Sweeping the Unclean: Social Media and the Bersih Electoral Reform
Movement in Malaysia
Canada Research Chair in Digital Media
& Global Network Society, Carleton
- *Corresponding Author:
- Merlyna Lim
Canada Research Chair in Digital Media& Global Network Society
Communication& Media Studies, Carleton University
Ottawa, ON K1V8N3,Canada
Received date: August 05, 2016; Accepted date: September 16, 2016; Published date: October 15, 2016
Citation: Lim M. Sweeping the Unclean:
Social Media and the Bersih Electoral
Reform Movement in Malaysia. Global
Media Journal. 2016, 14:27.
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In this article author investigate how social media was utilized and appropriated in the electoral reform movement in Malaysia called Bersih. By identifying and analyzing roles of three dominant social platforms in the Bersih movement, namely blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, author reveal that social media is both the site and part of the contestations of power Social media is integral to the shaping of Bersih movement's imaginaries, practices, and trajectories. As a social and material artifact, every technological platform such as blogging, Facebook, and Twitter has its own socio-political properties that postulate distinctive roles and limitations for its users.
Malaysia; Bersih; Politics; Blogging; Social media; Facebook; Twitter
It was 1.45 pm in Kuala Lumpur. The Light Rail Transit (LRT)
station at Pasar Seni was unusually busy. A crowd of thousands,
mostly young, walked towards the Dataran Merdeka, a historic
square once a focal point and cricket pitch for the British colonial
presence in Malaysia. Wearing “Bersih 3.0” T-shirts, some of
which were green, they looked high-spirited. Along the walk
there were some young men handing out free bottles of mineral
water. Various slogans were shouted: “Bersih! Bersih! We want
fair and clean elections! Reformasi! Reform!”
After more than twenty minutes of walking, the crowd was forced
to stop. Apparently the road was blocked by about 100 riot police.
One of the Bersih leaders told the crowd to sit down and let
the Bersih leaders proceed to Dataran Merdeka. The protesters
followed the order briefly but they quickly became restless. Many
started walking to multiple directions. A small crowd was walking
towards the Masjid Jamek LRT station, five-minutes walk away
from Dataran Merdeka, and soon the crowd grew larger and
At 2.15 pm, the Masjid Jamek station had become over crowded.
At 2.34 pm, Bersih chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan took a
megaphone and announced that the rally had been a great success
telling the crowd to disperse. The insistent crowd responded by
chanting: Dataran! Dataran! The chanting turned to panic when
a warning shot was fired and tear gas was deployed. People
screamed. Smoke was everywhere. It started looking like a war
The excerpt above is taken from a field-note author wrote while
observing and ‘experiencing’ the Bersih 3.0 rally in Malaysia
on 28 April 2012. Author saw the crowd in green Bersih 3.0
T-shirts. Author heard people chanting. Author saw protesters
dispersed as the police started firing tear gas canisters and
water canons. People cheering, loud gunshots, smoke rising, the
crowd screaming, author witnessed them all. Yet, author was not
‘there’. Author did not physically experience any of these. Being
9,000 miles away, author was sitting in front of my computer with
multiple windows opened on the monitor screen. Author saw the
six-hour protest journey, from 1 pm to 7 pm, developing over time
from multitudes of tweets, links, photos, and videos transmitted
from the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Johor Baru. The
impressive amount of live reporting made a real time observation
possible. Within 24 hours, there were over 300,000 tweets, 2,000
YouTube videos, and 300 relevant blog posts posted online. This
could possibly be one of the most recorded popular protests of
Coming from the Malay word for ‘clean’, Bersih is a popular
name for “The Coalition of Free and Fair Elections” attempting to
reform the electoral system in Malaysia by addressing pervasive electoral misconducts to sweep any ‘unclean’ practices to ensure
free and fair election. Many credited the first Bersih rally in 2007
as a major contributing factor to a shift in the political landscape
in the 2008 election where the ruling coalition Barisan National
failed to obtain a two-third super majority for the first time since
1969. The third and the largest rally, Bersih 3.0 in 2012, just a year
before the next election, can be credited for not only mobilizing
the highest voter turnout in the Malaysian history but also with
the relative success of an opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat.
Although the ruling coalition still secured the majority of seats,
the opposition won 50.9% of the popular vote (SPR, 2013). By the
time of writing this article, Bersih movement just held its fourth
mass rally, Bersih 4.0, on August 2015, calling not only for a clean
election but also the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Beyond Bersih, the use of digital media for political activism in
Malaysia has a long and impressive trajectory. It began with the
use of the pre-social media internet during the Reformasi (a Malay
word meaning ‘reform’ in English) movement in 1998 [1,2] that
took place concurrently with a similar movement in Indonesia
where the internet also played a substantial role [3,4]. Malaysian
Reformasi movement refers to the movement that began in the
wake of the former Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohammad’s
controversial dismissal of his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in September
1998. This movement called for social and political reforms that
opposed Mahathir’s ‘cronyistic’ responses to the financial crisis
. Since the late 1990s, Southeast Asia has been among places
with the most vibrant digital activism. The world history of digital
media and political activism that started with the 1994 Zapatista
uprising [6,7], however, has predominantly centered on North
America, Europe, and, recently, the Middle East, marginalizing
stories coming from the Southeast Asian context .
