“I gave him a script,” Syarul Ema says. “I asked him to say: ‘if you love your religion, you need to go and vote for Barisan Nasional and make sure that the DAP loses’.” The DAP lost the seat by 500 votes.
Syarul Ema explained how in that video, actors were employed to portray how difficult it was for Malays to find gainful employment, and how they were rejected by would-be ethnic Chinese employers because of their race.
“The video became viral, about how the Chinese will say ‘no Malays’ to Malays seeking jobs and how Indians became bosses in many job fields. The actors, the editing I did it all myself.
“I spread the video through WhatsApp, because the issue of race and religion is very sensitive, and if I had shared it on Facebook, many people would have sued me,” she claimed.
She claimed at that time she had over 500 WhatsApp groups in her phone to share these types of content, and that these groups comprised of BN, PAS and even Pakatan Rakyat supporters.
“I even had groups for ‘cari jodoh!’” she exclaimed to laughter from the audience, referring to groups of those seeking soulmates. When asked by moderator Melisa Idris whether her work for BN had worked, she replied:
“All I know is that BN won GE13.” Ever since joining PKR a few years back,
Syarul Ema says she now regrets what she did in the past, and has “repented.”
“I feel bad when I see people fighting about race and religion on Facebook because I feel that I had a part in it,” she said.
Another panellist, academic Gayathry Venkiteswaran said that a rising concern is how people often shared information on WhatsApp, even though it has not necessarily been verified, and if it reinforces certain perceptions or stereotypes.
She also pointed out how some media organisations further entrenched racial divisions by the language used in stories and how they are framed.
“There have been certain types of languages used against minorities. It is always used to describe them as the ‘other.’ “We end up viewing everything from a racial lens,” she said.
Keep in mind, this is all during Najib’s time as Prime Minister. It is understood that Syarul Ema went from an average blogger in 2008 to building a network of 80 cyber troopers in 2013 to assist BN as they geared up for GE13.
She had one goal in mind, and that was to amplify false news to undermine all government oppositions.
We would take names and pictures from social media accounts in Indonesia or Philippines and make a fake account, acting like an opposition supporter. We’d come up with racist statements… then we’d print screen and spread it everywhere.”Syarul Ema Rena Abu Samah @ Ratu Naga
According to Syarul Ema, her cyber troopers ran thousands of fake social media accounts to degrade any political opponents of BN by simply getting supporters to make outrages and racist remarks that would garner a lot of anger and backlash from the people towards opposition parties.
“If an issue like a major corruption scandal comes up, people get angry. But you throw out an issue like: ‘this Chinese fella mocks our people’, they will focus on that.”Syarul Ema Rena Abu Samah @ Ratu Naga
Syarul Ema Rena Abu Samah, also known online as Ratu Naga (Malay for “Dragon Empress”), told a forum titled “Kasi Viral: The Spread of Racial Disinformation in Malaysia” organised by the Cooler Lumpur Festival at the Publika shopping mall here that the work she did for BN for the general election included creating videos which portrayed Malays as being marginalised and exploited by other ethnic groups.
“In GE13, I did a video playing up racial issues, especially among the Indians and the Chinese. At that time, a lot of people were angry with DAP,” she told.
Some of Syarul Ema’s ‘well-known works’ include:
#1. FAKE QUOTE FROM TERESA KOK
Teresa Kok was arrested in May 2014 and charged with sedition for a YouTube video where she allegedly joked about Malaysia being an unsafe place to live in.
Syarul Ema’s post, on the other hand, showed Teresa Kok saying that she saw nothing wrong with offending Malays-indirectly admitting to the charges. Of course, Teresa Kok filed a police report after that.
#2. A MADE-UP VIRAL VIDEO
A video of an Indian member of BN alleging that he was assaulted by a DAP activist started circulating on WhatsApp a day before the Teluk Intan by-elections in 2014 where both DAP and BN had an equal chance of winning. Syarul Ema ‘directed’ and shot the video of a scuffle on a street involving one angry Indian man.
“I asked him to say: ‘If you love your religion, you need to go and vote for Barisan Nasional and make sure DAP loses’.”
