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Decoding the Weaponizing of Pop Culture on WhatsApp in Singapore and Malaysia

The project

This project is a collaboration between researchers from five universities across Australia, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom, and is funded by the Facebook Integrity Foundational Research Award (USA), January–December 2019.

Although ‘misinformation’ and ‘fake news’ have become international buzzwords since the US Presidential Elections 2016, several Southeast Asian nations have long confronted a tight control of their (inter)national media, draconian censorship regulations, and sedition/defamation acts. The rhetoric of ‘misinformation’ and ‘fake news’, and their older counterparts ‘propaganda’ and ‘media manipulation’, are regularly enacted by incumbent governments to control political opposition and grassroots dissent. However, a saving grace in these nations are the private-grouped, platform-encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp that accord users an extent of privacy and freedom from state surveillance. Further, information shared in the form of internet popular culture – such as memes, folklore, chain mail, and viral artefacts, in the form of text, images, gifs, and videos – allows for a layer of plausible deniability wherein users can disperse and dispel organised efforts as mere humour, in an act of subversive frivolity. Using traditional and digital ethnographic observation, personal interviews, questionnaires, and content analyses, this project focuses on Singapore and Malaysia to understand how internet popular culture is being weaponised on WhatsApp by the state, political parties, grassroots groups, and corporations.

Supplementary/Feeder projects

This project comprises a network of smaller supplementary projects that feed into the overall research study. They include:

[1] COVID-19 Misinformation on WhatsApp in Singapore

This is a time-sensitive side project by Crystal Abidin and Natalie Pang that focuses on how COVID-19-related misinformation is being circulated and treated on WhatsApp among Singaporeans. It considers the Singapore government’s use of WhatsApp to disseminate verified updates and public service announcements on WhatsApp and the networks of misinformation and health folklore being pedalled by well-intended elderly family members.


[in preparation] Editorial special issue for Social Media + Society

[in preparation] Industry report for Facebook

[2] Abidin, Crystal. 2020. “Pivot to coronavirus: How meme factories are crafting public health messaging.” The Conversation, 28 July. <Link>

[1] Abidin, Crystal. 2020. “Meme factory cultures and content pivoting in Singapore and Malaysia during COVID-19.” The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review 1. DOI: 10.37016/mr-2020-031 <Open Access>


[5] “What is a ‘Meme Factory’? ABC Radio National, 9 August 2020. <Radio>

[4] “Meme factories.” ABC Radio Hobart, 4 August 2020. <Radio, from 2:19:00>

[3] “Public health messages delivered by memes.” 2SER 107.3, 31 July 2020. <Radio>

[2] “Social Issues: Meme Factories?” Radio Adelaide 101.5, 30 July 2020. <Radio>

[1] “Know your meme: Internet pop culture is the new language of activism.” Curtin University, 10 March 2020. <Article>


[2] Pang, Natalie, and Crystal Abidin. 2019. “Decoding the weaponising of pop culture on WhatsApp in Singapore and Malaysia.” AoIR2019, Brisbane. 2-5 October 2019.

[1] Abidin, Crystal, and Niki Cheong. 2019. “Decoding the weaponising of pop culture on WhatsApp in Singapore and Malaysia.” Integrity Research Academic Workshop, Facebook. June 26-27, 2019. <Link>

Further information

Project website here.

The researchers

Dr Crystal Abidin is Senior Research Fellow/ARC DECRA Fellow in Internet Studies at Curtin University, Research Fellow with the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University, and Affiliate Researcher with the Media Management and Transformation Centre at Jönköping University. She is a digital anthropologist and ethnographer of vernacular internet cultures, and researches young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. Crystal has been studying the Influencer industry in Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Nordic since the late-2000s. She has authored over 40 refereed articles and chapters on various aspects of internet culture, and her books include Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (2018), Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures to Cultures of Internet Fame (2018, co-edited with Megan Lindsay Brown), Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures (2020, with Tama Leaver and Tim Highfield, Polity Press), and Mediated Interfaces: The Body on Social Media (2020, co-edited with Katie Warfield and Carolina Cambre). Crystal is listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia (2018) and Pacific Standard 30 Top Thinkers Under 30 (2016). Reach her at

Niki Cheong is a PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research interest lies in the intersection of media, politics and digital culture – currently, he is investigating online manipulation of information focussing on cybertrooping in Malaysia’s social mediasphere. He was formerly a journalist at The Star, Malaysia’s largest English daily, and served as editor of its international award-winning (digital) media platform R.AGE. In 2017, he published his first book Growing Up in KL: 10 Years of The Bangsar Boy featuring writings from his newspaper column which ran for over 11 years. Niki has taught in the field of communication, media and culture at such institutions as The University of Nottingham, UK and Monash University Malaysia. He is currently module convenor for the Politics, Media and Culture in Southeast Asia summer school programme at The University of Nottingham Malaysia.

Natalie Pang received her PhD in Information Technology from Monash University, Australia, where her research on participatory technologies in communities won her two awards — the Vice Chancellor’s Commendation for Doctoral Thesis Excellence, and the Faculty of Information Technology Doctoral Medal. Her teaching and research interest is focused on community informatics, with basic and applied research of new media in various community contexts to support social, cultural and civic engagement in these communities. She has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Archives & Manuscripts, Computers in Human Behavior, Media Culture & Society, Online Information Review and New Media & Society.

Amelia Johns is a Senior Lecturer in Digital and Social Media in the School of Communication, UTS. Her work spans the fields of digital media and youth citizenship studies, with a focus on young people’s negotiation of identity, racism, civic and political engagement and activism in digitally networked publics. Her most recent research project examined Malaysian-Chinese youth everyday digital practices, and the role they play in negotiating forms of political activism and citizenship. She is the author of Battle for the Flag (2015), and co-editor of Negotiating Digital Citizenship: Control, Contest, Culture (with Anthony McCosker and Son Vivienne, 2016). She is currently Co-Chair of first year unit: Citizenship and Communication at UTS. She is also lead researcher on ARC Discovery project: ‘Fostering Global Digital Citizenship: Diaspora Youth in a Connected World’.

Joanne Lim is Associate Professor of Communication, Media and Cultural Studies at the School of Media, Language and Cultures, University of Nottingham Malaysia. Her research focuses on areas of new/digital media and participatory culture, new communication technologies, interculturality, youth identities and civic/political engagement within the Malaysian-Southeast Asian context. She is Associate Editor of Media Asia (Routledge) and co-edited a book on The Korean Wave in Southeast Asia: Consumption and Production (2015). Joanne recently completed a project on ‘Integrating New Communication Technology: A Study of Media Convergence in the Malaysian Democracy’ and is currently involved in projects on ‘Mental Health and Suicide Reporting’ and ‘Predictive Analytics using Sentiment Analysis in Social Media’ (in relation to palm-oil perception). She is a former (broadcast) journalist in Malaysia, Canada and a former co-producer of a radio talkshow in the US.


If you would like to get in touch, please reach Crystal at,, or @wishcrys.

This page was last updated on 11 August 2020.