'This will be the WhatsApp election': Crypto-publics and digital citizenship in Malaysias GE14 election
First Monday

'This will be the WhatsApp election': Crypto-publics and digital citizenship in Malaysias GE14 election by Amelia Johns

This paper draws on data collected with Malaysian–Chinese activists and everyday citizens (aged 18–24) who used WhatsApp groups to discuss politically contentious views and actions between 2016 and 2018, prior to the GE14 election. The paper will reveal the extent to which WhatsApp enabled a ‘safe space’ for citizens to engage in political chat and activism in a context of government censorship and surveillance of more open social media platforms. A key finding is 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 produced ‘chilling effects’, leading to changes in the styles and repertoires of civic and political action adopted by participants. This was registered in a shift away from public-facing social media (Twitter, Facebook) toward use of encrypted group chat on WhatsApp and, to a lesser extent, Telegram to shape new publics, which I examine in the paper using the concept of ‘crypto-publics’.


Networked media, counter-publics and digital citizenship
Conclusion: From networked counterpublics to crypto-publics




On 8 May 2018 Barisan Nasional (BN), the then longest serving elected government in the world was defeated in Malaysia’s 14th General Election (GE14). The victory of opposition party, Pakatan Harapan (PH) was credited to the return of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad — former Prime Minister with BN — who ran a campaign calling for an end to corrupt politics. But, while Mahathir’s return enlivened the opposition, the decline in BN’s popular vote and eventual defeat was part of a longer trend, which scholars have linked to the watchdog function of networked social movements (see Johns and Cheong, 2019), media activists and citizen journalists (Postill, 2014; Weiss, 2012).

Scholars note the role social media has played in mobilising publics during Malaysian elections, beginning with the influence of political bloggers who circulated alternative news and opinion during the 2008 election campaign, contributing to a result where the ruling coalition failed to obtain a two-thirds majority for the first time since 1973 (Postill, 2014; Weiss, 2012). In 2013, after PM Najib declared that GE13 would be the “social media election”, the ruling party lost the popular vote for the first time since 1969, a result attributed to the influence of social media activism and circulation of news on Facebook, countering state censorship of legacy media [1].

This trend would suggest that the mobilisation of social media publics also played a part in the GE14 election result. But this narrative is not straightforward. According to human rights organisations, activists and scholars, the government’s response to the GE13 election was to strengthen sedition laws and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) to arrest activists and citizens engaging in speech critical of the government on social media platforms (Human Rights Watch, 2018; Johns and Cheong, 2019). Findings from a project I led in 2016–2018, showed that this led participants to switch from platforms where conversations were more searchable and traceable, i.e., Facebook and Twitter, to encrypted messenger platforms, specifically WhatsApp and Telegram.

In this article I examine the shift toward encrypted messenger platforms by drawing upon empirical case studies and theories spanning media and communication studies, social movement studies and using the bridging concept of ‘digital citizenship’. I will examine how and why encrypted messaging platforms are becoming a critical infrastructure for activists and citizens, offering the promise of a safe haven for political expression in contexts of government surveillance and manipulation of open social media platforms.

To investigate this link, I draw on contemporary theories connecting the political expression of activists and ‘digital citizens’ to social media affordances which enable them to navigate between private and public channels of communication, i.e., theories of networked publics and counter-publics. I will extend upon these theories to advance the concept of crypto-publics. By using the term crypto-publics I am wanting to bring greater attention to the affordance of end-to-end-encryption which renders the content of messages circulating through WhatsApp groups unsearchable and untraceable to state monitoring (if not from Facebook, who do collect metadata from the platform). This affordance is perceived to foster protections for activists and citizens engaging in speech that may be considered ‘seditious’ and subject to legal action on easily surveilled social media platforms.

