Cybertrooping and the online manipulation of political communication in Malaysia: The Barisan Nasional years

Cheong, Niki (2020) Cybertrooping and the online manipulation of political communication in Malaysia: The Barisan Nasional years. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

[img] PDF (Thesis for reader access - any sensitive & copyright infringing material removed) - Repository staff only - Requires a PDF viewer such as GSview, Xpdf or Adobe Acrobat Reader
Download (4MB)


This study examines the illiberal practice used by state and political actors in Malaysia—known as ‘cybertrooping’—to manipulate communication practices and information flow on the internet while Barisan Nasional—the political coalition that had ruled the country since independence in 1957 until May 2018—were in power. It contributes to existing scholarly work on ‘computational propaganda’, ‘astroturfing’ and ‘trolling’, including the many studies that emerged following the political developments globally since the United Kingdom EU referendum and the United States Presidential Elections in 2016. This thesis argues that cybertrooping can be understood as an extension of a political party or state’s illiberal attempt at orchestrating a covert operation aimed at gaining or retaining power beyond media control and the threat of legislation, often referred to as the ‘chilling effect’. It will argue that cybertrooping extends known methods historically associated with political communication, including propaganda, public relations, spin and psychological operations, aided by internet affordances.

Central to argument developed by the thesis is the analysis of a dataset of 125 pseudonymous emails—many of which were labelled “Online Deployment Strategy”—which consisted of instructions for social media engagement ahead of Malaysia’s 13th General Election in 2013. This dataset is likely the first direct empirical evidence of its kind to be studied in a field where researchers face difficulties investigating a covert practice, and have to rely mostly on whistle-blowing and leaks, lawsuits for access to official documentation, investigative journalism, and the use of computational data science methods, to infer knowledge. In addition,

analysis of over 400 news reports helps contextualise the mainstream understanding of cybertroopers, while an analysis of thematic patterns from Twitter data mined during street protests in Malaysia builds on the findings from the emails. These other sets of data—alongside interviews with politicians, journalists and activists—were used in the triangulation process.

On the basis of the analysis that the study undertakes, this thesis will provide an empirically-informed definition for cybertrooping. Given the seemingly increased use of ‘sockpuppetry’ and ‘social bots’ in the global political landscape, it is hoped that this definition will contribute to future research into similar practices being used by state and political actors in other parts of the world.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Birks, Jennifer
Goffey, Andrew
Keywords: cybertrooping, political communication, Malaysia, National Front, computational propaganda, astroturfing
Subjects: D History - General and Old World > DU Oceania (South Seas)
J Political science > JQ Political institutions (Asia, Africa, Australasia, etc.)
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies
Item ID: 59641
Depositing User: Cheong, Peck Beng
Date Deposited: 03 Nov 2023 14:44
Last Modified: 04 Nov 2023 04:30

Actions (Archive Staff Only)

Edit View Edit View