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This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily on April 2, 2018

Data analytics is now seen as an indispensable tool in election campaigns. However, its role in shaping voters’ choices has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks. To what extent are the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan coalitions engaged in using big data and what are their findings showing? Tan Choe Choe takes a look at the rival operations.


About two weeks ago, right after news broke that UK-based Cambridge Analytica had harvested personal data about Facebook users to sway votes in the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum in the UK, this writer met up with Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president Rafizi Ramli for an interview. He is also head of Invoke Malaysia, the opposition’s machinery that uses big data analytics to help secure wins for their candidates in marginal seats.

The meeting was held at Invoke’s three-storey shoplot office in Sungai Besi. Sparsely furnished, with clear glass partitions for walls, about 80 staff work here, all young and tech-savvy, with digital marketing or research-related backgrounds. The average age was around 26, and all of them were working with data gleaned from voters via polls conducted on Facebook and telephone polls by some 20,000 volunteers.

The data not only tells them what voter sentiments and voting trends are, month after month, with the views expressed — along with profiling using statistical tools like regression analysis on voter demographics — they believe they can identify “persuadable” fence-sitters. The group then feeds the parameters that define a “strata”, or a group of voters it has identified, back into social media such as Facebook, to micro-target the group or groups it wants, with carefully crafted election content.

In the interview — from which Rafizi had to pop out for 20 minutes for a telecast on Facebook for Invoke’s 8pm news programme, which runs every Monday to Friday — he said what Invoke is doing, “while conceptually the same” as what the data analytics company Cambridge Analytica does in that both use big data analytics to target voters, is vastly different in reality.

“You have to separate big data or big data analytics from the unethical data mining and manipulation that has come out in news reports related to Cambridge Analytica. The reason is that almost everything in our life now involves big data — whether it’s [using] TV, Google or [doing] banking; it’s all based on big data and it’s here to stay. The issue is whether you obtained the data legally or illegally, and whether the customers, citizens or users know that the information they provide will be used in a certain way.

“The biggest issue with Cambridge Analytica is that it illegally data-mined. That’s not what we do here. What we do here are surveys and from there we do regression and other data analysis to profile potential voters. Then we pick one [group] from a constituency, whom we think are fence-sitters, and then we submit them to Facebook [for micro-targeting]. It’s very different and we don’t actually know who is who,” Rafizi explained.

“Once you have the profiles, you know the big issues or emotional points attached to a certain profile or group. From there, we decide what kind of content or campaign to develop in order to make use of that profiling.”

The biggest difference between the two organisations, he said, is that Invoke passes its own data of potential voters culled from the Election Commission’s electoral roll and PKR’s past petitions, to Facebook. It then uses the platform to send out messages to its targeted groups. “Facebook will come back to us and say, of the 50,000 people we submitted only 10,000 have Facebook accounts; but they won’t tell us which ones. They will then tell us the cost of sending a post to these 10,000 people is, say 20 sen each, and they charge us,” said Rafizi. The cost of sending a message or post varies, but the senders or post creators whose content has had more traction in the past, pay less because the content shared also works to help keep Facebook users on the platform.

“What Cambridge Analytica did was different. They went quietly to Facebook and, unknown to Facebook and its users, sucked personal data out through the ‘This is Your Digital Life’ app. There’s a sort of backdoor access to a user’s Facebook account that also data-mines all of that user’s friends and what his friends do. The issue with Facebook is that they had known much earlier about this [loophole] but kept quiet about the whole thing,” Rafizi said.

While Cambridge Analytica hires itself out to whoever pays for its services, Invoke’s work is financed by crowdfunding, which has raised some RM6 million to date, according to Rafizi.

Invoke will only develop and share content that is positive, said Rafizi, focusing on what Pakatan Harapan and its candidates can do. Discriminatory messages, highly provocative or fake content — in fact “any below-the-belt blows like sex stories” — are big no-nos, he said.

But will the Cambridge Analytica exposé affect public support for Invoke’s work? “No, I don’t think so. The support we get [stems from] the lack of independent news and lack of access that politicians like me have or do not have on local media, so people turn to Facebook, and I have to read the news. People wouldn’t tune in to watch our 8pm news if they were satisfied with what they get from Bulletin Utama. So much of what we do is a reflection of the frustration arising from the stranglehold BN [Barisan Nasional] has on the free flow of information. It’s got nothing to do with big data or data mining,” he added.