I am also aware that I am using the term ‘crypto’ against current common definitions focused on cryptocurrencies and blockchain (Vidan and Lehdonvirta 2019; Bancroft and Reid, 2017). These uses and meanings, which in some cases depoliticize the value of cryptography by applying it to markets, has discursively shaped the new terrain. And yet, I would argue that these contradict crypto’s historical association with digital acts of resistance to state surveillance and the politicisation of cryptography as a technology which ensures privacy as not only a personal right but a public good. In particular, I see the term crypto-publics as one which connects the formation of current activist publics and other political mobilisations on WhatsApp to the development and uses of encryption and open source software by crypto-activists such as the cypherpunks (Hughes, 1993; Hellegren, 2017; Coleman, 2015) whose 1993 manifesto outline a project of Internet freedom where the development of encryption software is linked to rights to privacy and freedom of expression in an ‘open society’. Significantly, these arguments and the actions of the group established encryption as a technological battleground whereby the right for individuals to use encryption to guarantee absolute freedom of expression, was defined against the capacities and desire of the U.S. state to legally enshrine encryption software as a ‘war material’ which would make it illegal to export, share or develop the technology for personal use (Hellegren, 2017; Coleman, 2015).

By using the term crypto-publics I am therefore quite deliberately wanting to re-politicise the term by linking the affordance of encryption to specific acts of digital resistance and digital citizenship, defined by Isin and Ruppert (2015) as the ‘making of rights claims’ through participation in digital environments. In testing these theories empirically in the Malaysian context, the paper will particularly address the following questions: Do encrypted messenger platforms enable new practices of citizen voice, opinion formation, and public agenda setting to emerge? Do they foster safe political participation in contexts where government surveillance is producing chilling effects? Should political communications within crypto-publics be measured by the broader public visibility and impact of their interventions? What else do the findings show us about the value or otherwise of encrypted spaces in terms of enabling different voices to be expressed?



Networked media, counter-publics and digital citizenship

In representative democracies, much of what we understand of citizenship pertains to not only having legal rights within a polity, but also having a ‘voice’ (Couldry, 2010). This tends to be understood as an aggregated voice of community, which is recognised formally through the vote, or informally through media participation and protest. The value of citizen ‘voice’ has been strongly linked with ‘public sphere’ theories, conceived as a mediated sphere where citizens participate in democracy by rationally arguing and deliberating over public affairs (Habermas, 1973; Papacharissi, 2010).

And yet, the normative value of ‘voice’ and the enshrining of this value as a measure of democracy has been widely criticised, from feminist (Fraser, 1992) and postcolonial/anti-racist perspectives (Ong, 2019; Dreher and Mondal, 2018). Criticisms have focused on structural relations of power that exclude opportunities for diverse voices to be recognised and ‘listened to’ (Dreher and Mondal, 2018) within both state censored and liberalised media systems. Media anthropologists such as Ong have levelled criticisms at researchers who use top-down media effects theories to “represent” the voices of “suffering” minority communities as they seek to evade or resist “dataveillance” [2]. Ong argues that such approaches frequently flatten out and misrepresent the nuances and complexity of how individuals and communities resist or participate in media and politics as agentic subjects, i.e., where play or silence (and invisibility) may “speak”, unsettling normative understandings of ‘voice’. [3].

Feminist perspectives, likewise, hold that the mainstream ‘public sphere’ never fully included the voices of all citizens, instead elevating the voices of the privileged and excluding minority and marginalised voices (e.g., women, ethno-religious minority groups, working class citizens etc.; Fraser, 1992). Public sphere theories have also been criticised for not matching the reality of the way that media publics function, even before the Internet and social media transformed media logics. Habermas, himself, argued that the mix of public and private ownership of media in most liberal democracies had led to an encroachment of private interests into the ‘public sphere’ diminishing its democratic function. While early theorists celebrated social media as a corrective to this development, critics highlight that public spaces for deliberation and ‘voice’ have fragmented and shrunk further in an era where the ‘free’ Internet has been increasingly fenced off by proprietorial platforms (Gillespie, 2018; Papacharissi, 2010).

The maintenance of moral and gendered distinctions between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces, roles and speech in public sphere models has also been a source of tension. From Habermas to Arendt, ‘public’ space has been formalised as the domain of rational, public debate among ‘strangers’ in the interests of a ‘common good’. This has consolidated the ‘private’ as its opposite — a space of irrational, informal speech and intimate acts considered inappropriate or out of place in public life (Arendt, 1958; Warner, 2002; Papacharissi, 2010; Habermas, 1989).

