Engaging the Web

Unpublished commentary

Engaging the web

Engaging the blogosphere through the use of social media to achieve political gains takes more than having a presence, but being part of the ecosystem of voices.

For too long, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has regarded the mainstream press as its main avenue of communication. Then came the upstarts – the bloggers, alternative online papers and forums. Jumping into the fray – some may say a little too late – the PAP is stepping up its use of online tools ahead of the coming elections due to be held in 2012. One of the first concerted signs of this came during the National Day Rally when live web broadcasts integrated with Facebook, announcements on Twitter and online forums on REACH complemented the conventional television platform. Certainly, it’s just the start of things to come.

And the move comes with good precedent. Just look at the history-making campaign of United States President Barack Obama whose campaign team changed the rules of political engagement by deftly using social media from the early stages to build a political brand, raise funds, create a sense of connection and engagement and mobilise grassroots action. And just across the Causeway, an SMS-campaign toppled the ruling coalition’s ability to pass constitutional amendments – an event not seen since 1969.

Embracing Web 2.0

The Singapore experience with social media with pan out differently given the unique political circumstances, noted lawyer and former Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong, but the game will boil down to “attracting the neutrals” as “both the PAP and the opposition … will attract their own supporters.” But he believes that the PAP has an inherent disadvantage in this regard as neutrals who want to seek out political information online will have a tendency to seek alternative views online and filter out PAP content. Thus far, the new media space has also been home to alternative and ‘anti-establishment’ voices – and has long been discounted by the ruling party as chatter. “[The view is that] Singaporeans can simply open the newspapers or switch on the television if they want the PAP view, [so] why bother looking for it online?” Mr Siew said, “The fact that Hitwise names yoursdp.org as the number one political site in Singapore speaks volumes,” he added.

But over the years the PAP has grown its new media credentials with platforms like REACH, its own ‘public relations’ force under the New Media Capabilities Group, online videos (cue MDA’s widely circulated rap on YouTube), and the use social networking sites like Facebook. The presence of social media platforms too are being refined and increased. For example, the Post-65 blog, initially a platform for Members of Parliament (MP) born after 1965, was opened to all post-65 Singaporeans. Some MPs and ministers have moved on to using Facebook instead. In many ways, this shift towards new media is inevitable, said Eugene Tan, assistant professor of law at Singapore Management University as audiences evolve. But the question remains – how effective will efforts be?

The two-way street

Sure, it’s commendable that Foreign Minister George Yeo has some 5,000 friends and counting on Facebook – but there’s more to using the web than popularity and having a mere presence. Like any tool, the success (more on that later) of social media platforms depend on how they’re understood and use to their full advantage.

One is the ability to appreciate the two-way nature of online engagement and engage in it, said commentators. This will remain a key challenge for the PAP. “Until the government truly appreciates and is prepared for it, their attempts will continue to seem contrived … It is also important to come across as sincere and authentic – something else that the PAP is historically not good at in the online environment, given its traditional penchant for one-way broadcasts,” said Mr Siew. This is a “levelling effect” of the web, he elaborated – in the way that it is an platform for equal engagement between the speaker and the audience. “Minister George Yeo found this out the hard way when Dr Chee Soon Juan engaged him in an online debate on Facebook and when some activists engaged him on the subject of Myanmar.”

Another aspect to contend with is that the social media space is large, vibrant, inherently diverse and notoriously hard to police. And as Prof Tan emphasised, it is also a space that has to be shared. This means that the PAP “will have to be alive to the nuances, the bravado, the lawlessness of the new media space. It will have to manage with it being ignored, laughed at, talked back, shouted at, and condemned strongly.”

Snapshots of success

As for the impact of social media, Prof Tan believes it will be limited in the foreseeable future. “For the majority, their views of the PAP and the government will be influenced by traditional media, the socialisation process through the national education system, and the real outcomes of the governance under the PAP government. This will change of course when new media becomes the major source of news for a majority of Singaporeans.”

But while this happens, it is also likely that the PAP will try to influence the development of new media, he added. “In particular, it would try to infuse credible and trusted journalism into that space by trying to nurture the ethos of trust and responsibility. In its little turf in new media space, the government would want its space to be recognised and respected for accuracy, relevance, and open-mindedness.”

The impact and success of social media in the local sphere will be determined by the outcome of the elections. As for sceptics who may view social media as superficial (and by extension, having little meaningful impact), Mr Siew acknowledged, “it’s pretty hard to have an in-depth policy discussion via 140-character tweets”. But “politics is not about detailed explanations and in-depth debate”, he added, “Politics ultimately boils down to what can be easily-understood.” And sometimes, the attempt to debate a topic can be meaningful in itself – even if it does not conclude in useful revelations.

And in this, lies the value of social media platforms and its role in Singapore politics – its strength as a platform for communication, one that opens the channels of real interaction. As Prof Tan stated, “Ultimately, the government has to talk with, rather than talk to, the players in the new media space.”

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