An Internet elections – believe it or not?

Howard Lee/

The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) is of the opinion that the May 2011 general elections cannot be termed the “Internet elections”.

It made this conclusion based on the results of a study it conducted following the general elections, which measured media use, trust and influence on voter choice. There were also other component research segments that rode on the back of the key survey, and these measured other qualities, such as online content generation and voter knowledge about opposition parties. The full results of the study were shared at a conference on 4 October attended by academia, politicians and media.

Some of the key findings that pointed to this conclusion were:

1) Only 30% of survey respondents used the Internet to obtain election information.

2) Of the 30%, more than 90% continue to use traditional media as a source of information on the elections (yes, that “ghettoising” comment).

3) While political parties have tried to use online media to reach out to voters, these efforts went largely unappreciated, as respondents demonstrated a general aversion towards using party websites as a source of information.

4) Measurements of media trust and influence did not indicate an unusual peak for online media over other channels.

That would be the quick and very rough preview of the survey, the bulk of which was presented by Tan Tarn How, senior research fellow at IPS. Now that I have stuffed that, let’s get to the crux question: Should we believe what IPS proposes? In other words, is 2011 the year where online media had a negligible impact on the elections?

I am not going to cast doubts on the results of the survey. Assuming that the research methodology was sound and that the survey sample of 2,000 was representative, there is every reason to believe that the data gathering was valid. Rather, it is the interpretation of the results that I take issue with. In fact, there were aspects of the interpretation that range from indifference to how the various media interact, to glaring presumptuous oversights, not all of which I care to discuss here.

Let’s look instead at the core. One of the qualities that the survey tried to measure was when voter choice was decided. It discovered that 57.6% of those who revealed how they voted have already decided who they want to vote for even before the elections date was announced. Ratings for influence on voting were also below average across all channels. These indicators suggests that 2011 might not even be a year for an “anything” elections, much less an Internet one.

Another problematic conclusion of the survey has to do with respondents’ trust of media sources, which indicated greater trust of traditional media over other sources. Was the survey referring to trust in the accuracy of the information, or the perceived fairness of information presented? The survey did not elaborate on this, which is unfortunate as it could have yielded very different results. More importantly, it should actually be the interplay of sources that allow media users to make that decision (i.e. you can’t in all honesty distrust what you do not know about or have not experienced), but that angle was not explored in the survey.

Instead, three outlying questions remain unanswered. If media did not inform their political outlook and choice, what did? How did they arrive at this conclusion for themselves? Did they then try to influence others about their votes, and how did they go about doing so?

If the researchers have expanded on these questions, they might have found an answer to the key question of the survey that provides greater insight into the multi-layered nature of social influence.

We do not simply refer to one source of information to make up our minds on who to vote. Neither do we make our voting choice based on information gathered around the hustings. We vote for political positions because of their influence on policy. Policy pervades the years leading up to each election. And in that duration, we would have discussed and debated many times over the merit of our policy makers, which in turn informs our votes for or against them.

As such, I believe the research made three assumptions that skewed, hopefully not the results of the survey, but how researchers approached the survey. First, it assumes that media influence can be measured merely by consumption patterns. This is wrong, as influence is only present at the point of assimilation.

Second, it assumes that decisions made on voting revolve around what happens during the elections. Perhaps it was technically impossible to research on years of media consumption, but this marginalises the effect that understanding on public policy has on voter preferences.

Third, the survey did not distinguish between alternative news content and alternative news media. This point was also picked up by some participants at the conference. The implications are obvious, as there is always cross-carriage of content between media, and it is content that determines assimilation and influence, not media type (you would agree only if you are as anti-MacLuhanistic as me).

If IPS has managed to shift focus to address these three aspects, then it would have begun to scratch the surface of what it called the “softer aspects” of online media, which Tan admitted that the survey found hard to quantify.

This energy of participation did not find its way into the research, and I would challenge that this effect is a better reflection of the impact of online media on local politics and social change. This impact deals with a wider spectrum of influence prevalent within society. It also accounts for the change in social perceptions that is driven by mutual influence of sources – traditional media with online media, word of mouth with social media, and so on.

A side chat with Tan in between the segments of the conference did confirm IPS’s awareness of the limitations of the survey, and that there can still be room for more in-depth research.

In fact, the welcome notes by Janadas Devan, director of IPS, probably said it best. Janadas indicated that we often exaggerated the immediate impact of new media on our culture and social life, but underestimated its long term effect. Indeed, it is this long term effect that advises the evolution of our media scene, gearing towards a political landscape that is already informed and influenced by the presence of online media, whatever the impact of that influence.

In fact, Tan opined during the question and answer session that in the last two years, online media was instrumental in putting a lot of issues up in the public domain. Tan believes that traditional media did cover such issues, but did not cover it in the persistent and snowballing way that online media did. This could allude to a spill-over effect that often underplays the influence of online media, as content and agendas become infused between types of media.

Via his tele-participation, IPR senior research fellow Cherian George also indicated that there is qualitative social contribution by some blogs that contribute to the wider political discourse in Singapore. While their editorial strategies differ, they all play a role in complementing what traditional media has to offer. He also indicated that when it comes to influence, recipients of ideas are not always aware of where the ideas are coming from, which enlightens my opinion that influence is usually multi-directional in nature.

It would seem that anecdotal evidence of news content and its use offers a better peek into spheres of influence happening in our society, political or otherwise. It is perhaps unfortunate that this evidence is never further explored to add value to the survey.

But if you think I am trying to counter-proof IPS’s conclusion and validate 2011 as the year of the Internet elections, you are wrong. Indeed, what I’m trying to suggest is whether there is even a need to determine this to begin with, and if so, whether we should focus so narrowly on the elections.

Online media is already a growing part of our social fabric. I would contest that there is no need to measure its influence – that is already a given. What is more pertinent is to discover how this influence disappears into our national psyche as we negotiate an evolving media space.

My concern, however, is with the intended readership of the survey and its research – from IPS, the study is supposed to be an informed read for academics, media representatives and most significantly, policy makers. If the simple conclusions are allowed to perpetuate within policy circles, the political elite would have no reason to pay attention to the online world. And we would all be more impoverished for it, because there is reason to believe that the dynamics of online media does play a critical role in developing the future of our socio-political landscape.

It will also be interesting to note how traditional media would cover the results, which in turn has an influence on policy makers. From the media briefing before and during the conference, it was clear that our friends from traditional media needed to deliver a story. They needed conclusive quotes – “The study by IPS indicated that…” – without imposing much valued judgment or analysis. Given the constraints of time and space they face, I don’t blame them.

As TOC writers, we always have the option of walking away without a story, if we found that the information provided made no logical sense. This sense of indifference is perhaps a unique trait of online media, and it surely adds an interesting dimension to our public discourse. Policy makers can only be worse off if they feel that they can ignore this substantially different conversation happening online, should they choose to believe that online media has little impact on elections.