KUALA LUMPUR, April 11 ― After the last general election in 2013, a few Barisan Nasional (BN) parties have started using big data analytics to profile prospective voters.
Besides getting professional help from consultants and think tanks to analyse huge chunks of personal data on the electorate, the main component parties of the ruling coalition say they primarily use social media platforms ― WhatsApp and Facebook ― to spread their messaging in both rural and urban areas in the peninsula.
It is a form of more “targeted” political advertising, since there are WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages / groups for specific interest groups and communities down to the local surau and parent-teacher associations.
BN parties also frequently conduct voter surveys with more than 10,000 respondents at a time to determine the electorate’s stand on issues like the Goods and Services Tax (GST), their political leaning, and basic data like their name, age, residential address, income and education level.
Malay Mail Online interviewed Umno, MCA, Gerakan, MIC and Parti Rakyat Sarawak to find out how exactly they are harnessing voters’ personal data and using social media for political advertising.
Umno Youth vice chief Senator Khairul Azwan Harun spoke about the amount of personal data possessed by the ruling Malay party that has about 1.4 million members, including names, telephone numbers, IC numbers, and addresses.
He noted the large amounts of data that could be gained if even just 60 to 70 per cent of Umno members at the branch level, about 700,000 people, collected information on voters.
“Umno is the only party that has established networking nationwide until grassroots. DAP, MCA, PKR, Pribumi more so, PAS also doesn’t have, only Umno,” Khairul Azwan told Malay Mail Online.
“In the past, we failed to utilise the richness of the data. We are rich in data, but we didn’t use it then. Maybe that time, data analytics consultants didn’t exist then. Even this one consultant who came to see me ― he said ‘Azwan, you just give me all the data ― telephone number, IC, addresses, names. The rest we’ll do it for you, what we need is just the personal details’. You think we don’t have that? We do”.
Khairul Azwan said the local consultant had approached him last December and offered data analytics to analyse sentiment on the ground, but he said Umno Youth would have to look at the cost of such professional services first before considering using them for the 14th general election due by next year.
He also said he was not in a position to say if Umno as a whole was using professional data analytics services.
According to Khairul Azwan, Umno members collect information on millions of people.
The kind of data these Umno members collect on voters includes the name of one’s spouse, how many spouses and children they have, what they do for a living, where their children are studying, and even which “gerai” they hang out at, according to Khairul Azwan.
“If this data can [be] provided to data analytics, imagine what more information we can gain,” he said.
About social media campaigning, Khairul Azwan said Umno’s main communications platform was WhatsApp, pointing out that the party’s social media chief Datuk Ahmad Maslan has over 500 WhatsApp groups.
He added that Umno Youth has a “very credible” team of cybertroopers.
“We’re doing the right thing. We’re relaying the right message, we’re telling the truth, telling the right stories. At the same time, we try to rebut. The rebuttal is done with good ethics, with dignity. We don’t show that we argue or rebut in an angry manner,” said Khairul Azwan.
He accused Opposition members of being emotional, calling him names and putting forth “childish” arguments.
Khairul Azwan acknowledged that before Election 2013, Umno used to lack coordination and discipline and there were leadership issues in the propaganda team.
“But we have overcome those things. Now we have come out to be a solid battalion,” he said.
MIC Youth chief Datuk C. Sivarraajh said the Indian party has been using since 2013 data analytics and PR services provided by consultants on a volunteer basis.
“We seek professionals’ advice because we would like to have cutting edge technology and method in engaging with people, especially the younger group,” Sivarraajh told Malay Mail Online.
He added that MIC was the only Indian-based party with a “proper structure”, as they had members who would know what was going on in local districts.
“If you want me to find something in Perlis, Lorong Lima, I can just pick up the phone, call my Youth there. Within five minutes, I can get details of the family.
“There are cases of people kidnapped ― within an hour, we managed to get back the victim. So this is the network that we have,” he said.
Sivarraajh said MIC Youth was currently using their machinery to conduct a voter survey, together with the National Council of Professors, on more than 10,000 respondents to get data like where they live, where they vote, age, contact details, qualifications, earning capacity, as well as political information like which party they would vote for, would they consider other candidates, what would influence their voting decisions.
He said the survey was conducted door-to-door by university students, with a focus on seats that have more than 15 per cent Indian voters.
MIC information chief Datuk VS Mogan said the party was currently collecting basic information from some 40,000 people who have attended party programmes, such as their name, contact number, address and education level.
He also said since he was appointed MIC information chief in January 2016, the BN headquarters’ social media department has trained almost 1,000 MIC leaders on social media, including on how to use Facebook and how to create infographics.
