Lessons learnt from Singapore's first true Internet election

15 Jul 2020

Straits Times, 15 Jul 2020, Lessons learnt from Singapore's first true Internet election

While physical rallies were absent during the hustings for the recently concluded general election, some politicians did not seem to need them.

By the midpoint of the campaign, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chief Tan Cheng Bock was able to reach out to 12,000 followers with each Instagram post - thrice the capacity of Clementi Stadium, where rallies for West Coast GRC were held in past elections.

The veteran politician wooed younger voters online by posting videos of himself responding to their attempts to educate him on slang terms like "woke".

Dr Tan, who now has over 70,000 Instagram followers - more than local celebrities like TV personality Denise Keller and rapper Sheikh Haikel - was among the politicians who thrived in what experts have dubbed Singapore's "first truly Internet election".

Political parties have traditionally relied on mass rallies to rouse the electorate and drum up support. But this time, restrictions on large gatherings due to Covid-19 measures saw the battle for hearts and minds take place mostly in the digital realm.

Some observers have argued that an Internet campaign benefits the opposition parties, as it enables them to raise their profiles quickly, affordably and widely.

And even though the Internet had been around during the past three or four elections, it was the current social distancing restrictions that necessitated the use of online campaigning by parties and candidates, said Associate Professor Eugene Tan from Singapore Management University's School of Law.

"For many voters, it was their only means of finding out information about parties, their candidates and their policy platforms," he added.

In lieu of physical rallies, parties held talk shows - such as Straight Talk by the People's Action Party (PAP) and the Hammer Show by the Workers' Party (WP).

These programmes allowed parties to engage with voters on a more intellectual level than at physical rallies, where voters can be moved by emotion, noted Prof Tan.

The Singapore Democratic Party and Peoples Voice also featured candidates' speeches on their Facebook pages.

All 11 parties in this year's general election had their own e-rallies and participated in televised constituency political broadcasts.

Such efforts gave voters a better sense of the parties' ideas, said former Nominated Member of Parliament Lim Sun Sun, who is head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

"Unlike public rallies where candidates tend to engage in histrionics and grandstanding, the e-rallies and public broadcasts were calmer and more measured, thereby enabling voters to concentrate on the substance of the issues and the strength of the arguments," she said.

Dr Natalie Pang, a senior lecturer in the communications and new media department at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said the online hustings gave voters opportunities to hear from more parties and candidates, compared with the past, when there was a limit to the number of rallies they could attend.

But the glut of content also resulted in "information overload", said NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser, with netizens finding it hard to follow all the political discussions online.

Dr Felix Tan, an associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said political parties could have missed out on engaging some segments of society, such as senior voters who are tech-averse.

Another disadvantage of e-rallies instead of physical ones is that parties lose opportunities to connect emotionally to voters, said experts.

Parties also lose the opportunity to raise funds by selling merchandise or appealing for donations at physical rallies, said Prof Eugene Tan.

The PAP was returned to power after winning 83 of 93 seats with 61.24 per cent of the votes, down from the 69.9 per cent vote share it received in the 2015 General Election.

Notwithstanding the vote swing against the ruling party, political watchers reckon the absence of physical rallies this time round could have hurt the performance of some opposition parties at the polls.

The setting of a physical rally, which involves a candidate speaking before a large crowd, has a more performative element than the more sober tone of Internet campaigning, said Professor Ang Peng Hwa from Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

This would have allowed opposition party candidates - who typically attract larger crowds at rallies - to appeal to voters on an emotional level and sway them, he said.

Agreeing, Prof Eugene Tan said physical rallies could possibly have affected some of the outcomes in closely fought constituencies - narrow wins by the PAP could have become marginal losses.

Videos that appealed to viewers' emotions and came across as being authentic were some of the best forms of online campaigning material, and experts said the WP did especially well in this regard.

NTU Adjunct Professor Hong Hai, a PAP MP from 1988 to 1991, said the WP's strategy - stressing the need to deny the PAP a blank cheque - rode on voters' grievances over issues ranging from inequality and Central Provident Fund withdrawals to housing and the high cost of medical services.

"The ruling party has an inherent disadvantage in such discourses as all it can reasonably offer is more of the same, and that does not tug at the heartstrings," he said.

Prof Ang added that the WP was able to make up for the lack of the "performative" element of rallies by connecting to viewers online.

He cited a video by the WP where it introduced some of its new candidates. The 15-second teaser, released soon after Parliament was dissolved on June 23, featured WP members looking at the camera while making movements like sitting down, smiling and adjusting their appearance. It has been shared more than 2,000 times.

"(The video) is done in a very casual way, it appeals to the average person," Prof Ang said.

Personalities like PSP's Dr Tan, WP's Nicole Seah and Jamus Lim, as well as the PAP's political office-holders helped parties drum up interest in their campaigns.

Professor Lim Sun Sun noted that Ms Seah and Dr Tan used their Instagram accounts to notify supporters about where they would be, and engaged them by resharing their posts or stories, which built a "virtuous circle of more supporters posting content endorsing them".

As for the PAP, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's strong Facebook following of more than 1.6 million users boosted the ruling party's social media reach, said Prof Ang.

