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ICA 2012: Weiyu Zhang, Joanne Lim Bee Yin

Social media and general elections in authoritarian democracies: The cases of Malaysia and Singapore 

Guided by a theoretical approach that focuses on the interaction between the media, politicians and citizens, this paper tries to chart the influence of social media during the two recent general elections in Malaysia and Singapore, within the context of a particular type of political system, which bears a hybrid title as authoritarian democracies. Against this backdrop of authoritarian governance along with popular elections, social media have manifested their unique impacts that have not been seen in established democracies. This paper utilizes mixed methods (i.e., a combination of election statistics and virtual ethnography) to analyze four aspects of such impacts: First, social media are used by the oppositions as alternative media to disseminate information and forge opinions, due to the close control of traditional mass media by the authorities. Second, social media empower the oppositional forces by serving as efficient tools to mobilize, organize, and engage active citizens in political rallies, protests, and the actual voting sessions. Third, social media magnify the discontent with the authorities and change the perception of opinion climate among ordinary citizens. Finally, the above-mentioned influence is particularly evident among young voters as social media are part of their life style. This portion of voters has shown to be an important force that supports the oppositions. We conclude that the two cases indicate that social media change the political balance in authoritarian democracies that have gone the development procedure half-way through. However, there are potential problems with the social-media-based election politics in such systems, including the lack of credibility and the danger of populism.

Weiyu Zhang (PhD, UPenn) is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. Her research focuses on three areas: civic engagement and ICTs, China and the Internet, as well as media multitasking. She has published works on eDeliberation, Chinese online communities, and multitasking with both mass and new media. Her current project is a cross-national study on youth, new media and civic engagement in six Asian countries.

Dr. Joanne Lim is Assistant Professor at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, teaching media, communications, and cultural studies. Joanne has presented research papers and been invited to conduct workshops in China, UK, Singapore, Korea, and Malaysia on the topics of social media and youth, cultural politics and implications of the media. She has written a book chapter in a book published by Routledge, entitled “Media Consumption and Everyday Life in Asia,” and is currently writing a manuscript on videoblogging, flashmobs and the culture of connectivity.  She recently completed a study on Youth, ICTs and political engagement in Malaysia, which was part of a six nation study funded by the International Development Research Centre in Canada. She currently leads a research project funded by the Ministry of Higher Education’s Fundamental Research Grant Scheme to examine social media and youth agency in the country. Joanne was a broadcast journalist at a news station in Canada, co-produced a radio talk show in Seattle, USA and is a former journalist with a leading newspaper in Malaysia.