Commentary: Cybertrooper activity in state elections marks irreversible trend in Malaysia politics
The growing presence of paid political actors on social media is disenfranchising voters and pushing them out of online discourse, say Malaysia-based researchers.
A core election strategy involved the use of “cybertroopers”, which are anonymous politically linked actors often paid to enter online debates and to influence public perception. Malaysian voters have become incredibly cynical and jaded, often decrying the presence of cybertroopers as “clouding” public debate.
Using the term “cytro” as a pejorative, there have been at least 5,000 mentions on Twitter alone in the month prior to last week’s elections and the discourse was predominantly negative. There were constant complaints about how the presence of cytros overwhelms discussions, distorts public opinion, and makes it difficult to engage in good faith debate.
The social media exploits of cybertroopers on Twitter and Facebook provided material for our research into how cybertroopers aligned to both the Pakatan Harapan-Barisan Nasional (PH-BN) ruling coalition and the Perikatan Nasional (PN) opposition were used to sway voters.
TikTok was also a key platform but it lacks the debate quality of the former text-centric platforms. In particular, PH-BN cybertroopers have a much stronger presence on Twitter and are engaging in more aggressive tactics than before.
Up to 2018, the parties in government primarily funded most cybertroopers. After the change in government, many cybertroopers were likely sacked and became free agents, serving most major political parties who are willing to pay for their services.
From early 2020, there was also an increase in political diehard (macai) accounts which do not hide their political affiliations, further muddying digital political discourse in Malaysia. These accounts engage in spreading party propaganda and engage in attacking other parties’ rhetoric. Whether these macai accounts are paid ones or real individuals expressing voter preferences is hard to discern.
Based on the authors’ monitoring using Meltwater of Twitter and Facebook, it appears that both PH-BN and PN used cybertroopers. The authors assessed this based on the large number of anonymous and other highly partisan accounts participating in election discussions online.
Interestingly, PH-BN cybertroopers mainly operated on Twitter as opposed to Facebook, which is largely dominated by Malay-identifying cybertroopers (based on the authors’ prior monitoring).
The PH-BN proxies’ efforts are focused on attacking PN’s conservative nature and its racist and bigoted rhetoric; the cybertroopers tried to paint a picture that a PN government will sideline non-Malays, implying that a strong PN win could bring them back into the federal government.
A key battleground state was Selangor, Malaysia’s richest, which PN hoped to wrest from PH-BN. For that race, PH-BN cybertroopers focused on defending the PH-BN Selangor state government, insinuating that a PN win would doom Selangor, drawing comparisons to Kelantan and Terengganu’s underdevelopment under PN leadership.
There appeared to be a real fear within PH-BN that Selangor could fall: Their cybertroopers were heavily campaigning on this front.
PH-BN cybertroopers also targeted the youth-focused Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA). MUDA stood independently in the elections despite being part of the federal coalition, which was seen as a betrayal of the PH-BN government.
Most MUDA tweets would trigger a flood of complaints and attacks from PH-BN cybertroopers and macais. The one-sidedness of this exchange was especially noticeable, as the attacks often overwhelmed MUDA defenders. Cyberbullying this way is a cybertrooper tactic and just one of the many ways they shut down balanced debate - by bullying opposing viewpoints into submission or silence.
PN’s cybertroopers dominated Facebook and built most of their political campaigning around firebrand characters, particularly caretaker Chief Minister of Kedah, Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor.
Prior to the elections, police arrested Sanusi after he allegedly insulted local royalty in a TikTok video. During the campaign, there were several controversies involving Sanusi, most notably with the Minister of Home Affairs on the issue of rare earth element theft and with the caretaker Chief Minister of Selangor, who threatened to sue Sanusi.
In both cases, PN cybertroopers defended Sanusi and presented PH-BN as an abusive government that silenced its critics by curtailing the freedom of speech and abusing lawsuits.
In the final week of campaigning, two major issues became a focus of cybertroopers: An incident involving Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim at an event with local pre-university students and a televised debate between Minister of Economics Affairs Rafizi Ramli and the PAS MP for Bachok Syahir Sulaiman on economic plans for Malaysia.
In the first, Anwar was accused of being condescending and rude in his response to a student’s question regarding the racial quota system in tertiary education while in the second, Syahir was seen as losing the debate as his presentation was poor, with flawed and under-developed arguments.
PH-BN and PN cybertroopers were quick to engage in both these episodes to spin the story in their side’s favour. In defence of Anwar, PH-BN cybertroopers focused on highlighting that the original video was intentionally edited to embarrass Anwar and emphasising that the PM was right to chide the student.
On the other hand, PN cybertroopers, in manipulating public opinion, accepted that Syahir performed poorly but sought to minimise the debate by calling it a waste of time and claiming that it would not affect the election.
Cybertroopers are not meant to flip political viewpoints but to entrench them; they cast doubt on valid political viewpoints and pre-emptively shut down debate or distort it. In all the examples of online fighting between PH-BN and PN cybertroopers, both sides were adamant that their side was faultless and the other could do no right.
The upshot is that their growing presence is causing Malaysian voters to become even more polarised and fragmented in real life, leaving neutral voters disenfranchised, as they are pushed out of online discourse.
Benjamin YH Loh is Visiting Fellow of the Media, Technology and Society Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and Senior Lecturer at Taylor’s University, Malaysia. Sarah Ali is a PhD candidate at the Gender Studies Programme at Universiti Malaya. This commentary first appeared on ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute’s blog, Fulcrum.