +A

In mid-April, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak gave the signal to pro-government social media activists to start the war for voters’ loyalties in order to secure the country’s 14th general election for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

“We have long been in defensive mode. Enough. It is now time to attack!” he said in a post on his blog najibrazak.com titled 2017 Social Media Activists Assembly.

In his message, Najib recognised the reality that today’s battlefields are no longer physical but in cyberspace. Indeed, BN had a hard lesson on the influence of the new media in the 12th general election in 2008. As Ditigal News Asia’s A  Asohan noted following the last general election in 2013, BN had largely ignored the internet in GE12, while the opposition parties fed on the disgruntlement of voters who had found a new unfettered space to vent their frustrations about deficiencies in the system.

The BN learnt the price of its complacency when it lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time in the country’s history and an unprecedented five state governments to the opposition parties. Determined not to cede ground on any front in GE13, Asohan writes, the BN spent the intervening years training what it calls “cybertroopers” to take the battle to social networks as well.

By the time Najib dissolved Parliament in April 2013 for GE13, BN was well-prepared to wage war on the cyber front, and the prime minister described it as Malaysia’s “first social media election”. But while the BN went into the fray backed by an army of new media troopers, its hold on power was actually secured through coalition leader Umno’s traditional voter base, rather than in the volatile world of cyberspace.  

Ultimately, the BN was returned to power on May 5, but with an even slimmer majority and despite losing the popular vote to the opposition, which had won 51% of all votes cast but only 40% of parliamentary seats.

An analysis of the GE13 results by the social media research group Politweet showed that of the 133 parliamentary seats won by the BN, 66 were rural Malay constituencies, another 18 were rural Sarawak bumiputera seats, 15 were rural Sabah bumiputera seats, 12 semi-urban Malay, nine rural mixed, four urban Malay and nine others. So, while new media platforms gave disaffected urban voters the feeling that change was in the air, rural voters gave Umno in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, and Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, the lead BN party in Sarawak, the endorsement it needed to retain control of Putrajaya.

Since then, in the global context, the reputation of social media as a predictor of electoral sentiment has undergone a sea change, in particular, with the dramatic Brexit referendum in the UK last year, followed by the US presidential election. In what has become a classic example of the blind spot effect among opinion pollsters, the mistaken predictions of US opinion researchers about who would win the American presidential race were being called out by social media analysts months earlier.

“Analysts monitoring the social media activity of both campaigns on the major social media channels saw the outcome of this election coming months ago, and kept talking about the massive silent voter base that was forming around the Republican nominee,” Phil Ross, a social media analyst at Socialbakers is quoted as saying on the TechCrunch website soon after Donald Trump won the election.

The technology news site points out that while Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton outspent Trump on TV ads, set up more field offices and sent staff to swing states earlier, Trump simply better leveraged social media to both reach and grow his audience.

The US election campaign also turned the spotlight on negative trends in social media usage, such as Trump’s misadventures on Twitter. However, the one phenomenon that has generated great concern is the emergence of “fake news” as a determinant of voter behaviour.

In a Stanford University research paper Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election, economists Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow point out that:

•    The most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories.

•    Many people who see fake news stories

report that they believe them.

•    The most discussed fake news stories tended to favour Trump over Clinton.

Putting these facts together, the researchers say, a number of commentators have suggested that Trump would not have been elected president were it not for the influence of fake news.

Malaysian voters are no strangers to false reports, and have seen lurid smear campaigns spring into existence especially during election season, long before the label “fake news” came into vogue.  Najib makes special reference to the threat posed by fake news in his April 15 message to BN-friendly social media agents.

He tells his social media allies to “ward off” reports like the claim on polling day in GE13 that the BN was bringing in voters from Bangladesh to vote and that it had created blackouts in certain places to manipulate voting outcomes.

But the new media technologies are a great leveller. They allow all parties to use or misuse the online space to plant doubts in voters’ minds, create fake followings for candidates, make dubious claims about privileged information while maintaining a cloak of anonymity, and let slip innuendoes and gossip, ad nauseum.

Unfortunately, as the Stanford research shows, social media audiences tend to err on the side of gullibility. Some remedy for reputational damage can be obtained through libel action or prosecution of criminal defamation, but the fluid nature of the new media relegate these reactions to a symbolic status. Over time, social media audiences can be expected to smell a rat when political figures are targeted in an orchestrated campaign and will cease to be taken in by the overactive imagination of paid cybertroopers. Perhaps some may follow the scandal mongers for the entertainment they provide, but whether these stories will affect the election outcome is a matter for media analysts to dwell upon.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge Malaysia