Nonetheless, alternative accounts have rectified some of these problems, demonstrating how numerous media publics have long existed outside of this construct. Actors and voices excluded from corporate or state-controlled media have contributed to public debate from the margins, using alternative media and oppositional tactics [4]. Warner (2002) and Fraser (1992) define these as ‘counter-publics’ — in that they provide marginalised identities and voices a platform for sharing experiences relevant to them. As this takes place amongst both friends and strangers, they meet the criteria of being a ‘public’. They are also ‘counter’ in the sense that these modes of address are not always intended for wider public consumption, but rather often consolidate a ‘retreat’ to shared, lived realities and to organise against the suppression of these realities within mainstream publics.

Today, scholars have adapted counterpublic theories to examine how minority groups use social media to contest their marginalisation, narrate their experiences and amplify their voices and claims, as in the case of #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter (Squires, 2002; Jackson and Welles, 2016). Zou (2018) also uses the concept to examine how diasporic news media functions as a counterpublic, aiming not only for objectivity but ‘construct[ing] emotional connection and a sense of in-group solidarity with the audience’ [5]. In these revisions, counterpublic theories are aligned with the much more widely recognised concept of ‘networked publics’ (Papacharissi, 2010). For example, Zou cites Papacharissi (2010) to link ‘networked counterpublics’ to advances in digital technologies which have collapsed public/private, rational/emotional distinctions and moral values applied to these spaces and technologies, whilst also providing tools which enable the selectivity of audiences for different messages.

Papacharissi argues that this collapse has implications for civic and political life. Her claim that digital citizens can now use their ‘home’ pages and accounts to navigate between forms of address that are public (i.e., using YouTube, Facebook or Twitter to broadcast one’s political views), or private (using closed channels of communication such as e-mail, direct message) is understood as a paradigm shift, challenging public sphere models: “This challenges the fundamental supposition that humans, in order to be social, and by consequence, political, must possess public face: they must associate in the public realm.” [6].

Nonetheless research on digital activism, social movements and other forms of civic and political expression persists in engaging in a myopic focus on public pages, sites and hashtags owing to the ease with which representational data can be collected on these publics (as argued by Treré in this special issue). While this research is important, in this article I argue that more attention needs to be paid to political speech and organising which takes place on popular, commercially available encrypted messenger platform such as WhatsApp, particularly given that use of these platforms is having an impact, not only on internal identity formation, but on public agenda setting. This is noted in the cases where public and political use of the platform has influenced election outcomes (Santos and Faure, 2018; Tapsell, 2018).

Redefining digital citizenship: This strategic shift away from engagement on the social media ‘front stage’ (Treré, 2015) toward use of encrypted messenger services has a particularly strong bearing on how we think about and conceptualise digital citizenship.

Much of the digital citizenship scholarship has mapped shifts away from formal and ‘dutiful’ models of citizenship, towards the use of personalized (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012; Vromen, 2017) and privatized (Papacharissi, 2010) action frames to connect with social and political issues. Other relevant scholarship has also come from social movements and digital activism research, with studies connecting the global wave of digitally networked protests since 2011 to new democracy movements contesting authoritarian and semi-authoritarian state power (Postill, 2014; Gerbaudo, 2012; Treré, 2015). And yet, in many of these studies, datafied social media publics continue to be studied as the key measure of citizen assembly. Moreover, these studies continue to view platforms, from Twitter to Facebook, as neutral ‘enablers’ of civic discourse and action rather than exemplars of institutional power, whose algorithms and recommender systems intervene in and direct, amplify or suppress, opinions and their diffusion (Gillespie, 2018; Woolley and Howard, 2018).

The latter criticism has paved the way for critical political economy models of digital media practice and citizenship. This scholarship examines the increasing interdependencies of platforms (and their data mining operations) and state-based projects of surveillance and control as forces that limit the democratic potential of social media and curtail the agency of digital citizens (Hintz, et al., 2017; Isin and Ruppert, 2015). Considering the effects of these forms of media power on civic participation, scholars argue that citizens become participants in surveillance culture as watchers and watched (Lyon, 2017), ‘chilling’ political expression and freezing public mobilisation [7]. Hintz, et al. argue that digital citizenship must be rethought in an era of datafication, to account for the role of big data, which has “greatly enhanced possibilities [for states and private companies] to understand, predict and control citizen activities.” [8]

