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AoIR 2019

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Dr. Niki Cheong presented preliminary findings from the research project on behalf of the team at the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Brisbane, Australia (October 2019).

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AoIR 2019

  1. 1. Decoding the weaponisation of popular culture on WhatsApp in Singapore and Malaysia NIKI CHEONG @ UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM, UK + CRYSTAL ABIDIN @ CURTIN UNIVERSITY AMELIA JOHNS@ UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY SYDNEY JOANNE LIM @ UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM MALAYSIA NATALIE PANG @ NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE
  2. 2. Introduction • Examining the dissemination of crucial messages using popular culture on WhatsApp using cases from Singapore and Malaysia • Ongoing project – January to December 2019 • Mix of ethnography/participant observation and personal interviews
  3. 3. Decoding the weaponisation of popular culture on WhatsApp in Malaysia and Singapore
  4. 4. Approaches and Methodology  1) Walkthrough method (Light et al. 2018) to understand affordances of WhatsApp  2) Digital ethnography of related interest groups of social media and WhatsApp: Internet celebrities, Political Facebook pages & groups, WhatsApp groupchats, Meme factories  3) Scrollback method (Robards & Lincoln 2017) and interviews to study face- to-face user demonstrations of WhatsApp 30SG, 30MY)  4) Survey regarding use of WhatsApp chats, esp. personal opinion vs. group sentiment (300SG, 300MY) among ‘youths’ aged 18-34
  5. 5. Weaponisation Our initial survey from pilot studies anticipate that the ‘fake news’ discourse is being used as a tool to suppress dissent, a ruse to fear monger and scam digitally illiterate citizens, and a strategy for the social steganography of contentious ideas.
  6. 6. Internet Popular Culture Memes Personalities Formats
  7. 7. “ ” To me personally, right, memes, as long as I have a compulsion to share it, it’s a meme, it’s a ha ha, ok, time to share it … I mean memes are memes because they travel. MEMES N DREAMS, TELEGRAM GROUP WITH 17,500 PEOPLE
  8. 8. “ ” “Our entry point was never just like memes and gifs, our entry point was finding the point between, um, education and entertainment … And the zeitgeist at that point in time was gifs and memes- so why not incorporate it into the article.” CILISOS, NEWS PORTAL THAT PIONERED ‘MAGGI TEXT’
  9. 9. Popular Culture • Empty carriers – designed to spread and deliver laughs or an emotional boost – that can be loaded with ideological content. • Used differently in entertainment (‘amateur’) versus informative (’professional’) contexts. • Formats may disarm people and facilitate spread of contentious ideas.
  10. 10. “ ” (On) WhatsApp, I cannot force that particular thing to be not shared. WELLNESS ADVOCATE, 58, SINGAPORE “It can just go like wildfire. But like I said, I – I know I’m not sending out illegal messages, message that is not supposed to be – but I don’t want to give false hope to people because it’s just not about using a product and then maybe – the underlying thing beyond that…” Disinformation/False News
  11. 11. “ ” Oh, drinking too much, like, drinking cold water is after – especially after 11 pm – is bad for your health, all that kind of thing. STUDENT, 22, SINGAPORE ”Yeah, we have a family group chat, I do have like, my parents, sometimes, you know – send those graphics of yeah, this thing, or – sharing a link which – the website doesn’t seem very credible, but they are sharing … Or she shares some random fact that doesn’t seem very factual. Like she thinks it’s scientific but it’s not, I’ll ask her ‘which Facebook article did you find this from?’ That kind of thing.” Health Conspiracies
  12. 12. “ ” Usually the more controversial ones are the religion – the ones that are related to religion and race, so sometimes it’s about like the fault of the writing that sounds like emotion-laced. SAYS.MY, CONTENT PORTAL IN MALAYSIA “If it’s emotionally laced it sounds as though you are already, um, pointing your finger, then they have the right to be like, this writer, you know, obviously trying to blah blah this particular race or whatever. Others where it’s more conspiracy theories that, that prefer to think that, um, the person on the cover image was chosen because of her race and like, then it’s just normal social media, like Says is always trying to – all that, that kind of thing.” Race and Religion
  13. 13. “ ” Our black ops is to rebut the other side’s black ops … If, for instant, you know, during the campaign, if you find a particular cybertrooper, who normally, would not be using his or her real name start attacking. I mean not attacking lah, assassination lah!” SAIFUDDIN ABDULLAH, MALAYSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER Political Propaganda/Attacks
  14. 14.  Cybertroopers are agents mobilised by state-linked political actors who rely on the internet affordances to engage in activities related to the manipulation of information and the disruption of communication practices to assist the state to secure its power. (Niki Cheong, PhD thesis, 2019)
  15. 15. Steve Bones Everything • Use of satire (parody) on the haze affecting Malaysia (and Singapore) • Standup comedian using video format (via YouTube) as political commentary • Almost all participants interviewed since video was released reported receiving the video on WhatsApp despite not having a big following on Facebook Citizen Response
  16. 16. Digital Literacy • On WhatsApp, the spread of contentious ideas appear to go along generational lines. • Participants refer to parents, ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ that tend to forward content indiscriminately. • Part of this has been attributed to culture of caution, but could also be linked to digital literacy. • In Malaysia and Singapore, ‘filial’ values sometimes affects efforts at correcting misinformation.
  17. 17. “ ” It’s not reliable because instead of getting it from a proper, er, legit source, you get it from your, umm, mother, father. MALAYSIAN PARTICIPANT One group interviewed (5 students) talking about misinformation on Whatsapp during the 14th General Elections in Malaysia. I asked, What groups are these? All five, at the same time, replied, “Family!” “That WhatsApp group was crazy you know … most of them are forwarded messages.” “I think the older generation are prone to believing everything they receive”
  18. 18. “ ” “…usually my mother are those who receive this kind of messages, and I just avoid talking about it because I don’t want to keep contradicting an elder. I mean, if I keep sending her posts to show her that she’s wrong, she will in the end stop sending it to me, but she may send to other people. SINGAPOREAN PARTICIPANT “I think sometimes it’s easy for us as tech-savvy young people to say “Just research”, I think for older people, or for people who just don’t have the time, or just don’t have the knowledge…”
  19. 19. Discussion  Popular culture can be weaponized at beginning, and at any point.  Meanings are so mutable, that’s why they spread and people can put different meanings (or appropriate the content).  Affordances of WhatsApp facilitate the spreading of such content.  Cultural and generational context important in understanding how such contentious ideas spread on WhatsApp.
  20. 20. Decoding the weaponisation of popular culture on WhatsApp in Singapore and Malaysia WHATSAPPRESEARCH.HOME.BLOG @NIKICHEONG (UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM, UK) – WWW.NIKICHEONG.COM + CRYSTAL ABIDIN @ CURTIN UNIVERSITY AMELIA JOHNS@ UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY SYDNEY JOANNE LIM @ UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM MALAYSIA NATALIE PANG @ NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE

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