After that, DAP ended up losing by 500 votes. Although Syarul Ema was never paid for all that she has done, she did it thinking she was ‘fighting dark forces’ (a.k.a the opposition). In view of all the fake news she’s spread, the 35-year-old state that, “I have said sorry, publicly.”
“I was indoctrinated. I thought I was fighting dark forces. I really thought that.”
She thought she was doing the right thing the entire time. So much so that BN only needed to give her team a basic direction and they would take care of everything else.
“They call it ‘Black Ops’. Cyberwar. Propaganda.”
In 2015, Syarul Ema slowly started to make her exit as a cybertrooper when she wrote something online that she (finally) actually believed in (which was anything BUT BN-friendly, of course).
Najib Razak’s flip-flopping on economic policy have angered Syarul Ema, as it did for many of us, she included the Malay-curse word ‘Pukimak’ in her post and as expected, she was slapped with a lawsuit for insulting our ‘beloved’ (ex)prime minister soon after. She said,
“Even Trump doesn’t sue people who criticize him.”
Her phone was then confiscated and her entire house was raided. She was charged under Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act and the case is set to go to trial in the next few months.
“Why am I being sued? Because I am telling the truth? They sued me because of one f-word. It’s unjust.”
What’s worst is that the law is incredibly broad, covering local and foreign publications, social media as well as anyone who offers financial assistance to those posting or sharing fake news. It’s also punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a RM500,000 fine. Many Malaysians saw this as a naked attempt by the government to gain an advantage and to get back at their critics.
James Chin, a Malaysian academic and the director of the Asia Institue at the University of Tasmania said,
“The new law will be targeted at the opposition. Not people who put out fake news in support of the government.”
We’re glad that Syarul Ema has turned over a new leaf and intends on making amends for her past work. She wants to expose the tactics that she herself helped to popularise and is also constantly calling out fake news on social media.
“I believe that we can open up people’s minds so that these tactics no longer can be used. Now, I just tell the truth only.”
It was in this environment that Syarul Ema Rena Abu Samah found her calling. In 2008 she was a relatively minor blogger, albeit a politically well-connected one – her mother had been a regional communications head for the party; her husband is a former youth leader.
She was tangentially involved in the party’s online strategy, and taught a few classes on how to make infographics, but as Barisan Nasional started to gear up to fight the next election, she was invited into the tent.
By 2013, she had built a network of 80 cybertroopers who ran thousands of fake social media accounts, that created and amplified falsehoods to undermine opposition to the government.
A decade on, the playbook that she developed for online misinformation is a familiar one. She and her colleagues worked to delegitimise Barisan Nasional’s political opponents by fabricating supporters who would make outrageous, usually racist statements, that would drive anger against the main opposition parties.
“We would take names and pictures from [social media accounts in] Indonesia or the Philippines and make a fake account, acting like an opposition supporter. We’d come up with racist statements… then we’d print screen and spread it everywhere,” she says in an interview in her lawyer’s office in Kuala Lumpur.
If a major story broke that would damage the government, her network would create a distraction. “If an issue like [a major corruption scandal] comes up, people get angry. But you throw out an issue like: ‘this Chinese fella mocks our people’, they will focus on that.”
All of this was done with the tacit blessing of the government. She claims to have met with the media unit at the Prime Minister’s office; they did not respond to requests for comment. However, the government has made no secret of the fact that it encourages a huge network of cybertroopers, some of whom are on the payroll.
Syarul Ema says that she was never paid; she did it out of an ideological commitment to the party. “I was indoctrinated,” she says. “I thought I was fighting dark forces. I really thought that.”
She was kept at arm’s length, an independent consultant running her own team of volunteers who were tasked with solving problems. Her account tallies with those of others who spoke to WIRED; that they were given a basic direction by the party, but that their tactics were of their own devising. “They call it ‘Black Ops’,” she says. “Cyberwar. Propaganda.”
This original article How racial misinformation shapes politics, according to an ex-BN ‘cybertrooper’ was published in MALAY MAIL on Oct 5, 2018.