TikTok, the latest platform for walking the virtual ground

04 Sep 2022

Straits Times, 4 Sep 2022, TikTok, the latest platform for walking the virtual ground
In his first post on TikTok last week, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said he joined the video sharing network to have more conversations with people.

"I hope this will be a good platform for me to chat with some friends on different subjects," he said last Tuesday, adding that these subjects would include politics, history and book recommendations. Followers might also get a chance to see his two dogs - Millie, a labrador who is a retired police dog, and Samson, a golden retriever.

Within a day, the minister gained more than 8,600 followers on the platform.

Mr Shanmugam is just the latest leader here to get on TikTok, which academics and social media experts tell The Sunday Times is poised to continue gaining momentum, with some believing that it will become an important arena during elections.

The billion-user platform owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is used by people, in particular the young, to share dance videos, take part in trends and post about their daily lives.

The app, which was launched in 2016 but catapulted to popularity over the past few years, now has more than 20 local MPs on it.

Facebook, founded in 2004, was one of the first social media platforms that local politicians took to, with many getting on board in the late 2000s to early 2010s. Instagram, launched in 2010, grew in popularity towards the later part of the decade, and leaders here have in recent years used it to share their activities as well as go on live broadcasts.

All 92 current elected MPs in Singapore have a Facebook presence, while 91 are on Instagram. The only exception is Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

While TikTok has been available worldwide since 2018, political leaders here have only recently started figuring their way around it. Globally, TikTok downloads have been rapidly increasing and the app looks set to be the social media tool of the 2020s.

Tiktok's popularity
Media intelligence company Meltwater senior director and partner Mimrah Mahmood said engagement rates on TikTok are high across all age groups due to the bite-sized format of the content and its ease of access. Unlike Facebook or Instagram, users of TikTok are not forced to engage, and they just have to swipe to view content.

"This separates TikTok from traditional social media platforms - it serves primarily as an entertainment platform with some social elements, as compared to other platforms which require you to connect with other users before you can curate or view content," he said.

Globally, politicians are turning to TikTok, and Singapore is no exception, he added, predicting that it is likely more leaders here will join the platform in the future.

TikTok's appeal lies in its algorithm, which does not just recommend users' posts based on their social network and who follows them, said Dr Natalie Pang, senior lecturer and deputy head of the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore.

On TikTok's website, it says that it curates a stream of videos based on one's interests, "powered by a recommendation system that delivers content to each user that is likely to be of interest to that particular user".

When asked if TikTok is turning into a key political battleground, Dr Pang agreed, and said she has observed that there is "greater equity" in terms of the attention to videos on the platform, which means that a user does not necessarily have to be popular to have their content viewed.

"Videos from emerging politicians who may not have a large following can still gain attention with their videos."

The platform has a more "playful vibe", noted Professor Lim Sun Sun, head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

Political leaders, in using it, have to present sides of themselves in keeping with the spirit of the platform, and will in the process likely make themselves more endearing and likeable, she said.

"Politicians recognise that TikTok is especially popular with young people and are using it to appeal to this demographic," she said.

"But it is important not to come across as trying too hard or one's posts will immediately be deemed 'cringey'."

Political parties are creating TikTok accounts as well. Since 2020, the Progress Singapore Party has been uploading videos onto its account @progresssingaporeparty, and on Aug 5, the Workers' Party started its own @thehammertok account too.

On the WP's use of social media, Aljunied GRC MP and the party's media chairman Leon Perera said its approach is to use its media channels, including TikTok, to connect with constituents and communicate their concerns on a national level.

"Our social media strategy will always be informed by the feedback of our constituents and relevant to the issues facing our fellow Singaporeans today," he said. "We generally try to pursue a measured and moderate tone in social media, keeping our interventions responsible and fact-based."

The People's Action Party does not have its own account, but some of its MPs have been posting on their individual channels.

Nee Soon GRC MP Carrie Tan, for instance, has a Carrie Quotes series on TikTok in which she shares her personal experiences and tackles issues like mental health.

"While (people) go on it to get entertained, there is a tremendous opportunity to put out the kind of messages we want that can benefit people's lives," she said.

Changing social media landscape
Experts ST spoke to say that the embrace of TikTok by political leaders is another sign that more of them are sharpening their focus on social media.

Use of these networks has become more intensive and extensive, said Associate Professor Eugene Tan from Singapore Management University's School of Law, who noted that the 2020 General Election gave impetus to pay more attention to "walking the virtual ground". The hustings that year, held during the Covid-19 pandemic when large gatherings were not allowed, saw candidates conduct virtual e-rallies and step up their online presences.

"Ultimately, it is about ensuring their presence in the mind space of their constituents," he said. "Increasingly, social media adds to the branding of politicians and it certainly makes them more human and appear to be more approachable."

WP media vice-chairman and Sengkang GRC MP Louis Chua said restrictions during GE 2020 meant there were many constraints to in-person mass rallies and events, where he said his party traditionally enjoys very strong support.

"The party has been effective in using social media to overcome such challenges and convey its on-the-ground efforts, which has gone far beyond constituents in party wards alone, resonating with many Singaporeans on a national level," he said.

Across all platforms, social media numbers for MPs in Singapore are generally trending upwards, said Mr Mimrah, adding that this is especially so for political leaders like Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung.

An analysis by his company Meltwater found that the top five posts on TikTok by MPs were by Mr Wong and Mr Ong, who also have high-performing posts on Instagram and Facebook.

Mr Mimrah said a popular strategy employed by MPs to gain popularity on social media is trendjacking, which refers to jumping on what is going viral among users and adapting it to suit their identities. This includes Mr Ong's post where he danced with TikTok sensation Uncle Raymond in June in a bid to get some morning exercise, or how Mr Wong uses audio that is trending on the platform, like when he used songs by K-pop group Blackpink in March in a video about loosening Covid-19 safety measures.

Touching on how the use of social media has changed, Dr Pang said Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms were initially used mainly by politicians here to disseminate information and share activities, but between 2015 and 2020, they started being used as a means to engage and campaign during elections.

She added that increasingly, social media is also used to communicate personal identities and values, which is significant, as citizens do not just want to know about what politicians would do in terms of policies. Instead, they also want to know who these leaders are as people, and their values.

"This kind of personalisation of politics is also something that I see shaping other elections, and social media takes centre stage in this," she said. "What this implies is that increasingly, citizens may no longer vote based on partisanship but who they feel they relate and connect to the most."

In fact, SUTD's Prof Lim said many more leaders here seem to be more savvy about presenting a personable image that helps them connect with the masses.

This, she observed, is done through strategically chosen photographs and a fairly regular suite of posts that mixes official appearances with more casual and fun content.

But most experts ST spoke to did acknowledge that an online presence cannot replace a physical one, and efforts in cyberspace have to be complemented by work in real life.

Prof Tan said social media is "performative politics", and MPs who perform well on the virtual front are those who combine the national, municipal and personal in their posts. He added that often, how well an MP's posts are received boils down to their authenticity.

"Too much deliberate curation, rather than spontaneity, does not engender a strong appeal," he said.

"I, too, would be concerned if an MP appears to be spending too much time and effort on social media. It's a tool for politicians but not a vanity project."