05/05/2018 3:16 PM IST | Updated 06/05/2018 12:20 AM IST

This Country’s Election Shows The Complicated Role Twitter Plays In Democracy

A hashtag is mobilizing hundreds to vote in the Malaysian elections, but the bots are out in force too.

Abby Seiff
Sue Ling Gan and Timothy Teoh have set up platforms to help connect poorer Malaysian voters with car rides and sponsorships to help them return home to vote.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia ― When the date of the general election was revealed, the outcry was swift. 

Tradition in Malaysia is for elections to be held over the weekend, giving the many people who have migrated to the big cities time to return to their towns and villages to vote. But on the morning of April 10, Malaysia’s Election Commission announced voting would take place on May 9 ― a weekday. The last time it was scheduled midweek was the country’s first election in 1959.

For a population that has grown frustrated by high-level corruption scandals, the rising cost of living, and what many see as a lack of accountability from the world’s longest-ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, the announcement was a tipping point.

Shortly afterward, Joe Lee, an internet personality with a big social media following, put out a call. “Ok…. You know what. I’m starting the hashtag#PulangMengundi. If you have problems taking time off to vote, or can’t afford to - please use the hashtag, and maybe someone can help” he tweeted from his @klubbkiddkl handle.  

Abby Seiff
Joe Lee, who tweets from the handle @klubbkiddkl, is a Malaysian Twitter personality who started the hashtag #PulangMengundi to help people get to the polls.

The hashtag, which translates as “return to vote,” took off. Students began tweeting about how they couldn’t afford to go home. Workers wrote about how they couldn’t get the day off. Complaints mounted about airlines whose ticket prices had skyrocketed as much as eight times their normal rate

And, one by one, ordinary Malaysians began stepping in with offers to cover the costs of returning to vote in the middle of a workweek. By the night of April 10, #PulandMengundi was the top trending hashtag in Malaysia. 

Almost every afternoon for the past week, Tengku Elida Bustaman and Alzari Mahshar, with several of their children in tow, have headed to a bank and parked themselves in front of cash deposit machines for upward of an hour, making disbursements to voters. The pair is part of Undi Rabu, or Vote Wednesday ― one of several ad hoc but highly organized fundraising committees born out of the Twitter campaign.

Abby Seiff
Alzari Mahshar (left) and Tengku Elida Bustaman are volunteers for a fundraising organization to help people vote.

“We have a culture called gotong royong ― helping each other. Usually it’s for weddings and the whole village will come to help you. We’re trying to bring that spirit here,”says Bustaman, a former newscaster. She’s one of nine core volunteers, including lawyers and accountants, behind Undi Rabu. Dozens more people help out on social media, spreading the message.

“This time, we felt there is something that we need to do,” says Mahshar, who runs a homemade peanut butter company. It’s being held midweek … first-time voters are the young ones, they’re in university ... and the distance that they need to travel [to vote] is something that could bring so much difficulty and expenses. So that’s why we came up with the group, the idea of why don’t we help them.”

In the two weeks since the election date was announced, the group has raised nearly 200,000 ringgit, or about $50,000, according to Bustaman. The money has come from about 250 sponsors, to be disbursed among more than 1,000 recipients. Most are students and first-time voters, members of the “B40” ― the bottom 40 percent of the country by income ― those who earn less than $1,000 a month.

Sponsors send money in, voters make requests, and the organizers draw up disbursement lists, which they go over with a fine-tooth comb. The entire process has been an unfathomable logistical challenge involving bags of cash, daily lists of scores of names, and countless hours of work.

“Actually, we had no idea when we started it,” Bustaman says with a chuckle. “Honestly, if you had asked me if we were expecting how it is today, this big, we would have thought twice, built a better team. We could have built a bigger platform.”

Abby Seiff
Election signs are displayed on a bus in Kuala Lumpur. The May 9 election is the first midweek contest in the country since its first election in 1959.

Amir Aiman Tahrim, a chemical engineering student in Melaka, stumbled on the Twitter hashtag while trying to figure out how he could afford the drive back to his home in Kuala Lumpur, about 90 miles away.

The amount of money he eventually got from a sponsor, the equivalent of about $13, isn’t much, but for someone on a student budget, it’s been much-needed support.

“As a student, I tried to limit my spending on traveling as much as I could,” he wrote in a message. “Tolls and petrol; these two things ain’t cheap.”

“It is important to go home to vote, as one vote is important. It will trigger the domino effect,” he added.

The midweek election date appears to have galvanized first-time voters like Tahrim.

“Wednesday was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The whole movement harnessed the energy that we had brewing,says Lee, now a boisterous newspaper editor who gained fame in the early 2000s as an entertainment blogger under his alter ego KlubbKidd. (“It was like, well, I don’t want to say like Perez Hilton, because I did it before him,” he says.)