In this article, author examine and contextualize the role(s) of
the internet and social media as being manifested in the on-theground
activism and embedded in the contour of societal changes
and transformations. The main method used in this research is
online/offline observation that involves ‘hanging out’ in both nongeographical
(online) and geographical (in Kuala Lumpur) spaces.
Online observation was conducted by joining online communities
(e.g. Bersih Facebook pages/groups) and subscribing to top
Malaysian socio-political blogs and news portals (they were
selected based on their ranks on Alexa.com). Field notes were
written as narratives of observations and the texts of relevant
online communications were recorded electronically. Author also
collected Twitter and Facebook data, especially during the Bersih
3.0 rally, to augment my field notes and to specifically analyze the
patterns of usage of these tools prior and during the rallies.
Media technologies have always been part of social movements.
Insurgent movements would naturally embrace the medium that
suits people most. Malaysia is no exception; every single major
wave of protests in Malaysia is associated with lively alternative
media. In the early 20th century, Malay journalists, poets and
essayists played important roles in radicalizing the Malay
majority and developing the anti-colonial sentiment against
the British Empire. In the 1998 Reformasi, the opposition group
made an intensive use of online alternative news to contest the
ruling regime. Social media therefore is an obvious media of choice for the twenty first century urban activism such as the
Bersih movement. In examining and contextualizing the roles
of social media in Malaysian politics through the case of Bersih
movement, my main question is: What role did social media play
in the formation and development of the movement?
In the following section I offer a brief historical overview of the
internet development its entanglement with political activism in
the country to help contextualizing the role of social media in the
Online Activism in Malaysia
The history of the internet in Malaysia begins in 1990 when Jaring,
the first ISP (Internet Service Provider), was launched. In 1995,
TMNet, the Malaysia’s second ISP, was born, followed by a growth
of internet hosts in 1996. Since then there has been a steady rise
in internet access for both commercial and residential uses. As of
June 2015, Malaysia's broadband household penetration rate is
70.4% with 23 million users representing 77.6% of the population
, a tremendous gain from only 3.7 million in 2000 .
The Malaysian government has always been an enthusiastic
supporter of the technology from the beginning and has invested
enormously in the internet infrastructure. The Multimedia Super
Corridor (MSC), a ‘cyber region’ located in the south of Kuala
Lumpur, was established in 1996, the MSC as a “global center
for multimedia technologies and content” and “its aims was to
‘leapfrog’ Malaysia from the Industrial Era to an Information Era”
. In spite of its unfailing support for the development of the
internet, the government continues to feel ambivalent about its
political and social significances. It has always been torn between
the desire to promote the technology for economic prosperity and
shield its citizens from being exposed to ‘unwanted information’.
Meanwhile, the history of online activism in Malaysia can be
traced back to 1995, when the technology emerged as the
platform for free discussion in the country’s otherwise tightly
controlled media environment. While Malaysian law allowed for
strict controls of print media since 1984, the government decided
not to censor the internet. A provision of the Communication and
Media Act (CMA) in 1998 explicitly states that nothing in the Act
“shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the internet”
(Article 3). In practice, however, the internet is not free. The
government can use other media-related and libel law against any
parties who have different voices than the authorities. Examples
of such laws: 1960 Internal Security Act, 1967 Police Act, 1966
Societies Act, 1971 Sedition Act, 1972 Official Secrets Act, 1984
Printing Presses and Publication Act and the 2012 amendment to
the 1950 Evidences Act, Section 114A.
The political usage of the internet in Malaysia was notable in
the 1998 Reformasi movement when it became the principal
means of communication among activists and an alternative
source of information and news for Malaysians . Although
the movement did not lead to any regime change, it gave birth to
Malaysia’s online activism and rejuvenated civil society activism in
the country [10,11]. Malaysiakini, the country’s most progressive
and powerful alternative online media, was founded during
the Reformasi in 1999 and survived both political and financial
struggles to establish its place in the national media landscape. In March 2015, Malaysiakini was ranked 14th most visited website
in Malaysia while the pro-government Star Online ranked 15th
(Alexa.com). Also founded during the Reformasi is Harakah Daily,
an online news outlet for the oppositional party, Parti Islam
seMalaysia, which quickly became the most sophisticated and
content-rich partisan website . Other prominent ones include:
a website of a pro-justice NGO Aliran.com, a human right website
Suaram.net, and various websites of the Hindraf (Hindu Rights
Action Force), a coalition of NGOs who advocate on behalf of
Malaysia’s (largely Hindu) Indian community . By facilitating
the emergence of these alternative media, the internet “allows
for the creation of community of interest … [that] is directly
related to the reconstruction of the off-line community of the
Malaysian nation” .