Nonetheless, the authors also examine cases where datafication is resisted by strategic use of encryption technology (TOR browser, GPG e-mail encryption and Signal primarily) — as is the case with data activists (Milan, 2017). This aligns with increasing accounts of citizens using the affordances of encrypted messenger chat to extend ‘repertoires’ of resistance during protest events. In Treré’s analysis of Mexico’s #YoSoy132 movement (Treré, 2015) ‘backstage’ media channels such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp afforded social movement organisers opportunities to navigate between private and/or encrypted chat and more public facing social media (the frontage) to perform different actions and tasks vital to the movement. WhatsApp was found to provide: a space to negotiate internal difference; to ‘reinforce internal cohesion and solidarity’; to reclaim a space free from disinformation and manipulative media control; and to provide a digital ‘comfort zone’ where participants could feel ‘safe’, far from the ‘official lights of Facebook walls and pages.’ [9]

These theoretical foci are not frequently drawn together. Therefore, the analysis presented here holds the possibility of a different ordering of public and private communication relevant to citizenship acts, particularly as they provide a platform for oppositional or minority voices in contexts of government suppression.




Malaysian Digital Citizenship Project

Participants: Malaysian Chinese youth (aged 18–24) living in Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne were chosen as a participant group owing to media and scholarly accounts that Malaysia’s two major ethnic minority communities (Malaysian-Chinese and Malaysian-Indian) experience themselves as second-class citizens as a result of Malaysia’s citizenship laws and redistributive policies. These policies, although aiming to equalise economic and social opportunities between members of the majority Malay group and other ethnicities, have enshrined discriminatory laws and practices that distribute political rights unevenly.

As scholars have noted the large participation of Malaysian Chinese youth in Bersih — a popular Malaysian social movement focused on cleaning up government corruption — and other forms of social media driven activism (Postill, 2014; Tapsell, 2018), I centred the project on this cohort. Participants were selected by posting advertisements to activist and politically oriented social media sites and pages, and then by snowball method. I acknowledge the limitation of the findings which are not representative all ethnic minority voices in Malaysia, nor even of all Malaysian Chinese youth, given the size of the sample. Nonetheless the findings shed some light on minority community uses of WhatsApp in a historical context of tightening authoritarianism, censorship and control of social media.

Research Phase One & Two: The first phase of data collection took place between June 2016 and November 2016, in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) with the Melbourne field site (Australia) being added later. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 19 young people over a four–week period. These interviews included use of ‘scroll back’ (see Robards, 2013) and ‘walkthrough’ (Light, et al., 2018) methods. Interviews were designed to capture participant demographics; perceptions and attitudes towards citizenship, national identity and belonging; and exposure to digital citizenship programs in school. Scroll back method involved young people scrolling back through their social media profiles to ‘show’ the researcher which platforms and apps they use for different social, political and leisure activities; the composition of their social networks; what forms of civic and political participation they engaged in; and what platform affordances and functions enabled these types of engagement. These activities were video-recorded where consent was provided. I also engaged in several ‘walkthroughs’ of the app, to understand the interface design, affordances, policies and limitations of the platforms observed. Post the Malaysian field research, I made contact with two Melbourne-based Malaysian students through word of mouth. Both were involved in the organising committee for the Bersih 5 rally staged in Melbourne in November 2016, as part of Global Bersih’s transnational activities. As part of this second phase of data collection, I conducted scroll back interviews with two Bersih organisers, attended rally meetings and candlelight vigils for activists who had been arrested in Malaysia. Social media participant observation was also conducted with a smaller sample of participants from the KL field site (N=5) who consented to be followed on social media (Facebook and Instagram), or who remained in contact on WhatsApp for a three–five month period.

Research Phase Three: In 2018, following the landslide victory by PH in GE14, I returned to KL for a shorter duration (June 2018). Interviews (using scroll-back method) were arranged and conducted with five of the participants from phase one of the research who had also participated in the social media observations. This allowed longitudinal insights to be generated. In addition, interviews were conducted with eight new participants. This brought the total number of youth participants in the study to 29.

Highlighting the significance of WhatsApp to everyday social media cultures and practices in Malaysia, a recent Internet Users Survey by the Malaysian Communication authority (MCMC, 2018) shows a changing trend in social media usage in Malaysia. Compared to the 2016 report which showed Malaysia to be the biggest global users of Facebook, according to population size, in 2018 use of social networking services were reported to have declined overall by four percent (97.3 percent used Facebook, followed by 54 percent Instagram, and 23.8 percent Twitter) and communication by text messages via social messaging apps increased. Among these WhatsApp had the largest market share (98.1 percent) followed by Messenger (55.6 percent), WeChat (36.8 percent) and Telegram (25 percent).

