Screengrab of Prime Minister Mohd Najib Tun Razak's Twitter profile, taken on 27/02/13

These days, anyone with a smartphone can get information about whatever tickles their fancy. The internet provides a stream of rapid information and Twitter is probably the epitome of this form. Malaysian politicians are included in the tweeting chorus, both as surfers and as part of the wave.

What is unique about politicians as a Twitter entity is that they often hold a post either in a party, government, or a representative of their constituency. Twitter may have a direct influence in how effectively politicians do their jobs. It is a medium that allows the public to speak directly to those who represent them, without the need for signed letters and secretaries. Before yesterday’s Malaysia Social Media Week conference, the Prime Minister himself tweeted, “We can b better leaders by engaging the people online” [sic].

However, as recent history has shown us, Twitter can also bring more harm than good for politicians. April last year saw a group of students camping out at Dataran Merdeka calling for the abolishment of the PTPTN student loan. The Minister of Higher Education Mohamed Khaled Nordin tweeted, “Takde siapa pun suruh berkhemah di Dataran, bila berlaku apa2 perkara, jgn tagih simpati” (Nobody asked you to camp out at Dataran, if anything bad happens do not ask for sympathy).

 

Mohamed Khaled Nordin’s tweet promoted intense ridicule in the Twitter sphere

 

At a time when the students were already harassed and threatened, their anger at Mohamed Khaled Nordin’s tweet prompted a trending hashtag: #jgntagihsimpati. It was an intense form of ridicule in the Twitter sphere that lasted for weeks and it certainly did not help with his career.

In another blunder, who could forget last year’s Olympics, when Kota Alam Shah’s DAP assemblyman M. Manoharan (@mmanoADUN) tweeted about Lee Chong Wei’s badminton finals defeat to Lin Dan. One tweet that put him under a lot of heat was: “Malaysia will win its first gold medal in Olympics after Pakatan takes over Putrajaya.” With several Malaysians deeming this insensitive to Lee Chong Wei, there was a Facebook page set up demanding an apology. It gained thousands of Likes.

Of course, some politicians have harnessed Twitter to their advantage. For example, P. Kamalanathan (@Pkamalanathan), Member of Parliament for Hulu Selangor, has more than 11,000 followers and regularly replies his constituency-related tweets on issues such as pothole problems. Often he will reply invites for coffee through Twitter, post weddings of people in his constituency which he attended, and also tweet traffic updates in his area.

P. Kamalanathan addressing an issue regarding potholes

Finding the truth behind the tweets

Can we really rely on these politicians to engage with us, when some of them having followers in the thousands? With Twitter being one of the fastest flows of information, it would not be surprising for ordinary people’s tweets to just drown in the midst of all the noise. I decided to find out by doing my own survey. I contacted several politicians through Twitter by “mentioning” them in a tweet and asked if they would be interested in an interview.

 

The journalism request to at least ten politicians

To my surprise, almost all of them replied to my tweet. I sent around ten tweets to various politicians regardless of party affiliation. Khairy Jamaluddin (@khairykj) and Nurul Izzah (@n_izzah), with a combined follower count of over 335,000, replied my tweet with a few questions and gave me their e-mail addresses. Saifuddin Abdullah (@saifuddinabd) and Rafizi Ramli (@rafiziramli) also replied promptly. Surprisingly, Bung Mokhtar Radin (@mpkinabatangan) and Abdul Rahman Dahlan (@mpkotabelud) actually followed my personal account and all the subsequent communications were done through Twitter’s direct messaging service (DM), a very personal approach.

From their given e-mail addresses, I sent out a few questions regarding their usage of Twitter. The questions are related to how they manage their own Twitter account, how Twitter is effective for them, and how they handle the inherent nature of Twitter that attracts beyond people who agree with their views. At this stage, after a week Saifuddin Abdullah, Rafizi Ramli, as well as Abd Rahman Dahlan replied my email with the questionnaires answered.

All three told me that handle their Twitter accounts personally. Rafizi remarked that “only I have the access and I tweet exclusively, because my tweet is personal to me”, while Abd Rahman Dahlan rationale’s in handling his account personally is that “nothing is better than knowing personally the subject matter you want to talk about.” But of course, some politicians do not manage their account by themselves, often using an administrator (admin). An example would be Nik Aziz Nik Mat (@nikabdulaziz), The Spiritual Leader of PAS.

 

Saifuddin Abdullah: “I tweet as I am”

 

On the question of separating identities, Saifuddin said that “I tweet as I am: my views, opinion and stand. I do not differentiate my role as an MP or Deputy Minister, UMNO MT (Majlis Tertinggi), etc.” Abd Rahman Dahlan shared the same view: “If you do try to separate them (personal and post), you will end up sounding fake”. Rafizi Ramli stated, “I don’t tweet because I see it as a politician’s tool… tweeting is as natural as wearing your nametag going to school.” He argued that tweets should be honest and transparent, as “it is a personal reflection of yourself.”

