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From ‘dark social’ activism to the ‘WhatsApp election’

ANU Malaysia Institute Seminar


Amelia Johns, Research Fellow, Alfred Deakin Institute


Institutes Boardroom, 1.12 Coombs Extension Building (8), Fellows Road, Australian National University


Wednesday, 1 August, 2018 - 16:00 to 17:30

From ‘dark social’ activism to the ‘WhatsApp election’: examining the role of encrypted messaging apps in the citizenship practices of Malaysian-Chinese youth

On 8 May 2018, Barisan Nasional (BN) the longest serving government in any democratic country in the world to that date, was swept from power in Malaysia’s GE14 election. In the lead up, media and political scholars claimed that, as opposed to GE13 where social media participation was understood to have influenced the election outcome, GE14 would be the ‘WhatsApp election’. The explanation provided was that WhatsApp was the main media used in the circulation of ‘fake news’, and, that in a context of increased government surveillance and censure of political chat on social media, that encrypted chat apps enabled a ‘safe option’ for citizens to connect with one another and engage in politics (Leong 2018). In this seminar Dr Amelia Johns will examine these claims in light of findings from a three year project involving interviews and ethnographic observation of 30 Malaysian-Chinese youths’ (aged 18-24) digital citizenship practices, and interviews with key policymakers shaping Malaysian digital citizenship policy. A key finding was that the state’s use of the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act to take legal action against citizens engaging in political dissent on social media had produced ‘chilling effects’, leading to changes in the styles and repertoires of civic and political action adopted by young people. In particular this was registered in a shift away from public-facing social media (Twitter, Facebook) and the adoption of WhatsApp and Telegram to engage in politics. Dr Johns will use these findings to challenge and extend dominant theories linking young people’s digital media use to practices of citizenship and democracy, insofar as these centre social media use and underestimate the role of ‘dark social’ communication.
Dr Amelia Johns is a Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute. Her work spans the fields of youth studies, digital media studies and migration studies, with a focus on youth citizenship and young people’s negotiation of racism and citizenship in digitally networked publics. Her current research project examines Malaysian-Chinese youth digital practices, and the role 'the digital' plays in negotiations of political participation, citizenship and belonging. She is the author of 'Battle for the Flag' (2015), an empirical investigation of youth performances of racism, nationalism and whiteness in the Cronulla riots of 2005. She is also co-editor of recently published book 'Negotiating Digital Citizenship: Control, Contest, Culture' (with Anthony McCosker and Sonja Vivienne, 2016). 



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