Malaysia’s youngest constituents might be swayed by TikTok videos but social media popularity might not be the silver bullet that draws new votes.
Onlookers may be puzzled by the first week of campaigning for Malaysia’s 15th General Elections (GE15), as the political temperature seems to be lukewarm compared to that of GE14. There are fewer party flags in sight and most ceramah or grand political speeches are delivered in smaller settings, targeting and attracting not more than 3,000 attendees, which is a small crowd for Malaysia’s largest constituencies. Most of the candidates meet their potential voters during walkabouts on the streets, meet-and-greet sessions at “makan places” (eating places), or at wet markets where they distribute their flyers.
However, one should not be fooled by this apparent calm and the relatively small turnouts, as part of the real campaign is taking place on social media. Some see Pakatan Harapan (PH) and its supporters as the masters of Twitter. During GE14, PH’s popularity on the platform was arguably perceived by the government as a threat and this perception even prompted acts of cyber manipulation by government supporters. Older voters use Facebook more. The latter platform is more often associated with the government.
The heavy rains and flash floods in recent days have suspended some campaign activities, and given voters more reason to go online to look for information on their preferred candidates. To use an analogy that has recently emerged among some Malaysia watchers, if Facebook and Twitter may be considered as P223 and P224, digital “constituencies” in addition to Malaysia’s 222 seats in Parliament, then TikTok — an application for disseminating snappy videos — has entered the scene as P225. Many candidates are competing for voters on this platform and TikTok poses a formidable threat to those who are not adept at using it, for various reasons. Politicians who can master TikTok are more likely to win over some younger fans. TikTok users are predominantly young and it is these young voters who are expected to have a seismic impact on this election’s results. A 2016 study on the consumption of information among TikTok users in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines found that teenagers and young adult users mostly use this platform, with 69 per cent of them aged 13 to 24 years. This corroborates with the author’s ongoing research and field survey, where preliminary findings show that some new voters look to TikTok as their first, and sometimes only, source of news and information on politics. (Fieldwork was conducted from 5-14 November 2022, in various Malay heartland constituencies including Alor Gajah, Ayer Hitam, Muar, Bagan Serai, and Kuala Selangor.)
These new voters — especially those above 18 — are highly sought after by GE15 politicians. With the lowering of the voting age to 18 years and the introduction of automatic voter registration for those aged 18 and above, there are now 1.4 million new voters aged 18 to 20. Voters under the age of 30 number six million, or 29 per cent of the total electorate of 21 million.
The number of views and followers which the various political parties have garnered on TikTok is testament to the politicians’ recognition that popularity on the platform might influence certain portions of the electorate to secure their vote. By the end of the first week of campaigning, the hashtag campaign #PNbest, by Perikatan Nasional (PN), had attracted some 53.4 million views, while Barisan Nasional’s (BN) #kestabilandankemakmuran (“Stability and prosperity”) had 30.5 million views. These however fall far short of PH’s #kitaboleh (“We can”), which had 94.5 million views.
PH’s dominance on TikTok can partly be attributed to the early start they had. Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, leader of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda), which signed an electoral pact with PH for GE15, has been making full use of TikTok for years. He has garnered significant traction on the platform, with 120,900 followers. In the first week of campaigning, he has garnered 71 million views on TikTok. This has encouraged other PH leaders to start their own accounts.
PH leader Anwar Ibrahim has 127,000 followers on TikTok but at the end of the first week of campaigning, he got 223 million views (calculated using all of the hashtags associated with him). Anwar likely has thousands of viewers living in remote areas who follow his speeches on TikTok. Muhyiddin Yassin is in distant second place with 80 million views, followed by Ismail Sabri with 34 million views, Mahathir Mohamad with 19 million views, trailed by Abdul Hadi Awang with only 4 million views. It might, as one news outlet pointed out, be surprising that the two elder statesmen, Muhyiddin and Mahathir, have amassed more followers than their younger competitors, with the latter gaining more than 400,000 followers since 2020. This shows that social media is a malleable tool and that age need not be a barrier for older politicians when it comes to online campaigns compared to the physical toll that election campaign activities can take.
To use an analogy that has recently emerged among some Malaysia watchers, if Facebook and Twitter may be considered as P223 and P224, digital ‘constituencies’ in addition to Malaysia’s 222 real ones, then TikTok – an application for disseminating snappy videos – has entered the scene as P225.
This author hypothesises that, as young voters predominantly rely on TikTok for their news and information, this might be even more applicable to those living in rural areas. Short videos explaining the parties’ manifestos, or brief counter-narratives against competing candidates are easy for such viewers to follow. Some of the content also evokes nostalgia, as shown by how clips from Anwar Ibrahim’s reformasi era are reposted by many.
However, not all the content on TikTok is healthy and this might exacerbate dirty politics in the run-up to GE15 on 19 November. For example, PN’s campaign is filled with material attacking PH as being allegedly dominated by communists, LGBTs and liberal Muslims. On the flipside, a PH supporter was taped berating a PN activist for spreading misleading information on Tabung Haji, stating that the Government Linked Company (GLC) was better administered during PN’s era. That TikTok user was even corrected by the former CEO of Tabung Haji, who advised her against making false claims and politicising the matter. Even veteran singer Jamal Abdillah admitted to being fooled by political spin and had to apologise for posting videos in which he attacked PH and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), falsely alleging that DAP in Penang had disallowed the calls for prayer and closed Islamic religious schools.
TikTok is a new ‘constituency’ chased by many politicians; it is akin to a parliamentary seat with no physical boundaries. Malaysia’s politicians understand that the youngest voters are an important audience, even though there is a dearth of systematic research and data to explain their possible voting patterns. Only election day will reveal how well the politicians’ viral videos and large followings will translate into actual youth votes.
Mohd Faizal Musa was a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and is an Associate at Weatherhead Centre Harvard University working on Global Shia Diaspora.