In 2000, following the imprisonment of a Reformasi movement
leader Anwar Ibrahim, streets protests were virtually
disappeared. The decline of Reformasi as a street activism,
however, did not coincide with the decline of online activism.
Pro-reform activists continued using the digital media space as
their subaltern counterpublic space, an alternative space to the
dominant bourgeois public sphere to cultivate hidden transcripts
to communicate, deliberate, post and spread information online
. The alternative online media sphere continued to “ground
its online activities in everyday politics” , paved the way for
the emergence of the blogosphere activism in 2002 and provided
the basis and ingredients for the making of Bersih movement.
Here author argue that two decades of Malaysian online-offline
activism since 1990s provided a groundwork for the relative
success of present day Bersih movement.
The Bersih Movement
Bersih is an alliance of 62 non-governmental organizations
seeking to reform the national electoral system officially formed
on 23 November 2006. The call of Bersih can be summarized in
eight points: clean the electoral roll to be free from irregularities;
reform postal ballot system to ensure that all citizens are able
to exercise their right to vote; use of indelible ink; free and fair
access to media; 21 days minimum campaign period; strengthen
and reform public institutions to act independently, uphold laws,
and protect human rights; stop corruption; and stop dirty politics.
The first four points were put forward in 2007, the rest were
added in 2011.
Bersih’s focus on electoral reform is largely related to the fact that
in the last forty years Malaysia has been ruled by the National
Front or Barisan National (BN), the world’s longest ruling coalition,
led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the
world’s longest ruling party. Under BN’s leadership, Malaysia’s
economic development had been outstanding and the middleclass
population is growing rapidly. Its economic development,
however, is not followed by political change . BN bases its
political legitimacy upon outstanding economic performance and
popular sovereignty gained from winning the majority of electoral
votes, even though multiparty elections were far from fully free
or fair . Until the 2008 Elections, BN’s performance had been
strong where in every single election it always gained about two
third (or more) of the popular votes. For Bersih, consequently, electoral reform is seen as a pathway toward changes in politics
The long domination of BN cannot be separated from the
issue of race and ethnicity. As a multiracial society, Malaysia is
divided along racial lines. BN was originally conceptualized as
a confederation political parties-the United Malays National
Organization, the Malaysian Chinese Association, and the
Malaysian Indian Congress-representing three main ethnic
groups in Malaysia, namely Malays, Chinese, and Indians. BN
adapted the colonial practice of racial politics, ‘divide-and-rule’,
to keep apart various ethnic groups politically, economically, and
socially and to justify its image as the guardian of social and racial
harmony . The racial riot of 1969 haunts the Malaysian psyche
and it is frequently used in general elections to discourage people
from exercising their electoral choice. In the official record, the
Sino-Malay sectarian violence that broke out on 13 May 1969,
occurred in the aftermath of the 1969 general election where the
opposition parties won against the ruling coalition Alliance Party,
a former name of BN.
While Bersih defines itself as a non-partisan civil society
movement, its prime supporters are the three main Malaysian
oppositional political parties-Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS),
Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR),
which together formed the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat
(PR), meaning ‘People’s Pact’ or ‘People’s Alliance’. Bersih’s
development, in some ways, goes hand in hand with the
emergence and trajectory of PR. Arguably, Bersih’s relatively
successful multi-ethic mobilization cannot be separated from
the involvement of PR. While the movement itself has not been
successful in ushering Malaysia to a post racial era, Bersih leaders
and activists continuously attempted to go beyond a racial
division in mobilizing their supporters.
Public protests were a rarity in Malaysia. In 1998-1999 there were
some sparks of street activism with the emergence of Reformasi
movement; and, yet, the authorities successfully cracked them
down. Since 2000, the Malaysian streets had become sterile,
apolitical. Except the anti Iraq protests in 2003, there was no
major protest took place in 2000 to 2006. The 2007 Bersih rally
and subsequent street protests that followed (such as Hindraf
rallies, Repeal the Internal Security Act rally, the Occupy Dataran)
had turned this upside down. The first public demonstration in
November 2007 drew about 40,000 participants . The second
rally in July 2011 still drew about 50,000 protesters, despite being
deemed illegal by the government who combated the protesters
with the riot squad, tear gas, and street arrests . Marked by
road blockages, riot police, tear gas, and water canon, the 2012
Bersih 3.0 rally drew around 150,000 to 200,000 protesters .