During the hustings, videos about PM Lee's walkabouts and the PAP's outreach efforts in various constituencies were shared on the Prime Minister's page. "Quite clearly, a lot of effort had been put into (PM Lee's) Facebook page, which is amazingly well done," said Prof Ang, noting that compared with those of other Singaporean politicians, the page has the largest following.

But the PAP's social media presence, which was in line with the party's "business-like and task-oriented" image, did not help it to stand out online, experts said.

Data from media monitoring platform Meltwater, which tracked political parties' pages from July 1 to 10, found that while the PAP made the most Facebook posts, it did not drive the most engagement to its page.

During this period, the PAP made 121 Facebook posts, and its party page saw about 131,000 interactions - likes, comments, reactions and shares on Facebook.

This is much less than the almost 300,000 interactions the WP had on its Facebook page that were largely derived from 78 posts. The PSP saw about 122,000 interactions on its Facebook page, from a total of 54 posts.

While the WP far surpassed the PAP in terms of the level of engagement on Facebook, observers said such engagement does not necessarily translate into actual votes.

Associate Professor Terence Lee, who researches Singapore media and politics at Murdoch University, said such data sheds light only on whether a particular person or post attracts viewership or virality.

A case in point is Reform Party candidate Charles Yeo, who spawned a series of viral posts following his Mandarin speech during the constituency political broadcast for Ang Mo Kio GRC.

"You will find a lot of online 'noise' generated, but very few would have gone on to cast a vote for him," said Prof Lee.

Data on social media engagement is also less meaningful when no further analysis is conducted to measure whether these are positive or negative reactions, said Prof Ang.

Rather, a party's or candidate's dominance on social media must first be based on some substance - a policy position or strength of an argument - before it can translate to positive outcomes, added Prof Lee.

Agreeing, Dr Pang said whether social media posts translate into a vote depends on both the persuasiveness of the message as well as how effectively it was put out.

"The WP's dominance on social media has been a combination of the two," she said, noting that the party was able to put out carefully crafted, clear and coherent messaging in very well-designed forms.

Prof Ang said that theoretically, closed platforms used predominantly for interpersonal communication, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, may have a larger impact on the vote share than platforms that are more public, such as Facebook.

He cited the two-step flow theory of communication, which proposes that interpersonal interaction has a stronger effect on shaping public opinion than mass media.

According to this theory, opinion leaders - people who are active media users - pick up information from the media, which is then interpreted and diffused to less-active media users. Such opinion leaders may exist in family chat groups, for instance.

This merits further study, said Prof Ang, given that the number of users transmitting information on channels like WhatsApp has grown with the rise of smartphones, compared with previous elections.

Adjunct Professor Kevin Tan, a law professor at NUS, said the lack of rallies focused more attention on the live television debates on Mediacorp, which raised the profile of WP's Jamus Lim. Most people "couldn't be bothered" to watch such live debates in the past, he noted.

Prof Lee made the point that many voters were also relying on videos, posts and messages shared by their friends and family members, which do not register in Facebook interaction data.

Dr Pang also noted a rise in the number of influencers, opinion leaders, civic groups and citizens using digital platforms to engage others during the election.

They took the time and effort to put out content to educate their peers on things like the group representation constituency system and how it has evolved. "This gave citizens many opportunities to engage in dialogue and discussions about the election," she said.

Other Singaporeans and public figures with followings online also voiced their political views on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. They included writer Amanda Lee Koe and NUS associate professor Ben Leong, who wrote in his personal capacity.

This may have had an impact on voters, said Dr Pang, as people who follow these figures would read or watch what they wrote or created and form an opinion.

"The sense of authenticity and trustworthiness of a candidate (something that voters look for in political candidates) is not something that is simply developed by what a candidate says about himself... but also what others, especially public figures and intellectuals, say," she said.

Prof Lee agreed that such views may have an impact if voters perceive that the writers contributed them entirely of their own volition, and not under any direct or indirect influence. "(While) they are unlikely to sway anyone's final decision... they may play a part in affirming one's political views."

Pro-PAP and pro-opposition Facebook pages and groups kicked into high gear during the campaign period, sharing memes, articles and other content to a growing base of followers.

While such groups add to the "noise and heat", they play a negligible part in impacting election results, said Prof Lee. "It seems quite apparent that these sites largely preach to the converted, so their impact is limited to having their followers attempting to influence their own contacts by sharing them to others."

While the election is over, the various forms of online campaigning are here to stay, said experts.

Prof Eugene Tan called this election a "revelation" in illustrating how political parties can exploit the Internet and social media.

"The question now is: If the next election has none of these restrictions, will parties go back to what they are familiar with? I suspect there will be a mix of both online and offline campaigning, but we'll have to see whether innovations from this GE are one-off or implemented in future GEs," he said.

For many citizens, politics will no longer just be something that they participate in once every five years at the ballot box, said Dr Pang.

Even ahead of the next election, parties will need to be open and engage voters in an authentic manner on social media, and be interactive and responsive to ground sentiments, she said.

Associate Professor Netina Tan from Canada's McMaster University said that in preparing for future online election campaigns, candidates and parties will need to learn to be timely in their responses and not sound defensive in refuting falsehoods and online accusations.

Prof Lim said: "The e-rallies and public broadcasts were actually valuable. In an age where there is a high degree of audience fragmentation, they helped to create a national agenda that complemented and focused online discussions to an extent."