Malaysian polls in November saw surge of hate speech on social media: Study

The study found that PAS chief Hadi was the sole influencer tracked with two posts containing dehumanising and hostile language.

Shannon Teoh

Shannon Teoh

The Straits Times


PAS representatives wave the party flag as they rally ahead of Malaysia's election. PHOTO: BERNAMA

May 31, 2023

KUALA LUMPUR – Hate speech surged during Malaysia’s bitterly contested general elections last November, according to a study of social media that also found Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and its president Hadi Awang to be the prime proponents of racial rhetoric.

Although PAS is now in the opposition as part of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, it ended up as the largest party in Malaysia’s Parliament for the first time, with 43 MPs in the 222-strong chamber.

“PAS president Hadi Awang and his party were the biggest amplifiers of race. Posts on race were also found to perpetuate disinformation,” said the report published by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in partnership with Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Malaysia Sabah and University of Nottingham Malaysia.

It cited as example Tan Sri Hadi’s TikTok claim that the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) from Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance was “merely using Malay candidates to gain voter traction”, which had 2.5 million engagements, the highest of close to 100,000 messages analysed.

The study tracked the Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok accounts of more than 90 key political and government actors. It found the number of “unique messages” touching on common hate speech subjects had nearly doubled to 99,563 from Oct 20 to Nov 26, as compared to about 55,000 in a pilot study carried out during a longer period from Aug 16 to Sept 30.

Parliament was dissolved on Oct 10, triggering the start of unofficial campaigning for the Nov 19 vote.

The election threw up Malaysia’s first ever hung Parliament, leading to five days of intense horse trading before Datuk Seri Anwar was sworn in as leader of a coalition government comprising PH, the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN), and a clutch of East Malaysian parties.

But PN could further increase its support within the Malay Muslim majority before polls to elect the governments of six of Malaysia’s 13 state governments. These are due by August and are expected to see a fierce contest between the PH and PN coalitions.

CIJ executive director Wathshlah Naidu said at the launch of the Social Media monitoring of Malaysia’s 15th General Elections report on Tuesday that the weaponisation of race and religion is expected to continue at the state polls as the issue has gone largely unaddressed since the general election.

“For the state election… we are already foreseeing the possibility that it will be the same narrative because things have not really stopped,” she said.

The study found that PAS chief Hadi was the sole politician or influencer tracked with two posts reaching “level three” severity, deemed as containing dehumanising and hostile language.

The report, citing a lack of universally agreed definition of hate speech, “adapted its own levels” to “address the progression of speech that is intolerant, discriminatory and dehumanising, and that incites violence and bodily harm.”

Over 80 per cent of hate speech messages analysed were level one, indicating disagreements or non-offensive language, while close to 18 per cent were level two for offensive or discriminatory language.

Only 105 posts were level three and 39 were at the highest grade of severity, which involved incitement or calls for violence.

Some of these hate speech postings engaged in disinformation, such as when PAS leaders accused DAP of being communists, while former premier PN chief Muhyiddin Yassin claimed that Jews and Christians had a covert agenda to proselytise and convert Muslims in Malaysia.

About two-thirds of the posts analysed were race-based followed by religion with about a quarter, although many of the hate speech postings often had elements of both issues, or even other categories.

Some 14 per cent concerned royalty while posts touching on gender and targeting the LGBTIQ community accounted for about half that. Less than 4 per cent of comments targeted migrants and refugees.

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