In the face of government’s crackdowns and criminalization, the
movement turned out to be increasingly popular and became a
significant social and political force in Malaysia. More than just
a movement for electoral reforms, Bersih also contributed to
the increase levels of political participation among young urban
Malaysians, as reflected in the 2013 General Election’s voter
turnout. More importantly, even though BN secured a majority
of seats (60%) to form the federal government, it gained a mere
47.4% of the popular vote while the oppositional coalition, PR, won 50.9% . For BN, this was the worst election result since
The use of social media for political activism in the context of
Bersih should also be understood vis-à-vis government’s control
over public gatherings in physical spaces. While the constitution
grants freedom of assembly and association, it provides for
restrictions deemed necessary in the interests of security, public
order, or morality, often through the use of the 1967 Police Act.
This act defined a public assembly as a gathering of five or more
persons that required a police permit. Just months after the
Bersih 2.0 rally, the government amended the Police Act. The
new act, the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA), was drafted to
replace Section 27 of the Police Act, which means police permits
for mass assemblies is no longer required. Organizers, however,
must notify the police within 10 days before the gathering date
and the police will respond to the notification while imposing
restrictions and conditions . The PAA also bans any assembly
in the form of street protest and any gatherings within 50 meters
of ‘prohibited places’ such as airports, petrol stations, hospitals,
railway stations, places of worships, and schools. Critics called the
PAA ‘undemocratic’ and perceived it as more restrictive that the
previous Act. With such restrictions, mobilizing public protest was
extremely discouraged. Due to limitations and barriers from using
physical space, Bersih activists turned to digital space for planning
and mobilizing the rallies as well as expanding and sustaining the
movement. Despite the ban, Bersih rallies continued to take place
publicly, on the streets and in the squares.
#Bersih on Social Media
Bersih had embraced digital media since it was established
in 2006. Over ensuing years, however, its digital media
operations have undergone an evolution. At the beginning of
its development, Bersih made use of websites, blogging, and
YouTube as its main tools for deliberation and mobilization, with
intermittent uses of Flickr. Blogging was a natural choice as Bersih
was formed during the peak of Malaysian political blogging. The
incorporation of YouTube and Flickr in 2006, as well as Facebook
in 2008 and Twitter in 2011, unsurprisingly, followed the surfacing
and popularity of these tools among Malaysians, especially the
Many social networking tools are uniformly called ‘social media’.
Nonetheless, each is a particular social and material artifact
with its own socio-political properties that postulate distinctive
affordances and limitations for its users. Each, therefore, might
contribute a unique set of roles for the Bersih movement. What
are these roles? In order to answer this question, instead of
treating social media as monolithic, author examine how each of
the three dominant platforms, namely blogging, Facebook, and
Twitter, interacts with and contribute to the movement. Author
do so by tracing the roles of these platforms in shaping the
movement from its genesis through its successive developments
to its unfolding as interconnected events over a period of time.
While not discussed individually, Author also recognize the
importance of YouTube and Flickr. In Bersih movement these
platforms were generally used as placeholders-though most
popular YouTube videos could generate voluminous comments -for videos and photos, some of which were subsequently
disseminated through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.
The role of blogging in the Bersih movement cannot be separated
from the continuous existence of the contentious blogosphere
in Malaysia since 2002 . Most Malaysian blogs were not
political, but many top bloggers were. A 2007 survey by Sabahan.
com  identified 9 out of Malaysia’s top 50 bloggers as political
bloggers. My further examination revealed that 8 out of these
9 bloggers were critical of BN. The Bersih movement itself was
partially born out of social interactions within the Malaysian
political blogosphere. Among top bloggers there were Bersih
leaders and prominent activists such as Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit
Siang, Jeff Ooi, and Raja Petra Kamaruddin.
Labeled as ‘citizen journalism’, blogging is perceived as a
powerful medium to positively transform politics, civil society,
and mainstream media . Gillmor  argues that by allowing
the audience to participate in the production and dissemination
of information and to engage in discussions and debate free from
the gatekeeping practices, blogging provides an avenue for a new
form of grassroots journalism and contributes to the plurality of
voices. However, others argue that political bloggers’ ideological
biases tend to promote polarization . Indeed, research in the
American [28,29] and Iranian  contexts show that blogging
community appeared to be polarized along party or ideological
lines. Research on the blogosphere in Indonesia  and Saudi
Arabia [32,33], however, reveals more nuanced and complex
pictures. In these context, blogosphere is neither a novel public
sphere where rational communicative discourse take place nor
an ideologically driven polarized sphere. But, rather, it is a sphere
with plurality of voices, allowing for differences, nuances, and
even counter-hegemonic voices to collectively emerge.