Trying to assess various aspects of an individual and understand what makes him or her tick is not something new. It is, in fact, one of the key factors in effective marketing and sales. The more that is known about an individual’s preferences, the more a marketer can leverage this to customise marketing campaigns. It is big data, coupled with access to one’s digital footprint online, that has opened up a world of possibilities for such profiling.

Such marketing techniques will be used more and more to influence voters in elections worldwide, to create content that is emotive and relatable, according to Monash University communications lecturer Dr Julian Hopkins.

BN, too, believes in the power of knowing your voters and leveraging big data analytics to learn more about potential voters and help tailor its political campaign.

“The opportunity is massive for BN Youth to utilise big data in establishing a more strategic and precise election campaign,” BN Youth secretary Ibdil Ishak told Malay Mail Online recently. “Big data will be utilised on the social demographic, political inclination and, imperatively, on the public acceptance of government policies and transformation activities,” he said.


The No 1  battleground

Opposition parties have been gaining traction on the internet since the 12th general election (GE12) in 2008, when blogs proliferated. In GE13, they incorporated the use of social media channels like YouTube and Facebook. Analysts have attributed the opposition’s rising popularity — it gained 51% of the popular vote in the last GE — to its reach on the internet and social media.

In many ways, BN has been playing catch-up online. All too aware of this, and as GE14 draws near, BN chairman Datuk Seri Najib Razak told some 4,000 Umno cybertroopers at the party’s Social Media Convention at Putra World Trade Centre last November that winning on the social media front is key for BN if it wants to remain the government. “We must press the button now and we must all move even stronger as the 14th general election is a battlefield where the cyber war will decide the victor,” he was quoted as saying.

Najib is not wrong, said Rafizi, “in that whoever has more reach on social media, has a better chance of winning”. To Rafizi, “it’s the No 1 battleground, more important than the ceramah on the ground”. But he was also quick to point out that “it depends on so many other things as well, like content, whether the reach is negative or positive, whether you can get them to turn up to vote ... it’s a lot more complicated than having a presence”.

Hence, Rafizi warns candidates against relying on just social media reach. As for himself, he has announced that he will not contest in GE14, following the 30-month jail sentence a Sessions Court imposed on him after finding him and a bank clerk guilty of leaking confidential banking details belonging to the National Feedlot Corp in 2012. The court has allowed a stay of execution pending Rafizi’s appeal.

“It’s like shooting in the dark. You think that just because you have reached 200,000 people, you are good and you’re winning, but it may backfire. In a three-cornered fight, where the difference could be just 2% or 3%, a 1% difference in support level may cause you to lose your seat. So over-reliance on social media, without looking at the conventional/traditional matrix, may be your undoing. So at Invoke, we also look at how many doors are knocked on, how many people get called on the telephone and the turnout. A political campaign is a lot more complicated than just cyber-trooping,” he said.

“Nothing beats face-to-face interaction,” said Umno information chief Tan Sri Annuar Musa. That’s why “social media is just one of the tools we will use, but it is not the most important”, he said when contacted by phone. Nevertheless, he said BN is more prepared for the cyber battle and, when asked, said BN component parties are meeting weekly to strategise for it.


Who has the edge?

Probably one of the most memorable and cringe-worthy viral election videos of GE13 is the karaoke video featuring certain MCA leaders serenading voters with the song, Love Is in the Air. MCA information chief Datuk Ti Lian Ker blamed the notoriety of that video on foreign media, which he said highlighted it due to the influence of the opposition parties. He also said both MCA and its coalition BN have learnt their lesson when it comes to the importance and use of social media — chief of which is in being quick to “rebut falsehoods”.

“Those days, if you were from BN and you said something [online], you’d get blasted. Now it’s different. Now fake news is quickly exposed, which gives BN added strength that it didn’t have in the past elections,” Ti said when contacted.

According to the latest data from social media observer Politweet, which says it is unaffiliated with any political party, interest in the three biggest BN component parties — Umno, MCA and MIC — has increased on Facebook since July 2013 (see chart 1). Only interest in Gerakan, which was almost obliterated in GE13 and left with just one parliamentary seat, dwindled to 270,000 users as at March this year, from 380,000. Umno recorded higher interest, at 3.4 million users.

In contrast, interest in two of three opposition parties measured has fallen. Interest in PAS has halved to 370,000 users from 740,000, while DAP, which used to interest 1.36 million users, now has 1.3 million users; interest in PKR, which was at less than half a million previously, has risen to match DAP’s in March.