All three agreed that Twitter is a more honest form of communication as it is real time. The character of Twitter also forces you to be economical with your words, making it an “in your face” method of communication according to Abd Rahman Dahlan. However, he also pointed out that there is not much room for diplomacy in a 140 character tweet: “You tend to be direct and blunt. So in that sense it is definitely not for the faint hearted.”

According to Zara Kahan, a digital strategist, tweeting can be dangerous for politicians. “I don’t think politicians should handle their own Twitter accounts,” she said. As Twitter is quite personal,  prevailing emotions may take over when tweeting. Although some of us can just simply delete the tweets, politicians cannot afford to do little mistakes online as they are under overwhelming scrutiny. “Should they want to [tweet], at least dictate it first,” she added.

 

How to Tweet Wisely

Zara has a few words of advice in a public relations context regarding politicians in Twitter. She suggests that politicians in Twitter should mirror someone who is an ideal leader, craft personal tweets well, and avoid debates on Twitter. Nobody wins in those kinds of debates. “Some politicians are just pulpits on Twitter and that is the last place you would want to do that,” she argues, adding that Twitter is not a clear and comprehensive platform to explain complicated and intricate policies.

A better platform, says Zara, would be the politician’s blog where all facts are laid out along with explanation and justifications. “I follow politicians whose tweets make me laugh and they share information,” she said, giving the example of Charles Santiago (@MPKlang) who tweets policies and issues. “His tweets are smart, professional, and slick.”

While Twitter can bring politicians closer to their “fans”, it can also be a forum for people to voice criticism, for opposing parties to publicly heckle each other and for hate messages or “trolling”. How do politicians handle this constant bombardment?

While Rafizi believes that Twitter is personal space and we all have a right to black anybody who sends discord to our personal space, Saifuddin retweets these tweets to show that he listens to all the voices that is directed to him on Twitter, whether they agree with him or not.

Abd Rahman Dahlan has a more systematic approach. “Sometimes when you find someone consistently send you abusive tweets especially about something not even remotely related to issue being discussed then blocking is perhaps the only way to “teach” them. I only block for a short period. After a while I do unblock people who I think deserve second chance. Call it clemency.”

 

The impact: legality and public perception

What about the legal consequences of tweets? Are they promises that have value in the eyes of the law? Syahredzan Johan (@syahredzan) a lawyer by profession who uses Twitter quite actively, commented that there is no legal recourse if a politician abused a trust through Twitter. “I can’t see how he can be legally made to pay. Just maybe through the ballot box,” said Syahredzan, who authored “20 Tips for Tweeting Politicians” last year for LoyarBurok.

According to Syahredzan, a tweet can only be used as evidence and if someone was caught lying to gain something; it could fall under a criminal offence. “But lying per se, no” Syahredzan said. So far in Malaysia there has been no substantial legal action directed towards a politician involving the propagation of information through Twitter.

Politicians on Twitter hope to engage the public with their online presence, especially the younger demographic active in social media. But to what extent to young people actually care about what their politicians have to tweet?

Mohd Fadhlan Mahbob, 28 year old a post-graduate student, told me,  “I wasn’t very interested in politics. It’s so biased. But I figured sebagai rakyat kita tak boleh lari pun. So I guess this is probably one of my way to get to know about politics. I follow politicians in Twitter and read articles.” But Winnie Agnes, a 21 year old student, said, “I don’t follow politicians on Twitter. I think they just glorify their achievements and their tweets tend to look very arrogant, trying to show off.”

I approached eight other students, but none of them had Twitter accounts. This suggests that the idea that Twitter is the limitless tool for engaging the masses is actually a myth. Malaysians with both smartphones and Twitter accounts are certainly in the minority.

 Khairy Jamaluddin often gives his take on issues and the law

It is still quite a far-flung statement if we were to say that everyone uses Twitter.  But those of us who do, we all have our reasons. The way I see it, Twitter has both strengths and weaknesses that we as users need to be wary of. It can be effective for impulsive propagation of ideas, sparking discussions, short interactions, and maybe the occasional banter between politicians. But of course, at the end of the day, the tantalizing allure of speaking your mind in short bursts traps us all. I myself as an avid Twitter user understand this dilemma; the hard part is actually controlling it.

It’s not fair to base our judgement of anyone’s character through their tweets alone. The etiquette of Internet is, as we all know, quite volatile and impulsive. Maybe we should cut the politicians and ourselves some slack. If you really want to assess policies and arguments there are better mediums, such as books, blogs and newspaper articles. Should we really base our perceptions of the people running the country on something as impulsive as Twitter? Who takes anybody seriously on the web anyway?

Abdul Qayyum Jumadi is Poskod.my’s Writer in Progress.

Disclosure: Zara Kahan is an employee of PopDigital.

Correction: The typo in the hashtag #igntagihsimpati was corrected to #jgntagihsimpati (28/02/13).