The early Malaysian blogosphere was not an ideal public sphere
founded on rational-critical discourse  where everyone
is an equal participant as envisioned by Gilmor . However,
instead of being fragmented and/or polarized along the party or
ideological lines, the early Malaysian blogging community was
united by its opposition to the ruling elites. From 2002 to 2007,
the blogosphere was both a vital space for online dissidents and a
place where the Malaysian government exercised its hegemonic
power. Despite the government’s crackdown and arrest of blogger
activists, the Malaysian blogosphere continued to be politically
vibrant. By 2007, the Malaysian blogosphere had developed to
new opportunities for citizen activism. The blogosphere facilitated
activists to discuss and identify the ‘repertoire of contention’ 
- which refers to the set of various tools and actions available
to a movemen-and issues that were important for publics. The
years of political conversations that thrived in the blogosphere
had enabled a brokerage  that allowed people to organize
and assimilate their experiences and deliberate beyond existing
political boundaries. Civil society in Malaysia was typically
characterized as being divided along ethnic lines. Blogging,
however, brought together otherwise disconnected Malaysian
activists and concerned individuals with different ideologies (e.g.
Islamist, secular, or liberal) and backgrounds (e.g. Malay, Chinese, or Tamil/Indian) and thus contributed to the expansion of the
reformist network. Blogging provided a complementary site, visà-
vis a physical site, for reformists to cultivate alternative, or even
radical, imagination that led to the birth of the Bersih movement.
With the peak of the blogging popularity, the 2007 Bersih rally
was largely socialized and mobilized online using websites and
blogs. Unsurprisingly, Malaysian bloggers were geographically
clustered, with over 60 percent of them were located in Kuala
Lumpur and Selangor . Ulcny’s  study estimated that “500
to 1000 bloggers constituted the active Malaysian [sociopolitical]
blogosphere, with a small, very active core of 75 to 100 bloggers.
The first Bersih and Hindraf rallies in 2007 were the most popular
topics in this sphere, generating 1080 posts and 1527 posts
During the course of the movement, blogs were heavily used
before, during, and after the big rallies. An official Bersih website
was used to amplify and extend traditional communication
efforts in conventional mode of action (e.g. press release).
Bersih participants made use of their personal blogs to mobilize
campaigns and to report from the streets in an effort to counter
state-controlled media interpretations of the events and capitalize
on any conflicts or incidents in the protests (such as the arrest or
In the 2007 Bersih protests, mainstream media painted a negative
portrayal of a group of activists running amok in the center of
Kuala Lumpur and caused bad traffic problems [38-40]. The Bersih
movement was labeled as illegal, forbidden, and even prohibited
by the (Islamic) faith (haram) [38,39]. Bloggers countered the
coverage by posting their own pictures of the peaceful marches
alongside video clips from Al Jazeera and BCC exposing the
police’s heavy-handed actions against demonstrators.
A similar incident happened in days after the Bersih 2.0 rally
in July 2011 when the Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein
released a statement that there was no ‘police brutality’ and that
action would be taken against online media and bloggers if they
had posted false reports . Despite the threat, thousands of
bloggers responded to this statement by contemporaneously
posting photos and YouTube videos to create a visual archive of
the ‘brutality’ of the riot police. Alternative media portals such
as Malaysiakini and Harakah Daily supported this collective
action of bloggers by further amplifying their voices through
their media coverage. By so doing, the bloggers were not only
successful in countering the government’s narrative they were
also triumphant in generating public sympathy and making it
difficult for the government to target any individual blogger.
By generating alternative discourse, Bersih bloggers challenged
conventional political and media authorities. The symbiosis
between activists and blogosphere resulted in a new form of
engagement, an online civic space that was both subversive
and empowering and helped reformers to define and construct
meaning for the movement’s participants.
“Social movements start from [the] ability to imagine” .
In societies where dissents are repressed, such as in Malaysia,
“power is exercised through the propagation of dominant sociopolitical
imaginaries that leave no space for alternative, radical imaginaries to develop” . To radically depart from the
dominant imaginary of socio-political project of the state, as
being reinforced by the ruling party, Malaysian reformists needed
“sites for narratives of resistance to be created, communicated,
and practiced” . In the absent of physical non-hegemonic
civic sites, the blogosphere emerged as one of the sites where the
reformists imagined and re-imagined the possibility of the future
that was different than what was forced by the state. The state’s
imagined project to envision an alternative, different, and more
desirable future. Blogging is useful to generate conversations
among bloggers and blog readers. It is, however, limited in its
capacity to facilitate more horizontal interaction and to diffuse
information and grow networks. In its successive developments
beyond the imaginaries, social movement needs to incorporate
other tools than just the blogosphere.
