Webinar on “Old Politics, New Technologies: Social Media in the Democratic Process”

This second webinar of the webinar series on Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia discussed various ways in which digital technologies can be opportunities or weapons in institutional politics, and the transformative or detrimental effects these may have on the democratic process.

Webinar Series on Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia

Monday, 28 September 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar on “Old Politics, New Technologies: Social Media in the Democratic Process”, which featured insights from Dr Pauline Leong (Sunway University), Mr Pradipa Rasidi (University of Indonesia), and Dr Quinton Temby (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute). Moderated by Dr Benjamin Loh, this webinar is part of a seven-part Webinar Series co-organised by the Media, Technology and Society Programme and the Indonesia Studies Programme on “Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia”.

Dr Pauline Pooi Yin Leong
Dr Pauline Pooi Yin Leong spoke on “Mediatisation of Malaysian Politics: The Impact of Digital Media on the Democratic Process”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In the first presentation, Dr Leong argued that the Internet has played a pivotal role in influencing the country’s political climate. Before the internet came in the 1990s, traditional newspapers were the government’s medium in articulating state narratives. She pointed out that the emergence of the internet has led to the decentralization of new media. Many social media platforms, such as blogs and independent websites, started to organize movements on the ground to respond to the political crisis in 1998. Dr Leong further explained the evolution of social media throughout the years and how it played a different role in delivering public opinion during GE 1999 election, civil protest in 2007, GE12’s political tsunami in 2008, civil society movement Bersih in 2011, GE13 in 2013 and GE14 in 2018. Cyber troopers had also emerged to create fake accounts and attack the opposition party during these prominent political events. Looking forward, Dr Leong argued that new media would still be a prominent tool, especially for young people, to channel their grievances to the government as well as to shape public opinion during elections. The coming of a new political party Malaysia United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) and the rise of Tik-Tok apps would intensify the tension over the Malaysian digital spaces.

Mr Pradipa P. Rasidi
Mr Pradipa P. Rasidi discussed “Manufacturing Conversation, Engaging Excitement: Political Buzzing and Fake Account Operations in Indonesia”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Rasidi examined the phenomenon of buzzing and fake account operations in Indonesia. While politicians in the United States had used bots to produce noise/distractions on social media and to manufacture the conversation to attack the opposition, buzzing in Indonesia involved real people (buzzers) who participate in fake account operations. Laying out the case study of 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Election, Mr Rasidi explained that these operations work in a network of cells and were subcontracted to amplify a certain message and disseminate fake news by posting stories, memes, pictures, and hashtags. He outlined three motivations behind these operations: to generate social media sentiments that would be picked up by pollsters, to create a sensation by getting attention from the mainstream media, and to serve the personality-centric politics in Indonesia. He argued that buzzing is an outlet of political participation in Indonesia as a result of the country’s authoritarian history where electoral elites co-opted the citizen’s freedom of expression.

Dr Quinton Temby
Dr Quinton Temby examined “Social Media and Polarisation in Southeast Asia” from a comparative perspective. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Last but not least, Dr Temby presented his research on social media and polarisation in Southeast Asia. He noticed that the growing tension of US-China rivalry has become a common topic and has been driving online polarisation in social media. Laying out the case study in Thailand and Indonesia, Dr Temby observed that this transnational polarisation has fed into national-scale polarization. While the US and China were consolidating rivalry in the tech ecosystem, the strategic issue of the South China Sea has played out online in Indonesia. Moreover, democratic activism in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Taiwan has created a “pan-Asian meme war” through the organic emergence and virality of the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance on social media. Finally, Dr Temby argued that this meme war serves as an independent unit analysis of “memetic tribe”. The fluid memeplex has continued to expand to include more countries and jumped from online to offline. The meme is also driving emergent form(s) of political identity.

The webinar drew an audience of more than 90 participants from both Singapore and abroad. During the Q&A session, the panel discussed issues related to the usage of social media for political communication during the COVID-19 pandemic, the operation of cyber troopers, strategies to create a democratic information ecosystem, and the transnational phenomenon of narratives in social media.

More than 90 participants attended the webinar. The session was moderated by Dr Benjamin Loh. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)