GE15: Social media emerges as new battleground as parties woo youth votes

(CNA) – A new battleground has emerged in Malaysia – where the Internet penetration rate stands at 96.8 per cent – as campaigning for the Nov 19 polls reaches fever pitch.

Politicians are taking to platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Facebook to simplify messages for the nearly 6 million new voters at this general election.

Among them is Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) president Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, who has more than 800,000 followers on his TikTok page.

Mr Syed Saddiq, who will be defending his Muar parliamentary seat, told CNA that for the first time, a sizeable proportion of voters, about 40 per cent, are on the fence when it comes to voting.

“I think now they want to see a more positive campaign,” he said. “So it’s really about adapting policies and explaining in a very fun way. It’s about edutainment – education and entertainment combined.”

Another candidate looking for a slice of the social media pie is Barisan Nasional’s Shah Alam candidate Isham Jalil, who has turned to his 125,000 Facebook followers for support. He is hoping it would give him an edge in the Pakatan Harapan stronghold.

“I always say to people that this (social media) is the new battleground”, he told CNA. “I suppose there’s no guarantee that those postings are going to translate into votes, but we have to try.”

He added that this is partly because in big constituencies such as Shah Alam, where there are about 165,000 voters, physical campaigning cannot reach everyone.

The largest turnout of young voters yet is expected at this election, following a historic constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.


Director at government affairs and public policy consulting firm BowerGroupAsia Adib Zalkapli said that this is the first time short video platforms are being used extensively in campaigning. WhatsApp is the most popular platform in Malaysia, followed by Facebook and Instagram.

“In the past, perhaps politicians were forced to upload longer videos on more traditional platforms. So, short videos probably attract younger voters,” he said.

Southeast Asian media expert Ross Tapsell noted that candidates have been heavily focusing on the use of live video content, with some of them getting the help of four or five people to maintain their social media presence.

“Young voters are very much engaged with TikTok, with Instagram, and with Facebook Live, where video content is increasingly a massive part of their social media engagement,” said Dr Tapsell, a senior lecturer and researcher at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

Another reason they have taken to the online space is that they see the upcoming election as more open and transparent than past ones, he told CNA’s Asia Now.


However, the social media space is polarised, added Dr Tapsell, noting that Malay language speakers outside of the main cities predominantly use Facebook while young, urban voters who may not necessarily be Malay language speakers use Instagram and TikTok more.

While some of these videos have garnered hundreds of thousands of views, they may not be pivotal among some segments.

“It depends on the target voters. For parties that solely operate or rely on older rural voters, online presence doesn’t really matter,” said Mr Adib.

Physical rallies, or “ceramahs”, still have their place, politicians said.

They help voters recognise them as they hit the ground running, but still, there is a sweet spot between the virtual and the physical: Livestreaming of rallies.

Amid misinformation and disinformation that spread easily on social media, Dr Tapsell cautioned voters not to accept everything that comes through as fact, even if it looks “real”.

He gave the example of an influencer who looks legitimate but might be engaged by a political party for the campaign.

“It’s important to always reflect on the material that we receive, and ultimately go back to the manifestos ideally that these parties are putting out and listen to the politicians themselves to see whether those ideas align with your ideals,” he said.