With the popularity of social media, in 2008 Bersih started
incorporating YouTube and Facebook into its communication
and mobilization strategy. Facebook was the second most
visited site in Malaysia after Google. The first Facebook page of
Bersih 2.0 titled “Bersih 2.0 [Official]” was created only 17 days
before the rally day, on 22 June 2011, and within two weeks it
attracted more than 190,000 fans. It functioned mostly as a
central news desk where Bersih supporters posted and checked
on updates, announcements, photos, and videos. Beyond Bersih
2.0 rally, Bersih movement maintains its existence on Facebook
by establishing Bersih 3.0 as well as Bersih 4.0 pages. The latter
was created in September 2013 to support the ‘future’ fourth
Bersih rally held in August 2015. The first and ‘official’ Bersih 2.0
Facebook page, though, continues to maintain its dominance in
terms of total number of fans and activity level.
The Bersih case shows that Facebook served four major functions.
First, Bersih activists used Facebook to connect with large social
networks, especially the youth population. In 2008, over 50%
of Facebook users in Malaysia were under 25 . Facebook
infrastructure allows conversations to happen in all one-to-one,
one-to-many, and many-to-many levels, making it easy to diffuse
information in multiple overlapping networks and to mobilize
across diverse publics. Additionally, it encourages sharing,
interacting, and diffusing information in multiple and overlapped
networks. Here, Facebook enabled the rise and expansion of
weak-tie networks to “unlock and expose interpersonal networks
to external influences individuals in distant networks”  thus
facilitating the spread of information to the masses and increasing
participation in the movement.
Second, Facebook helps the organization of the movement by
facilitating a consensus decision-making on simple and practical
issues. For example, when the Bersih activists’ request to use
Merdeka Stadium for the rally was rejected by the Merdeka
Heritage Trust (a Malaysian government trust who manages
Merdeka stadium and Stadium Negara), the rejection letter
was posted on Facebook to solicit quick comments. It quickly
generated 344 ‘likes’ and 221 comments nearly all suggesting
that the Bersih rally take to the streets and stick with the original
plan. Bersih organizers responded to this request by creating a simple pool with a question: “Do you agree to keep going with the
Bersih 2.0 public assembly?” to which 101,345 voted yes while
89,040 voted no. This kind of public decision-making process
happened quite frequently on Bersih Facebook page. Facebook
was particularly important in the preparations leading to the
rally. Bersih users discussed protest sites, gathering locations (for
marching), and sharing maps and information about these places.
However, it is important to note that rigorous conversations and
in-depth deliberations do not take place on Facebook. Also, there
is lack of conversation around complex issues such as ethnopolitical
divides, economic and social policy, judicial system, or
Third, as it makes it more likely for individuals from different
social groups to link to each other, in the Bersih case Facebook
helped temporally bridging diverse publics in interconnected
conversations. The bridging facilitated the emergence of
communities that transcend boundaries of ethnicity and
religions, opening possibilities for mobilization across cleavages.
Indeed, both Bersih 2.0 and Bersih 3.0 exemplify a relatively
successful mobilization “bridging sociopolitical cleavages” .
Relying heavily on Facebook for its mobilization, the 2012 Bersih
rally brought a diverse mix of about 200,000 Malaysians to the
streets of Kuala Lumpur .
However, as manifested in the 2015 Bersih 4.0 rally, the unity
between various groups was temporal and did not remove
racial and ethnic divisions. Unlike previous rallies, Bersih 4.0 was
dominated by Chinese Malaysian participants. It is estimated that
60% to 80% of the protesters were Chinese . This situation
could be linked to the decision of PAS, whose members are
predominantly Malay, not to mobilize its members for Bersih
4.0. PAS’ formal reasons were that's “its members would be
too preoccupied with preparations for party-related events
scheduled to take place in the weeks ahead and that the chosen
dates for Bersih 4 […] were inappropriate for being too close to
[Independence] Day, August 31” . In announcing its nonparticipation,
the PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang implied that
the party was excluded from the planning processes saying that
“[…] this Bersih 4 is not headed by us. The agenda is not by us,
it’s by others” . Regardless what the actual reasons were,
the incident demonstrates that while Bersih activists were able
to utilize Facebook to form a horizontal conversational network
bridging diverse groups, it is subordinate to the vertical line
of command established within the PAS party. In other words,
Facebook facilitated network does enable Bersih participants
to communicate and interact across party lines and, yet, does
not remove the traditional boundaries of party politics or racial
It is important to note that the ruling coalition, too, used Facebook
in its antagonism to Bersih. Among the most active governmental
social media accounts is the Facebook account of Polis Diraja
Malaysia (PDRM) or the Malaysian Royal Police which by March
2016 had garnered 1.8 million fans. In 2011, in its attempt to
counter the Bersih 2.0 movement, PDRM used Facebook to
disseminate a video entitled “Illegal rally Bersih 2.0: A police
perspective of 9th July 2011” documenting various activities of
Bersih protesters that were supposedly ‘illegal’.
