Automating Dissent with Hashtags: from #Kitajagakita to #Benderahitam
In Malaysia, even an innocuous hashtag can be sidelined and overwhelmed by other octothorps. In the case of #kitajagakita, it played a part in the falling from grace of the country’s eighth premier.
In Malaysia, even innocuous and helpful social justice campaigns can lose their potency over time, no thanks to the rise of politically motivated hashtag comments on social media. This has happened to #kitajagakita (looking out for each other), a social justice campaign that emerged from Malaysia’s ground-up citizen activism. The viral hashtag #kitajagakita gradually morphed over 1.5 years, from a social-justice focussed hashtag collective into an anchor for automating dissent. Over time, it got cross-posted with other more politically motivated, oppositional hashtag movements. The #kitajagakita case illustrates how difficult it is, in the age of online-mediated activism, for the purveyors of a movement to retain the intent of their original idea.
The Facebook page above was created on 16 March 2020 and was one of the earliest embodiments of the #kitajagakita spirit. The intent of the movement was straightforward: it aggregated information related to the Covid-19 pandemic and served as a channel for organising collective action. The content of the postings focussed on social justice issues, particularly in the first three quarters of 2020. By the final quarter of 2020, however, #kitajagakita started getting linked to negative political sentiments towards the sitting government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
The viral hashtag #kitajagakita gradually morphed over 1.5 years, from a social-justice focussed hashtag collective into an anchor for automating dissent.
Today, the hashtag #kitajagakita tends to get cross-tagged with other hashtags that seek to encourage dissent, such as #lawan (fight), #kerajaangagal (failed government), #kerajaangagal2, #kerajaantumbang (fallen government), and #benderaputih (raise the white flag). Figure 2 shows the spikes in the volume of social media postings during September and October 2020. During this period, Malaysians began to experience the sort of pandemic crisis that they primarily read about in the news elsewhere; the spikes were reflective of collective panic. However, as the high infection rates became normalised, pandemic fatigue and acceptance (reluctant or otherwise) of the state of things led to the reduction of social media activity on the crisis. By January 2021, #kitajagakita was gradually displaced by other hashtags that were more explicitly political.
Over time, the focus of social media activity shifted. Hashtags evolved from #kitajagakita to a proliferation of hashtags ranging from the subtly political, such as #kitajagarakyat (we, for the citizens), to the more overtly political such as #kerajaangagal and #benderahitam (raise the black flag). Malaysia’s political turmoil influenced the evolution of the hashtags used. Between April 2020 and July 2021, the Perikatan Nasional government under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin worked overtime to make their efforts visible to the public. This gave rise to press statements and on-the-fly policies regularly released over social media. This ‘policy-by-social media’ practice provided the grist for the mill under the aforementioned hashtags.
Malaysian members of parliament (MPs) active on social media have also contributed to the politicisation of narratives. As an example, the long-standing tension between Borneo and the Peninsula came to a head in the case of Sabahan student Veveonah Mosibin, who via her YouTube channel shared about the travails she faced in trying to sit for an online exam from a rural location. When the then Deputy Minister of Communications and Multimedia claimed that she was merely sitting on a tree to generate attention for her YouTube channel, several MPs lambasted him for cyberbullying the 18-year-old girl, causing him to retract his statement. This example is part of the #kitajagakita discourse on social justice, which highlights social inequities. Figure 5 illustrates how protests over the politicisation of #kitajagakita were muted by the sheer volume of an outpouring of discontent over the abuse of political privilege. Sabah ultimately suffered the consequences of Peninsular politics, leading to a snap election on 26 September 2020, thus amplifying the political motif of #kitajagakita.
On the technological front, the narratives grouped under the hashtags were diffused through the platforms’ recommender system that tracks the user’s history of engagement to anticipate their future choices through computation and ordering. Using different algorithms, the platform will track the content ‘surfed’ by the users before recommending content that the system thinks are most likely to elicit active engagement through click-throughs and even posts. The system accentuated narratives that dissented against the government’s standard narratives, which were then picked up by media establishments outside Malaysia.
Continued attachment to the use of the hashtags, rather than their volume, contributed to the automation of dissent. The 3 July 2021 #benderahitam movement was the culmination of the snowballing of dissent aided by the hashtag activism that had begun since 2020. By then, a slew of hashtags (#lawan, #kerajaangagal, etc.), sometimes coupled with #kitajagakita, had contributed to crossover conversations and oppositional narratives which went viral within and beyond the borders of Malaysia. #Benderahitam refracted direct social media protest, a culmination of all the negative sentiments and grievances funnelled, though not necessarily directly cross-posted, from the other hashtags, therefore drawing the attention of authorities and leading to probes that still failed to rein in negative public sentiment. This flurry of activities inadvertently contributed to the fall of the country’s eighth Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Clarissa Ai Ling Lee was Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.