Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Facebook trolls can be the most valuable fans

May 17, 2011

Engaging detractors on social media can pay dividends for politicians
By Ng Tze Yong

IF YOU'RE looking for a perk-me-up, a Facebook fan page is a good place to start. An enthusiastic gathering of fans united by the love of a brand or personality, Facebook pages are often all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns.

But during General Election 2011, the Facebook fan page of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) was often filled with the kind of anti-PAP vitriol more commonly found on sites like The Temasek Review.

Many of the fans were hardly fans at all. Some 'Liked' the page in order to leave legitimate comments about grievances they faced.

But many seemed bent on just filling the page with venom and malice. Folks like these - known as trolls - are everywhere in cyberspace, heard but usually ignored by the wider, saner community.

But good lessons can sometimes be found in unlikely places. Even trolls hold out a lesson or two for the PAP, as it searches for 'a formula to go forward' to engage younger voters.

One is the need to re-examine an assumption that subconsciously drives much of what is done on social media.

That assumption is this: The more Likes, Retweets and Friend requests you get, and the more Friends, Fans and Followers you have, the better your social media engagement.

The seeking and granting of adulation is central to the architecture and design of many social media sites. But it can lead one to a superficial understanding of what engagement means.

Individuals and brands can afford to play along and treat social media outreach as essentially a popularity contest. But it is a trap political parties should not fall into. When political parties start competing for popularity, they lose sight of winning over the unconverted, which is what engagement is all about.

Many PAP candidates might not have understood this, judging from Facebook pages which appeared to be directed more at gaining popularity than at fostering meaningful policy discussions.

Many seemed to have been modelled on the fan page of Aljunied GRC candidate George Yeo, then the most popular active local politician on Facebook.

Mr Yeo had been ahead of the curve, posting pictures and updates on the interesting people he met and the exotic places he visited as Foreign Minister.

It was fun and effective when he did it. But the effect was quite different when other PAP candidates tried doing the same with constituency activities.

At the height of election fever, a typical status update on a candidate's page would read: Going for a block visit at Blk xxx tonight :)

Album after album of the candidate posing with residents in pyjamas standing beside half-open gates would then be uploaded onto the page. It was refreshing the first few times. But there are only so many photos of strangers in pyjamas one can take.

What excited me most, instead, was Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong on the MParader fan page. He talked policy and spoke candidly and personally.

It was a big pity he did not follow through by engaging fans on the discussions he initiated, leaving it instead to the partisan online community to shape the narrative.

Had he done otherwise, he might have won over netizens the same way Mr Yeo did with his viral video, rushed out in the last days of campaigning.

For me, MParader was the biggest missed opportunity of GE 2011, and the take-home lesson for me is this: It pays to engage your naysayers. In other words, dare to be anti-social on social media.

Here at The Straits Times, we don't always get things right on social media either. But in navigating the territory, what I advise colleagues is this:

For every troll who attacks you, there are 99 observers watching silently.

That is the audience you need to win over. Engage the trolls, but in a way that can win over the 99 bystanders.

[Good point. Good advice.]

By doing so, you broaden the debate and open up a space for the moderates to step in.

This principle, I believe, could have applied to politicians in GE 2011 as well. If candidates had, for instance, spent just a quarter of the time they spent on walkabouts to engage netizens on policy matters in a meaningful way - kind of like what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong tried to do in his Facebook chat - it might have yielded disproportionate results.

It didn't help that alternative media, reacting to the perceived bias of mainstream media, felt justified to engage in biased reportage. As a result, online exchanges were dominated by partisan, especially anti-PAP, voices. And lots of trolls.

As a result, moderates may have followed the online discussions keenly, but few dared to speak out.

For me, this was the most unfortunate thing about GE 2011 - that there was no space that moderates could call their own, and where they could comfortably engage in constructive debate.

Before GE 2011, The Straits Times tried taking steps to occupy that space. We introduced a system for people to post comments on our site. We encouraged readers to log in with their social media profiles, hence forsaking anonymity. We displayed comments according to rankings determined by the community of readers. We also crafted and made public a set of moderation guidelines for our website.

When in doubt, we erred on the side of letting readers have their say, and 96 per cent of all comments were published. Those rejected were either downright vulgar or libellous.

We made some inroads, but much remains to be done. Just like the political parties, we will fine-tune our social media strategy after GE 2011.

As both observer and social media editor, one lesson has already emerged clearly for me: the need to look beyond popularity when thinking about engagement.

On a fan page, the most valuable 'fan' is actually the troll.

You may or may not enjoy the process of engaging him. But in the long run, it will pay more dividends than snapping photos with strangers in pyjamas.


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