Data from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report (2018) adds that 54 percent of Malaysians use WhatsApp to share and discuss news. This shows its popularity in terms of civic participation, a finding further contextualised in the findings of my study.




Closed platforms opening up a space for minority voices

They should be able to say whatever they want to say as stupid as is it. If they’re not actively hurting anyone or making plans to assassinate somebody then there should be no reason for them to be arrested and incarcerated, especially when there’s such an obvious bias in terms of who is being incarcerated — those against the government. (Cassie)

Cassie’s claims that government laws restricting free speech on social media targets opposition voices was confirmed by Freedom of the Net reports across the duration of the study (Freedom House, 2016–2018), particularly documenting the abuse of the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA).

Media scholarship in Malaysia has detailed the use of the Sedition Act, CMA and other Internet regulation codes to block news sites reporting on the 1MDB scandal, a political corruption scandal where the Malaysian Prime Minister was accused of siphoning the equivalent of US$700 million from state development fund 1MDB into his personal account (Leong and Lee, 2016; Mohd Sani, et al., 2016; Freedom House, 2017, 2016), and to effectively ban discussion of some topics on social media. Participants described the effects of media censorship in these cases as having negative impacts on free speech vital to democracy in Malaysia. They also believed that the laws didn’t only target critics of government, but also had a racialized character — targeting ‘minority’ communities who dared to question government policy. As participants in this study were drawn from Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community, this claim, was pertinent and repeated through numerous interviews:

There’s this us versus them mentality when it comes to race based politics. And that is the reality of the situation when you have a ruling coalition that has spent the last fifty years ruling based on racial lines and using divisive tactics to rule the population. with regards to when you’re a Malaysian Chinese and you’re a minority in Malaysia, if you say things that are against the current status quo, it does endanger you. (Ben)

In this context, Ben celebrated his friends’ right to use encrypted chat to engage in political debate. Nonetheless, he had also muted the group chat on his phone because of the volume and tone of the discourse, which he felt was often ‘immature’ and antagonistic.

These concerns were raised by other participants, who felt that the shield of anonymity and the ‘privatisation’ of civic and political participation on WhatsApp was having ambivalent effects on democracy — with more voices being included, but the quality of debate becoming lowered and replaced with inflammatory, angry, divisive and, at times, racist and misinformed discussion. Cassie described linguistic limitations of the messenger app, WeChat, as an example which distorted the quality of civic and political speech. She claimed that all of her Mandarin speaking friends were on it, but she questioned how good it was for democracy as linguistic barriers had the effect of producing echo chambers:

I think amongst the Chinese speaking communities in Malaysia there — they feel a lot freer to speak up on social media because their language is written in Mandarin so it becomes a sort of echo chamber on its own. Nothing outside gets in. Nothing inside gets out, which can be good because they’re allowed to speak freely amongst themselves without fear of repercussion or at least legal repercussion. But it becomes kind of black and white and less nuanced. (Cassie)

Similar observations were made of WhatsApp, with participants in research phase 3, in the lead up to GE14, describing misuse of the app by some actors to circulate misinformation. Whilst this is beyond the scope of the present paper, some of these findings demonstrated that whilst WhatsApp did provide activists and citizens an avenue to freely express political views, encryption also provided a shield from opposing viewpoints, and at times led to the circulation of misinformation and disinformation, a finding which aligns with other research on WhatsApp which has highlighted its role in enhancing populist politics and demagoguery rather than enhancing democracy (see Matamoros Fernandez, this special issue).