In an email response, Politweet founder Ahmed Kamal Nava said most opposition parties have not been doing well on Facebook statistically, “because they have spent the last few years trying to bring down Najib or BN while not working on improving their own reputation.”

The numbers Politweet shared reflect “active accounts” on Facebook that show their interest through page likes, group memberships, status updates and other profile information. However, such interest does not indicate support for a particular party, merely awareness, Ahmed said.

Invoke’s Facebook polls showed a different picture. Results from a poll in the first week of March of 1,510 respondents, surveyed on a stratified and random basis, showed that if the election had been held then, the opposition coalition of Pakatan Harapan would have garnered 50.36% of support, compared with 14.52% for BN, and 15.12% for PAS (see chart 2).

Invoke also uses natural language processing (NLP), which scrapes through comments users post online to assess the sentiment behind them. And what they found supports its Facebook poll findings.

While Invoke’s Facebook poll results “are comforting” to Pakatan, Rafizi said the data was not shared at Invoke’s prediction analysis forum last month because the sample is skewed towards Pakatan, simply because “there are just more Pakatan supporters who are on Facebook”. The median age of its poll sampled on Facebook was 30 years old, with the mean about 35.

A source close to Umno’s leadership, however, thinks no one side is winning or has a clear edge at the moment. But that is only because he thinks Pakatan hasn’t ramped up its campaign. “Don’t forget, the opposition has always performed well when nearing the climax in past GEs.”

He went on to share that the resource-rich incumbent coalition is not making use of the advantage it has. “They’re working in silos, it’s ‘berselerak’ [messy]. Everyone has their own war-room. But they are not combining their efforts well. And these groups are so detached from the grassroots that their narrative becomes very much leadership-centric and not people-centric,” he said.


The WhatsApp wildcard

People are losing interest in politics, based on Politweet’s observations on Twitter and Facebook, said Ahmed, “because they have two bad choices — BN or Pakatan”.

“Based on our reading of what users below 35 have been saying, if Najib were to step down and someone else were the BN candidate for prime minister, BN would be able to win back some support. So that demonstrates the impact of the Pakatan campaign, which was more successful at bringing down Najib’s reputation compared with BN’s reputation. Voter turnout is going to be a real issue of concern this GE,” Ahmed added.

And since Politweet only observes Facebook and Twitter, Ahmed said it is hard to say whether social media can still influence voters. “Our opinion is that people have made up their minds one way or the other. With GE possibly next month, interest should be going up but it’s not.”

He also raised the issue of WhatsApp’s role in this GE. “Since it’s closed, we can’t measure the impact.”

Whether over-the-top (OTT) messaging apps like WhatApp are regarded as part of social media is debatable, said Monash University’s Hopkins. Regardless, he said WhatsApp is the most important platform now for Malaysians to share information and talk to each other, more so than Facebook. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission’s Internet Users Survey 2017 report showed that 96.3% of internet users in Malaysia use OTT messaging services.

“People use different social media platforms to interact with different groups of people. Malaysians generally will use Facebook to communicate with people who are not so close to them, their extended family, friends and acquaintances.

“My own survey in late 2016 showed more than 80% of 279 participants use WhatsApp to communicate with their family and close friends. So I think the group that will influence people more is the one that gets their content shared on WhatsApp, because the sharing is by people that users trust more. And there’s no advertising there — yet. It’s very different from the Facebook trend seen in 2013,” Hopkins added.

Another trend to watch out for is the use of opaque third parties and non-governmental organisations to influence voters, he said. “I believe we will see more content that you won’t know the source of, and it will be professionally produced and be aimed at social media,” Hopkins said.

Whether social media’s pull on voters is as strong as in past GEs remains to be seen, but no one can afford to leave it to chance, even 93-year-old Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is Pakatan’s choice for prime minister. He made his Instagram debut on March 15 with a post of him and his wife of 62 years, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah.

“Social media is a fairly level playing field and is pretty influential in shaping the political narrative. While the side with more resources can try to dominate, the winner will be the one who is the most agile, creative, and credible,” said Merdeka Center’s executive director Ibrahim Suffian, adding that social media is key as traditional media loses its pull on voters.

But to Hopkins, it doesn’t matter who wins on social media. How constituencies are redelineated will be the deciding factor in this election, he said. — The Edge Malaysia

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