Thursday, May 19, 2011

Social Media: The new voice of GE

May 15, 2011

The online treatment of party candidates was very much in-your-face, but was it significant enough to explain the swing against PAP? Technology Correspondent Chua Hian Hou reports
Two 20-something faces, one a People's Action Party (PAP) candidate, the other from the opposition.

But while the PAP's Tin Pei Ling, 27, was relentlessly 'flamed' online, Miss Nicole Seah, 24, from the National Solidarity Party (NSP) endeared herself to netizens.

The difference in their online 'treatment' in the recent General Election embodied the treatment of their respective parties online.

And this treatment has had an impact - like never before here - in an election that saw the ruling PAP's popularity fall to a record low and a popular Cabinet minister voted out of office.

But even as the dust settles, politicians and pundits alike say that the millions of pro-opposition blog postings, Tweets, YouTube video streams and Facebook 'likes' - a whopping 80 per cent of all Google searches in the month before Polling Day on May 7 were election-related - had not contributed significantly, across the board, to the swing against the PAP.

Online media may have fanned the flames, but one political observer, Mr Alex Au, who pens the popular Yawning Bread blog, felt the swing was more likely due to the electorate's frustration over the key issues themselves - like housing, transportation, and the PAP's perceived arrogance in handling such concerns.

Secretary-general Goh Meng Seng of Ms Seah's party, the NSP, also said - in a Facebook posting - that online media did not have a 'critical role' in the hustings.

It was the mainstream media's coverage given to the better-performing opposition teams and their candidates, he argued, that made the difference.

If there were any contests in which online media directly made an impact, it would be the results of the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and possibly the Holland Bukit-Timah GRC, observers say.

Marine Parade GRC saw a contest between a PAP team helmed by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong against an NSP team of unknowns.

But the PAP's Ms Tin and the NSP's Miss Seah stood in that GRC, turning it into the battleground for netizens. Ms Tin, especially, was a lightning rod for netizens' relentless video parodies and Facebook petitions calling for her to quit - from the time she was introduced until today.

Many had called Ms Tin a political lightweight following interviews in which she said she could not find a policy she disagreed with, and that her biggest regret was not having taken her parents to Universal Studios.

Miss Seah, however, impressed many netizens with her eloquence and empathy.

In previous elections, said Nanyang Technological University Associate Professor Cherian George, 'politicians and the mainstream media would have quickly moved on from Tin Pei Ling'.

But in this election, Ms Tin 'became an issue people simply refused to let go of... it is quite possible that the PAP Marine Parade team's poor showing was down to the way the online community refused to let go of Ms Tin,' said Prof George.

While there is no way to quantify the impact of this tsunami of negative online sentiment on voter behaviour, Mr Au believes that some of the 10 percentage point difference between the PAP Marine Parade team's 15 percentage point fall in the popular vote, compared to the party's overall 6 percentage point drop, was because of social media.

But in Holland Bukit-Timah GRC, social media may have helped the PAP secure a wider-than-expected winning margin of nearly 20 percentage points when many had believed the battle would be a close one, said independent political scientist Derek da Cunha.

A YouTube video of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) team's leader Vincent Wijeysingha's appearance at a forum on gay issues, said Dr da Cunha, might have turned conservative voters in that GRC against the SDP.

Meanwhile, analysts and netizens also highlighted the conspicuous absence online of the ruling party and its supporters, in spite of the PAP having, several years ago, set up a new media team to ensure it had a voice online.

Simei resident Moh Hon Meng, who voted for the PAP's East Coast GRC team, said he was surprised and disappointed by the silence.

'It seemed as though the PAP didn't have a strategy in place for this,' said the 42-year-old, who runs Estatebuzz, a website on community happenings.

He added: 'There should have been a PAP team in place to explain (their) policies and to counter 'poor' opposition ideas the moment they appear online.

'For some issues, I think that many people just wanted the facts, and the PAP could have given the facts and settled the arguments easily.'

Although he did worry that he might get flamed, he decided to pen his thoughts in Facebook on why he supported the PAP, and to provide some 'balance' to the mainly pro-opposition sentiment online.

He was glad he did - most of the more than 500 responses to his post were 'appreciative'.

PAP Member of Parliament Zaqy Mohamad, the party's new media coordinator, acknowledged the PAP's online 'weakness' and pledged that it would do better to address it in future.

'We did not spend enough effort clarifying things that are wrong, which is a problem because if a misconception is left to be repeated long and often enough, people will believe it.

'Currently, the party is working out the right formula... if we go in too strong, then we will also be seen as a bully. And you also cannot expect us to create a video making fun of someone,' he said.

Meanwhile, observers pointed out that the tables could well be turned on the opposition parties in future.

Mr Au warned that opposition parties that do not have a solid game plan on how to communicate with both their supporters and their detractors could suffer the same fierce and unrelenting online attacks that plagued the PAP this round.

'There is a natural sympathy for the underdog, kind of like how it was impossible for (American President) Obama to say anything wrong (at the start of his term),' he said.

'But as parties like the Workers' Party become a force to be reckoned with, detractors will also appear.'

Fail to handle all this well, and now-supportive netizens could turn against them in the next elections, he warned.

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