The safety of invisibility in a surveillance state

Nonetheless, the dominant finding particularly in 2016–2017 was the role WhatsApp played in providing a safe haven for political opinion expression and activism. Whereas only a few participants mentioned fears around privacy and control of their data in connection to Facebook (WhatsApp’s parent company), the real ‘bogeyman’ in their worldview was identified with the Malaysian state’s exploitation of the visibility and searchability of data on open platforms to monitor the conversations of activists, and charge them under the Sedition Act or CMA:

On Twitter, there is an increasing trend, now, to use the multimedia communications act [instead of the sedition act] because one of the sections in act was if youre posting or what you’ve said has offended somebody — I’m serious, it says offended — you can be arrested. So, that’s really so broad and it’s the basis of a criminal offense. So that is being used, for Facebook as well. (Billy)

Fifty percent of participants said that government use of the Sedition Act and the CMA to arrest opposition leaders, news organisations and activists had produced an atmosphere of uncertainty about what you could and couldn’t safely say about politics on public-facing social media. Several high profile cases where government monitoring of interactions on Facebook had led to the arrest of activists, but also ordinary citizens, had particularly spooked some participants, produced “chilling effects” (of all 29 participants, only three said they used Facebook or Twitter to publicise their political views and affiliations). In one of these cases, a teenager living in Johor state was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison under CMA laws for posting a ‘derogatory’ comment about Johor royalty on a Facebook group called ‘TRW Troll Story’ (Southeast Asia Globe, 9 June 2016). This case led some participants to either close their Twitter accounts or change their privacy settings on Facebook:

It’s [the sedition act] always in the background waiting for you to make some sort of statement that you can get hauled away for. I think a lot of people do live in fear of that. I mean just recently someone was arrested for making seditious comments about the Prince of Johor. (Ben)

I changed my Facebook from public to private because my dad added me on Facebook and he saw all the (political) posts. He was like ‘delete all that stuff’ because the sedition act was being really actively used. They were arresting people.

This supports Hintz, et al.’s discussion of how the ‘surveillance culture’ (Lyon, 2017) produced through citizens’ everyday participation in data driven surveillance produces “chilling effects”. Hintz, et al. (2018) particularly found that these effects affected most acutely minority citizens whose communications were subject to disproportionate monitoring by government. For example, in the context of the ‘war on terror’ their study showed that the Snowden leaks had the greatest impact among Muslim community members, who were being surveilled as a suspect population (Hintz, et al., 2018). This was also reflected in the present study, with Malaysian-Chinese youth feeling that they would be held to more scrutiny than co-citizens.

Two years after this initial phase of fieldwork — in 2018 — the data remained stable with most participants remaining reluctant to post political content on Facebook or Twitter. Whilst the Sedition act and CMA were only mentioned by two participants in this timeframe, perhaps because the incoming government had explicitly campaigned on a platform of strengthening of democracy and free speech, its effects were still felt, with participants showing reluctance to post anything political in the lead up to GE14:

the Sedition Act is still technically there so ... In theory if Mahathir wanted to go completely evil tomorrow he could do it (...) for me as a political activist, I won’t feel completely free to say things until those institutions are gone. (Julian)

I think I was shy or hesitant to want to go public with a lot of things ... because I was very aware of what happens when you speak against the government at that point in time. I had to be very cautious (...) the Sedition Act, it’s real, so it’s scary. (Clare, volunteer political campaigner in GE14).

But, rather than feelings of fear driving participants to retreat from posting politically themed content on social media altogether, 50 percent of participants interviewed spoke of using encrypted chat apps, specifically WhatsApp and Telegram, to form activist groups, engage in political discussion, organise protest events and rallies. This was owing to the guarantee that group chats were secured by end-to-end encryption meaning that it was identified as a ‘safe space’.

Whatsapp: A safe space but it’s complicated

However, tempering results that showed participants perceived WhatsApp to be a safe space, two walkthroughs conducted in 2016 presented conflicting views on this finding.

Hai Yang and Simone, activists with a Student Socialist group; and Bersih; respectively described the way that they used political WhatsApp groups and Telegram groups to organize off-line rallies and actions (Hai Yang) and to offer free legal assistance to citizens who have been arrested under the sedition laws (Simone).

Telegram is less popular than WhatsApp in Malaysia (25 percent use compared with 98 percent), but is shown by some activist and political groups to be a preferred option to WhatsApp. Created by Pavel Durov in response to the Edward Snowden disclosures, Telegram has long been associated with crypto-activism and resistance towards mass government surveillance. Unlike WhatsApp which limits groups to 256, Telegram also allows “super groups” of up to 100,000 members.

