For better or worse, Malaysians have always been at the forefront when it comes to social media. Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, TikTok or Instagram, it’s very, very rare to meet someone who isn’t involved in at least one of them.
In September 2021, Communications and Multimedia Ministry Secretary-General Datuk Seri Mohammad Mentek announced that Malaysia contained around 28 million social media users — a two million increase compared to 2020!
“The use of the internet has been on the rise since we faced the MCO and the country’s social media users made up 86% of the total population in January 2021,” he said during a livestreamed event on the ministry’s Facebook page.
But while this wide-scale use of social media has made us closer and more connected than ever before, it’s also led to some rather… unfortunate problems — especially when it comes to political events like the upcoming Melaka elections.
Nature is Healing, The Cybertroopers Are Coming Out Again
As the Melaka election draws near, suddenly people start to get a lot busier. However, what makes this election so different is a focus on cyber-space rather than physical space.
With the usual big gatherings and ceramahs all restricted by SOPs, the candidates have turned to social media instead. Rather than physical meetings, they’re all relying on their social media skills to draw in potential voters.
And with that, along come the cybertroopers in full force.
The Secret Life of Cybertroopers
While it’s used worldwide nowadays, the word “cybertrooper” is actually believed to have originated from Malaysia.
Simply put, a cybertrooper is someone who’s being paid to support a political party on social media. This is generally done by spreading propaganda, attacking political rivals and astroturfing (using fake accounts to pretend that something has a lot of support).
To understand what it’s like to be on the other side of the screen, The Full Frontal spoke to former cybertrooper Kenny (name changed to protect privacy) to discuss what it’s like to work as a professional online troll.
How Does Someone Become a Cybertrooper in the First Place?
Despite what you might expect, becoming a cybertrooper isn’t as easy as searching for the job and filling in an application form.
“They will ask around for people who are actually interested to be part of them and support them,” said Kenny. “My friend was the one who asked me to join. At the time, I agreed because I was jobless and needed money.”
Although the word “cybertrooper” conjures images of masked figures furtively typing away on giant supervillain-style computers in some hidden lair, the reality is much less exciting. According to Kenny, it’s… well — it’s basically an office job.
“We had our own desks, but we had to bring our own laptops and what not,” he recalled. “We would work from morning until midnight. Sometimes we could work the whole day — even up to 24 hours at a time!”
Yeah, I’ve been there. The work part, not the cybertrooper part.
As annoying as it is, cybertrooper work has become modernised. No more skulking around or hiding in basements. Instead, it’s all organised and run like an actual company.
The worst part is the sheer number of people involved nowadays.
“It’s pretty big. In our HQ, there were about 10-15 people working together. There will be a few people who actually dissect all the info and knowledge about this political stuff. They provide us the info, then the designers come up with the graphics itself. And then beneath us, there are actually thousands of cybertroopers who will spread them all across the country.”
But when you put it all together — the crazy long hours, the dull mundanity of office work, the fact that you have to bring your own computers… why would anyone want to work as a cybertrooper?
In One Word: Money
“I just need money to survive,” said Kenny. “I didn’t care who wins or who loses because they paid me quite a lot of money at the time. It was even in cash!”
“You can earn more than RM2,500 and above. It can even go up to RM5,000 depending on how hard you work and how supportive you are. There’s also the benefits. They provide us food from breakfast to supper. They provide us with a place to stay…”
However, while Kenny and his friends were simply focused on the money, some cybertroopers have different motivations. In fact, many of these “true believer” cybertroopers aren’t getting paid at all!
“Some of them are even willing to use their real accounts and personal identities,” said Kenny.
The Cybertroopers Are Already Hard At Work
While wanting to earn money is understandable enough, cybertroopers have undoubtedly changed our social media environment for the worse. Just think about how Malaysian politics have changed over the past decade.
Now that everyone is online, having a band of cybertroopers in your pocket has become a must-have for local politicians.
“It’s quite impactful. Every time the other parties do livestream or live events, all the cybertroopers will gather and attack them,” said Kenny. “And when our parties do events like this, we would come to defend them.”
Even when there aren’t any events going on, cybertroopers from all sides are working tirelessly to dig up dirt on their political rivals. Their effects have already been felt in the Melaka elections when PN candidate Fong Khai Ling had to make a public apology after an old video of her telling people how to enter Israel suddenly went viral on social media.
How to Identify a Cybertrooper
In the old days, it’d be easy to identify a cybertrooper or bot. However, the decreasing intelligence of the average internet user has made it harder to pick them out.
Ten years ago, if you saw a post claiming that vaccines were filled with microchips, you’d immediately know that the writer was a troll. Nowadays, unfortunately, the odds are that it’s actually a real person with the real ability to vote.
Furthermore, cybertroopers have been growing more sophisticated over the years. According to Kenny, most cybertroopers are actually real people rather than bots.
“Since they are paying people to protect them, they’ll just create another fake account, sometimes two-three different fake accounts to be part of the so-called ‘war’ during elections. There’s no bots involved.” he said.
“Even though the messages and info they’re spreading come from us, there are actually people who will provide scripts to help them banter with other parties. So you cannot tell if it’s real or not.”
That said, if you’ve got someone spamming weird messages all over your feed, here are a few ways to separate the cybertroopers from the average netizens:
Tip #1: Account Name
Unless they’re using their personal account, a lot of cybertroopers will pick a fake name. This is usually a Westernised or very un-Malaysian name of some kind, though lately, more and more cybertroopers will use a regular Malay, Chinese or Indian name to look more legit.
Tip #2: Personal Photos
Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, most users will have their galleries filled with personal photos — like selfies, family reunions, food, etc. However, if you find an account with very few photos or albums filled with random pictures of things like footballers or cats, it might be suspicious.
Another good tip is to check their profile picture. Some cybertroopers will download a real person’s picture and use it for their fake accounts. If in doubt, try using Google Image Search to see if their photo is unique or if it’s got loads of matches all across cyberspace.
Tip #3: Political Posts Everywhere
How much time do you really spend on politics? If someone’s account is just all political posts 24/7, then they’re either a cybertrooper or someone who seriously needs to get a life.
Also, pay attention to who they’re tagging. Do they actually have any friends or relatives? Or is it all tagging other totally-not-cybertroopers with super political accounts?
Tip #4: Posting Frequency
Another good way of identifying cybertroopers is to look at how many posts they’ve been doing every day. If someone has been copy-pasting the same posts over and over again a thousand times a day, they’re either a bot or being paid to do it. Because seriously, what kind of normal person would have the time or energy to keep posting about political stuff all day?
What Should You Do If You Find a Cybertrooper?
“I just ignore them.”
“If I have something to banter with them and it’s actually legit, then I will. But most of the time I just don’t care about them.” he said.
Unfortunately, in today’s social media environment, there’s not really much an ordinary rakyat like you and me can do to stop cybertroopers. We can debate them, report them, get them banned… but they’ll just show up the next day with another fake account.
When you’re dealing with social media, it’s important to practice some common sense. Sometimes, it’s better to simply block and ignore someone rather than waste time and energy trying to make them change their minds.
If you’re interested in learning more tips to identify cybertroopers and other fake news peddlers, be sure to check out:
Don’t Get Fooled! 5 Easy Steps to Avoid Fake News