Opinion

Many faces to Malaysia’s ‘social media election’

Love is in the air election videoIn this guest post, Rob O’Brien looks at how political and consumer brands in Malaysia are behaving in social media as the country heads for the polls.

Elections always bring out the best in social media, and vice versa.

Malaysians head to the polls on Sunday amid a huge spike in online activity, living up to its billing as the country’s first true ‘social media election’ .

Meanwhile, as politicking reaches fever pitch, consumer brands are, to a some extent, being crowded out amid the election noise.

The last election was defined by a collection of socio-political bloggers that used their followings to counter the lack of access Opposition parties had to the mainstream media. Ultimately, five of them were elected to the federal parliament, in a swing against the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), which was accused of ignoring online campaigning altogether.

In 2013, political parties are looking at a fresh wave of youth voters – there are more than two million first-time voters up for grabs – which has made social media a huge battleground for all parties.

PM Najib's tweetAs one of Asia’s most active countries on social media – more than 13 million Malaysian users are on Facebook from a population of 29 million – you expect its leaders to be engaged. Prime minister Najib is a proflic Tweeter with more than 1.5 million followers and Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Facebook page has more than 84,000 new ‘fans’ per week, growth which puts him just ahead of US President Barack Obama.

As with all elections, there’s been a rainbow spectrum of content emerging, varying from the sublime to the ridiculous.

At the positive end of the spectrum is the ‘Malaysia: It’s Time for Change’ Facebook campaign (part of the larger ‘Bersih’ movement for transparency and an end to corruption in Malaysian politics), which urges citizens to return home to vote, instead of risking a postal ballot. The campaign, which has had more than 200 photo submissions from around the world, was the brainchild of two expats based in Sydney and has featured in Time magazine.

YouTube has been used to film violence and vandalism ahead of election day, but this karaoke rendition of Paul Young’s ‘Love is in the Air’ by BN politicians in Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang takes out the ‘beyond parody’ award.

The campaign isn’t without the celebrity intervention either – Michelle Yeoh, the actress best known for playing Aung San Suu Kyi in ‘The Lady’ – gave her backing to Najib at a banquet held by the Chinese Association of Selangor recently, to the ire of online activists.

But it wouldn’t be fair if #GE13 was just remembered for the hostile engagements online; one thing is certain, it has ramped up the heat on Malaysia’s political leaders, none of whom will die wondering what affect social media will have had on their fortunes.

Now, politics may have swamped most online channels. But big brands haven’t been entirely squeezed out of election coverage; McDonalds is running a ‘Thank You’ message campaign to drive fans to its Facebook page through the election period.

One Malaysian social media agency, Acme-e-connect, says it is generally not a good idea to mix politics with brand campaigns. “It’s election fever in social media: the campaigns we’re running for brands are more quiet than the usual, we do get involved a little with election topics for posting, and it does get a high response,” they say.

Rob O’Brien is a media specialist at Weber Shandwick in Singapore. He’s also author of his own blog and tweets at @robobr7

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