Simone said that she mainly used WhatsApp for political organizing, but that she used Telegram almost exclusively when she worked for Bersih, to organize rallies. In the ‘walkthrough’ she showed me a WhatsApp group that she had become a member of after interning with Bersih. She was studying law at the time, and the group was set up for two reasons: to bring together progressive lawyers who would offer pro bono legal advice to citizens charged under sedition laws, and to advocate for the abolishment of the Sedition Act:

These two are active. That’s the group for that campaign for the abolition of the Sedition Act. That’s mainly when someone gets arrested for any Facebook posts. And they post here to look for lawyers. (Simone)

Hai Yang, in a ‘walkthrough’ of his use of WhatsApp and Telegram use, showed me how he used both apps to engage in political chat and to organise political campaigns and rallies among the Socialist student group that he belonged to. In some videos he shared with me in 2016, some friends had staged a protest against factory workers who had had their contracts terminated without being paid out their entitlements. In 2018 he spoke about rounding up groups of friends to go to the Bersih5 roadshow ahead of the GE14 election, in which Bersih used grassroots campaigning techniques rather than social media strategy to target the government’s corruption record and encourage citizens to vote, but he said that organizing this publicly was not possible. Instead WhatsApp was used to organize among his friends.

Hai Yang preferred Telegram to WhatsApp, as he felt it was more secure, a finding that was shared by many activists given the privacy scandals plaguing WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, but also considering security protections on Telgram that didn’t exist on WhatsApp, e.g., you can restrict users being able to screenshot and share content or forward content on Telegram. However, Hai Yang felt most of his friends preferred using WhatsApp because of its everyday use and popularity in Malaysia:

Most of my activists friends ... all of them are using Whatsapp. That means a lot of chat group in Whatsapp. Although I already tell them Telegram is better but a lot of them refuse to turn to Telegram because I believe it’s also affected by the crowd. Like let’s say if I feel Telegram is good ... even though I tell my friend they also think twice whether want to install it or not. I believe WhatsApp is more famous here.

Julian also preferred Telegram, citing Facebook’s record on privacy as a reason for not trusting WhatsApp, although he considered the encryption guarantee to have swayed most of his friends:

When WhatsApp came in they were all saying, “Oh Facebook’s going to buy WhatsApp, they’re going to suck in our phone numbers” ... our worst fears have not come to pass and they’ve also introduced encryption. So we are at least safe from the Government, but not necessary from Facebook ... I keep all my super sensitive political stuff on Telegram. (Julian)

The mention of Telegram as a preferred alternative to WhatsApp in some instances raised queries about the trust users had in relation to WhatsApp’s security. But another fear was also entangled with this technical concern. For example, Billy, a campaign manager for Bersih, Hai Yang and Julian, discussed fears that government spies might have infiltrated groups they were members of, with these actors exploiting technical affordances of WhatsApp to screenshot or forward messages to authorities:

We work on the assumption that whatever that we are saying on WhatsApp is under surveillance, so, based on that then, we also evaluate what kind of information that can be shared through WhatsApp or not. (Billy)

Hai Yang expressed concern that he and members of the Socialist Activist group were being monitored. This was particularly the case given that he attended a public university that had strict guidelines prohibiting students from engaging in Bersih rallies among other organised protests.

We are sometimes suspicious of who are the members of the chat, because they can just screengrab it and share with the university. (Hai Yang)

These fears around political WhatsApp groups being monitored by government informers was confirmed in the same year these interviews were conducted, with the arrest of a 76 year old man for posting a photo to a WhatsApp group that ‘insulted’ the Prime Minister (Yee Xiang Yun, 2016). The man was charged under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act.

The latter case gives pause to arguments that WhatsApp provides a safe space for activists and everyday digital citizens to engage in political networking, debate and actions. Rather it provides insights into the way that surveillance culture works to limit the freedom with which citizens are able to freely express their political opinions in any digital environment, problematizing narratives which laud the democratic value of the platform and the encryption affordance.



Conclusion: From networked counterpublics to crypto-publics

Perceptions of what was considered ‘public’ and ‘private’ and further considerations of safety and voice within social media networks became a key consideration for participants in the project. This shaped decisions of which social media platforms were ‘safe’ for political chat and actions (given the political use of the Sedition Act and CMA), or whether any space was safe given the infiltration of some WhatsApp publics by informants.