MIC’s Infozone, which comprises 100 volunteers, sends messages every day to WhatsApp groups, promoting party events, defending party policies and attacking the Opposition, said Mogan. The party’s primary social media platforms are WhatsApp and Facebook.
Mogan added that the Infozone forms various WhatsApp groups in the community, such as on politics, as well as with NGOs, academics, and students.
“It’s a direct reach to them,” said Mogan.
MCA central committee member Datuk Seri Ti Lian Ker said the Chinese party does not engage full-time political consultants as it is expensive, relying instead on INSAP, a think-tank run by MCA, to conduct voter surveys on one’s stand on issues like GST and the economy.
He added that MCA started doing big data analytics since the 2014 Kajang by-election, but only as a “reference”.
“Prior to that, big data was very alien to some of the leaders,” Ti told Malay Mail Online. “We do not do this just purely to convince, to convert or to con people to support us.”
MCA publicity bureau deputy chairman Lau Chin Kok said both local and international political consultants have approached the party, quoting a few million ringgit for their data analytics or PR services.
“Some say they can do video clips for us, charge a few hundred thousand. They say this one very impact, this one can do, charge four million, five million,” Lau told Malay Mail Online.
Ti said MCA relied mostly on volunteerism and INSAP’s data analytics and hence, the party “may not do as well as DAP who has specialists and engages experts”.
According to Lau, MCA has 16 full-time staff in their publicity team, but denied that the party engages full-time cybertroopers.
Ti claimed that the DAP had more funds than MCA because they were in control of the Penang and Selangor state governments. He said his party focused its spending on welfare and education instead of social media campaigning.
“DAP just engage to do warfare. They build cybertroopers army and these cybertroopers, all they’re able to do is verbal abuses in the new media,” he said. “They’ll curse your mother and father and everything.”
He also said MCA was facing an “uphill battle” in getting the Chinese interested in politics, noting that in the past, the norm was to engage social leaders in Chinese guilds, associations and temples who would wield great influence.
“Now, the new generation don’t go to the temple, they don’t go to the Chinese association. They don’t even want to sit and have dinner with the family or mother and father. They’ll prefer to take the food up and hide in the room and look at the iPad,” said Ti. “We no longer can depend on guilds, associations or temple networking.”
Gerakan vice president Datuk Dominic Lau said the party relies on its think tank Sedar Institute to do data analytics, collecting basic information on voters like their age, job, where they vote, and the number of voters in a constituency broken down by race.
When asked if Gerakan did polls on the electorate’s stand on certain issues, Lau said that the party did not do it in a “structured” way or through phone surveys.
“We go down to the ground, to the kopitiam, to listen to them and get back all the feedback,” Lau told Malay Mail Online.
The Gerakan publicity, information and communication bureau chairman acknowledged, however, that “going down to the ground” only touched 10 per cent of the electorate, while 70 per cent was on social media.
“That’s why we really need social media to convey our stand, what we’re fighting for,” said Lau.
He also said Gerakan does not engage political consultants, claiming the party does not have funds.
Lau added that the Opposition’s influence on social media was still greater than Gerakan’s, claiming that young people tended to gravitate towards “negative” stories.
“We attack the Opposition with facts. We won’t create false news to attack,” said Lau. “Opposition can attack us without facts or twist the facts.”
He also accused the DAP of engaging Taiwanese political consultants in the last general elections, noting that the campaigning style during the Taiwan presidential election in January 2016 that he had observed was similar with the DAP’s in Penang.
“The way they’re using, same like what DAP is using ― social media, how they attack opponents, how they use videos,” said Lau. “They’re very close to Taiwan.”
Parti Rakyat Sarawak
Parti Rakyat Sarawak president Tan Sri Dr James Masing, recognising the value of the internet during elections, said the party will continue the practice of recruiting cybertroopers to assist it and its candidates to deliver messages to the voters for the coming general election.
He said the party will not engage PR consultants to help it in the campaign.
“Instead, we will continue with the practice of hiring cybertroopers to engage with the party's supporters, but only in the semi-urban constituencies where internet facilities are available,” Masing told Malay Mail Online.
Masing said campaigning via Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp was out of the question for its rural constituencies which were not accessible by the internet.
“Therefore, campaigning via social media is not the main feature of PRS campaign strategy,” said the Sarawak deputy chief minister.
“Instead, we will continue to engage our voters face to face ― longhouses to longhouse. Though expensive and tiring, it is very effective (to secure the support of the voters).”
* Sulok Tawie contributed to this report.
** Read Part I of the series here: How Malaysian politicians use big data to profile you
*** Read Part III of the Big Data series: Armed with big data, Opposition gears up for GE14 fight against BN