When I meet Lee, he’s sporting a fresh-off-the-presses #PulangMengundi fundraiser T-shirt. “You put [the election] on Wednesday and people get so pissed off,” he says, with a snap of his fingers.“Oh, you’re trying to stop us from voting.”

Analysts suggest that the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition would benefit fromlow voter turnout. The last election had an 85 percent turnout, the highest in history, and Barisan Nasional received just 46.5 percent of the popular vote ― its lowest in history.  

Abby Seiff
Lee (left) and Mahshar are involved in efforts to make Malaysia's upcoming midweek election more accessible to voters.

“Studies indicate that low voter turnout slightly benefits the incumbent,” says Rashaad Ali, a research analyst with the Malaysia program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University. But the decision to hold the elections midweek, he adds, “may have backfired in the sense that it pushed those who were previously apathetic toward politics into some form of engagement. In attempting to secure the elections, the government may have inadvertently reignited the political engagement of many Malaysians.”

Sue Ling Gan was one of the people mobilized. When the election was announced, the 31-year-old software consultant watched in amazement as the hashtags picked up pace with sponsors and voters reaching out to one another across Twitter.

Moved by the outpouring of support, Gan approached her boyfriend, programmer Wong You Jing, about launching a platform to connect donors and recipients. When they went to purchase the domain that evening, they discovered it had been taken already by another developer with similar aims ― Timothy Teoh, 34. 

Abby Seiff
Gan and others launched an online platform to help connect people with car rides and donations to make the journey home to vote.

The pair contacted Teoh and his two co-creators and joined forces to launch their dual-purpose website less than three days later. One side connects drivers with people looking for rides back to their hometown to vote. The other side allows people to post what travel subsidies they need and connect with potential donors. In less than two weeks, 2,000 voters have made requests, sponsors have disbursed the equivalent of about $5,100, and the site has connected more than 4,000 drivers and passengers. 

“A lot of people are saying on our site ‘this is my first time voting, I’m a student voter.’ Number one, it’s hard for them to take time off. Two, it’s actually very expensive to get a bus or flight back” Teoh says.

“If it wasn’t a Wednesday, would you build a website?” Gan turns to ask her co-creator.

He shakes his head. “See, it’s the same for us. We would have just voted quietly on a Saturday or Sunday,” he says. 

The voting age in Malaysia is 21, and this year’s election includes some 1.7 million newly registered voters.

Young voters are hardly a monolithic block, but those under the age of 40 make up more than 40 percent of the nearly 15 million registered voters andmany are keeping their options open.

The chief opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, is led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a 92-year-old who served between 1981 and 2003, making him the country’s longest-serving prime minister. While many have become strong supporters in the past month, eager to see a change of any kind, others are less enamored. Earlier this year, another hashtag went viral on Twitter, #UndiRosak, or “spoiled vote,” which urged voters to invalidate their ballot in protest at the candidates. 

Lai Seng Sin/Reuters
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is a candidate in Malaysia's general election.

Those advocating #PulangMengundi stress the apolitical nature of the campaign. When I ask Gan if she considers herself political, she responds with an emphatic “no.” Gan and Teoh had their website vetted by three lawyers to ensure there was no contravention of the election law. Lee has been outspoken about the neutral aspect of the endeavor and the Undi Rabu group has blocked people who try to tie donations to political leanings. 

But while social media may be helping engage voters in Malaysia, it is not immune from the darker implications, which have been a feature in elections around the world. Just days after the campaign launched, bots began pouring onto Twitter with pro-government messages and photos and using the #PulangMengundi and #UndiRabu hashtags.

By flooding the timelines with the same hashtag, says Lee, the bots effectively were “blocking people from getting help. It’s a whole breakdown in communication, you can’t connect to anyone. The hashtag was a matching service.”

Abby Seiff
Lee shows a message he sent on Twitter about reporting bots that have tried to disrupt voter outreach efforts.

The efforts to disrupt the movement, which haven’t stopped it from gaining momentum, could have come from Barisan Nasional or its supporters, says Donara Barojan, a research associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. She wrote an article in April about Malaysia’s election bots.

“It’s a common trend ― bots are frequently used either to promote a certain hashtag or disrupt a conversation under a hashtag,” she says in a phone interview. The Malaysian government has denied any involvement and said it is investigating the bots, according to Reuters.

As with the midweek election date, however, each disruption appears simply to raise more awareness among voters.

“At the end of the day, when I look at the situation, I’m kind of thankful for it because every single thing that stands in our way serves to fire people up more,” Lee says. “What Pulang Mengundi did, with Undi Rabu and Carpool and all that ― to see all the beautiful Malaysian stories of total strangers helping each other out with their hard-earned cash. That got a lot of people thinking. So you got a lot of young adults, first-time voters who probably would not have come home to vote, getting all excited.”

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