On the one hand this supports arguments that public facing, networked social media publics are too leaky for people to feel safe. While an important tool for citizens to seek and share news and information, form opinions and publicise political actions (in the case of activists and social movements), social media has also become vital to surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2015) and subject to monitoring and manipulation by governments, producing less desirable effects for democracy. This supports Hintz, et al.’s understanding of digital citizenship, where the authors find that the voice and agency of digital citizens is most often either curtailed or manipulated under present conditions: “digital citizenship is therefore not only self-constructed and defined, but equally constructed by the government and business realms ... Agency shifts from the digital citizen to those who process his or her personal data ... This points us to the original meaning of the word surveillance: supervision. The digital citizen is at the same time an active citizen and a supervised citizen.” [10]. The Foucauldian inevitability of this shift of agency away from the citizen and toward the state is damning, and matches the findings in this study.

But as with Hintz, et al.’s examination of the digital acts of resistance of privacy advocates who use encrypted Messenger services to evade state surveillance (Santos and Faure, 2018; Treré, 2015; Milan, 2017), the inevitability of this is far from certain. I want to suggest instead that the affordance of end-to-end encryption in many commercially available chat apps, mainly WhatsApp and Telegram in the case of this study, is providing a vital democratic function by allowing publics to form and be safeguarded by the promise of encryption, even if this affordance is offered by companies whose records on digital rights is poor.

In this sense, by using the term crypto-publics I am quite deliberately wanting to argue that commercially available encrypted chat platforms like WhatsApp are fostering new political counter-publics by virtue of the affordance end-to-end encryption. In particular, the commercial availability of the service is lowering barriers to access and making a technology once linked to a techno-activist elite (the cypherpunks and hackers), a source of popular, mainstream activism and public mobilisation. In testing these theories empirically in the Malaysian context, the findings showed that acts taking place in ‘crypto-publics’, even if participants felt they lended themselves to uncritical and unsophisticated discourse at times, provided an important space where political expressions and actions could be carried out in defiance of state efforts to suppress political speech acts critical of government.

While the Sedition act and CMA had increased mistrust and withdrawal of activists and citizens from open platforms, the switch to ‘crypto-publics’ fostered new citizenship repertoires. In particular, contesting theories attributing digital citizenship to capacities for public speech, visibility and public formation, the empirical data presented here showed that, in contexts of mass dataveillance, ‘crypto publics’ enabled civic and political connection, speech and organizing to continue in resistance of state efforts to police and inhibit democracy.

However, while the findings identify new types and acts of digital citizenship enabled by shifts to ‘crypto publics’, the final finding gives pause to narratives linking WhatsApp and privacy affording technologies to acts of digital agency and resistance. Rather by showing that these platforms too were targeted by forms of surveillance (via use of paid informers infiltrating groups and exploiting certain affordances, such as capacities to forward or screenshot content and share it outside of the group) there is a degree of ambivalence that complicates any straightforward narrative. Rather the findings show that to answer the questions posed in this paper, more research is needed. End of article


About the author

Amelia Johns is a Senior Lecturer in Digital & Social Media at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research examines young people’s digital participation, activism and citizenship. Her current projects are ‘Fostering Global Digital Citizenship: Diaspora youth in a Connected World’ (Australian Research Council Discovery Award, DP190100635) and ‘Mapping and Countering the diffusion of Hate Speech across Social Media’ (Facebook Content Policy Research Awards, Phase II).
E-mail: Amelia [dot] johns [at] uts [dot] edu [dot] au



This work was supported by Deakin University’s Central Research Grant scheme (CRGS, 2016–2018).



1. Tapsell, 2018, p. 12; Mohd Sani, et al., 2016.

2. Ong, 2019, p. 483.

3. Ong, 2019, p. 486.

4. Warner, 2002, pp. 119–121.

5. Zou, 2018, p. 2.

6. Papacharissi, 2010, pp. 19–21.

7. Hintz, et al., 2018, pp. 110–115; Johns and Cheong, 2019.

8. Hintz, et al., 2017, p. 732.

9. Treré, 2015, p. 911.

10. Hintz, et al., 2018, pp. 37–38.



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Editorial history

Received 26 November 2019; accepted 8 December 2019.

Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

‘This will be the WhatsApp election’: Crypto-publics and digital citizenship in Malaysia’s GE14 election
by Amelia Johns.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 1 - 6 January 2020
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i1.10381

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