The movement started using Twitter during the Bersih 2.0 in
2011 and continued to use it in the Bersih 3.0 and 4.0. Unlike
Facebook, which was mostly used before and after the protest,
Twitter was predominantly during the physical protest on the rally
days. Twitter was used to exchange on-the-ground updates and
information. Protestors and organizers tweeted on where to go,
where to avoid police, places where tear gas and water cannon
were deployed, and arrests made. Many tweets came with links to
images and YouTube videos taken from the streets. While Bersih
2.0 rally produced over 19,000 tweets within twenty-four hours
, the number jumped to over 300,000 during the Bersih 3.0
rally and over 440,000 in the Bersih 4.0. Within only six hours on
the rally day of 28 April 2012 there were over 58,000 tweets using
#Bersih related hashtags transmitted online. Similarly, Politweet’s
. Twitter data on the Bersih 4.0 in 2015 rally also showed a
similar pattern. Politweet recorded 583,338 tweets about Bersih
from 28 July to 30 August 2015, where 76.6% were made during
the rally on 29-30 August (Figures 1-3).
Figure 1: The global heat map of Bersih tweets, 28 April 2012,
Figure 2: The heat map of Bersih tweets in Kuala Lumpur, Penang,
and Johor Baru, 28 April 2012, 01:00-7:00 pm.
Figure 3: The heat map of Bersih tweets in Central Kuala Lumpur,
28 April 2012, 01:00-7:00 pm.
Observably, in the Bersih case Twitter primarily served two
interrelated and, yet, opposing roles: scaling up the local
events to a global scale and, at the same time, intensifying
the connection between various locales. Twitter, to a certain
degree, helped globalizing the movement. As can be seen in
Figure 1 the pattern of Twitter usage shows that Bersih related
tweets in the 2012 rally originated from various places in the
world. Outside Malaysia, Malaysian diaspora participated in the
Bersih movement by holding rallies in the cities and countries
they resided as part of Global Bersih movement. During the
Bersih 2.0 rally, there similar protests held in 38 locations in 16
countries. The numbers increased in Bersih 3.0 to 85 locations
in 35 countries. However, a closer look shows that the majority
of tweets come from Malaysia (67%), with a high concentration
in Kuala Lumpur, Johor Baru, and Penang (Figure 2). Similarly,
the majority of tweets during the Bersih 4.0 rally in 2015, too,
came from Malaysia. In 2015, however, Twitter was used more by
Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor with 48.6% of Twitter
users residing in both territories. It is important to note here that
Selangor is one of three states won in the 2013 general elections
under the Pakatan Rakyat alliance; PK won in Selangor with 79%
of the votes.
When we look closer at the geotagging map (Figure 3), it is
revealed that central Kuala Lumpur generated the highest
number of tweets, especially in areas where the masses gathered
and protested, around the Dataran Merdeka, Masjid Jamek, and
Jalan Raja. There were massive Twitter exchanges about places
such as Dataran Merdeka and Masjid Jamek during the protest
and numerous references to place and situation such as: walk to,
escape, run from, turn right, turn around. As Bersih protesters
used Twitter with smart phones, digital and street activism in
online and physical urban spaces became near seamless and
Among the most disseminated tweets were ones that included
photos and YouTube videos of the confrontation between
protesters and the riot police in various locales. Twitter was used
in particular to render conflicts visible, globalizing the spaces of
conflict that, otherwise, were local. The visibility of conflicts is
archetypal to “the capacity of social movements to appropriate
spaces of hegemonic production of visibility” . The Malaysian
government through the Royal Malaysia Police communication
channel portrayed Bersih protesters as unclean rioters and lawbreakers,
and the movement as illegal. By using Twitter with
links to images and YouTube videos, Bersih protestors delivered
an impressive counter narrative. Twitter was used to ensure that
the movement would always be connected to imageries of mass
protests in the streets, including blockages, tear gas, skirmishes,
and police violence and that this visualization would always go
national and global. This tactic was effective, albeit temporarily,
that the government was left with a serious dilemma: how to
simultaneously control challenges to its legitimacy and at the
same time tolerate protest in order to appear to meet the basic
ideals of ‘democratic’ governance.
It is apparent that Bersih’s use of Twitter, especially in combination
with YouTube, has expanded the alternative space or a counterpower
sphere in the highly controlled media landscape. However,
the state and the ruling coalition, too, utilize Twitter as their
counter-Bersih tool. PDRM, or the Malaysian Royal Police, for
example, has a Twitter account to provide updates on policing
activities and, in the context of Bersih protests, to respond to
activists’ accusations of abuse. By March 2016, PDRM Twitter
account, @pdrmsia, has garnered 144,000 followers. During the
Bersih 3.0 rally, @pdrmsia delivered “Live from PDRM” tweets
every 10-15 minutes to provide its ‘live reports’ from various
places in Kuala Lumpur where the rally was held. Responding
to accusations of street violence and police brutality during the
Bersih 3.0 rally, PDRM actively used @pdrmsia to deliver its side
of story by releasing selected videos showing the acts of ‘unlawful
While Twitter increased opportunities of direct communications
and political exchanges, its usages during the Bersih protests,
however, did not increase the space for political discussions.
Twitter exchanges revolve around reporting and war tweeting
instead of public deliberation.
intermodality: Beyond social media
With 74% of the population resides in urban areas , Malaysia
is largely urbanized. Understandably, social media was selected
as the key tool of Bersih’s information dissemination and
mobilization. However, the movement still needed to reach rural
population. With the limited or lack of access to the internet
in rural areas, Bersih activists utilized other alternative media
such as flyers and SMS (Short Messaging Services delivering text
messages using cellular phones) in their mobilization repertoires.
To disseminate digital-based information beyond the online realm,
Bersih activists also initiated a Balik Kampung Bawa Berita (bring
the news back to your hometown) project, which encouraged
Malaysians to share online-based information with their families
and friends in the forms of offline soft copies (downloaded files
that are accessible offline through portable gadgets), hard copies
(prints), and CDs . Bersih activists also utilized their corporeal bodies as a node of information networks by holding traditional
ceramah (lectures/speeches) in mosques and community centers
Here, the intermodality, the linkages between the digital media
and other types of networks, was significant. The intermodality
of social media, SMS, flyers, CDs, portable gadgets and physical
bodies had elevated the ability of the movement in diffusing its
messages and expand its network of activism. In the Bersih case,
activists used digital media to break the government’s control
and monopoly over the production of narratives and flows of
information. However, it is only through intermodality they were
able to reach a wide and diverse audience through the cascading
of information from the urban to rural areas using digital media
and its linkages to other media and communication networks.
Despite activists’ attempts to reach rural areas, Bersih’s main
reliance on social media might have contributed to the underrepresentation
of rural individuals and groups in the movements.
Arguable, this urban tendency was also reflected in the result of
the 2013 General Election, where votes for Pakatan Rakyat were
concentrated in urban areas while Barisan Nasional won most
votes in rural areas such as large parts of Sabah and Sarawak.
From the case of Bersih, we learn that social media is central to
activists’ attempt to reform the electoral system in Malaysia by
‘sweeping the unclean’-any electoral misconducts and practices.
Social media played numerous, differing roles at various junctures
and stages of the reform movement’s journey. In the beginning
of the Bersih journey, the Malaysian blogosphere provided space
for reformist individuals who shared some radical understanding
and imagination of the Malaysian politics, which was a necessary
precursor of the Bersih movement. In its successive developments,
Bersih activist incorporated Facebook and Twitter as part of the
practices of social movement. My analysis of Bersih shows that
the scalable networking capability of Facebook and its affordance
of horizontal discourse network provided a nascent environment
for widening the practices participation and organization of the movement. Meanwhile, the portability and swiftness of Twitter
made it suitable for real-time communication and broadcasting
during the actual event. It also helped to scale up the protest
event from the local to national and even global level and render
the conflict visible.
While opening more possibilities for multiple spaces of resistance
and imaginaries as well for extending networks of participation
and mobilization, social media also come with limitations. While
it served as a fertile ground for establishing the core activist
network, particularly by facilitating the brokerage, the blogging
was limited in its capacity to expand and grow the network of the
movement. Meanwhile, my analysis also shows that while the
horizontal network structure facilitated by Facebook can increase
participation and enhance organization in the practices of social
movements, it does not remove the vertical network structure
of party politics. Also, the temporal unity facilitated by Facebook
does not challenge structural racial and ethnic divisions. For
Bersih participants, Twitter was a significant tool for sharing and
connecting with each other, distributing counter-narratives (visà-
vis the hegemonic narratives of the state), and globalizing the
movement. It, however, falls short in facilitating a deliberative
aspect of the movement. Social media helped Bersih participants
to be the information producers and distributors and, to a certain
degree, bypass state’s monopoly of production and circulation
of information. However, in their attempts to reach and expand
their networks beyond the urban population, they needed to
establish the intermodality of digital media with other media and
By identifying and analyzing roles of three dominant social
media platforms in the Bersih movement, in this article I reveal
that social media is both the site and part of the contestations
of power. Social media is integral to the shaping of Bersih
movement’s imaginaries, practices, and trajectories. Further,
the case also shows that as a social and material artifact, every
technological platform such as blogging, Facebook, and Twitter
has its own socio-political properties that postulate distinctive
roles and limitations for its users.
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