Media influence re-written, post GE

Howard Lee /

The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) released its IPS Post-Election Survey 2011 report on 8 July. As part of the release, it also ran a Forum on the same day to “analyse the proceedings and outcome of the general elections for their long-term impact on political development in Singapore; interpret the results of the IPS Post-Election Survey; and offer a cross-sectoral platform for a discussion of the evolution of the political system”.

Most of you might remember the Forum for the being the place where Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh was embroiled in the “coalition government” mini-debate. Interestingly, the Straits Times focused on this rather than the results of the survey, particularly about the upward trend in “Internet influence”. Go figure.

Despite having a significant sample size of more than 2000 participants, a few problems remain that I felt cast doubts on the survey’s accuracy and usefulness, and in particular on the more specific topic of media influence.

I found the report wanting because:

1) The survey touched on a variety of sub-topics related to the general elections, but provided very little insight on how these topics are interlinked. For instance, the perception of candidate credibility has a dotted line connection to the type of media coverage for each, but was not explored in the survey. While it could have been a legacy point from 2006, there would be no harm in opening a case for it in 2011.

2) The survey generalises the Internet as one category. This is almost laughable. Online media is as varied in form as it is the level and type of engagement that occurs in each platform. We have blogs and discussion forums, but we also have other online channels such as YouTube, Flickr and even social media platforms Facebook and Twitter. And I have not yet drawn distinctions between party-political, social-political and social-personal channels.

3) In an attempt to clearly distinguish traditional media from online media, and also from other forms of influence, the survey has assigned a simplistic and linear pattern to media influence (i.e. “I read about this in the papers, so I will hold this opinion from now on”). The effect is a failure to acknowledge the inter-related nature of human influence (i.e. “I read about this in blogs, and will try to convince my friends to think likewise through word-of-mouth”). This is a particularly glaring omission, as social media channels could also tend to gravitate towards word-of-mouth influence.

4) Of the panel that has been assembled at the Forum to discuss the results, none were acknowledged to be from the Internet community. That is surprising, given that one of the “burning questions” was whether this had been an Internet election. Hence, this would then be ascertained from the results of the survey alone – in which case, the answer is a flat no, since traditional media is documented to be leading in influence.

5) The survey, or at least the result, is couched to ask about the “influence of communication channel in shaping voter decision”, which presumably meant voting decision. This had been drawn aside other factors such as a politician’s character traits. If so, it is a silly assumption, to say the least. Media alone does not directly influence voting decision. Media carries the necessary information about the other factors to the decision makers, who weighs their decisions with these factors in mind. A better question to ask would have been the credibility of media to present a complete picture, in which case an earlier report by LKYSPP might have served us better.

You will notice that I have many concerns about the survey’s evaluation on the media’s influence on the general election. And if you were to conclude that I am wearing the tinted glasses of a TOC writer in my evaluation, you are wrong. Media and communication has always been in my blood, together with its study.

Much as I wish to affirm that TOC’s reporting during the general elections, mine proudly included, has made a slight impact as the report suggests, that is not my interest. I could have conceded to the brownie points give by the LKYSPP report, but it would surely lose sight of the bigger issue.

Which is this, really: Even after a watershed election, the knowledge elite among us are still inclined to view media influence in “old vs new” terms, and compound this mistake with the oversight of the true reason for the upheaval at the recent general election – a more enlightened and determined electorate.

We still haven’t learnt, have we? LKYSPP is essentially asserting that the old-world definitions of influence still apply. They seem to have forgotten one important thing, at least in the evaluation of media influence: Media is influential not at the point of consumption, but at the point of assimilation. This is generally so for all media but particularly so for online media, since we can only actively seek out websites and forums – they do not come to us.

Reporting from the ground during the general elections would have provided this perspective. There have been occasions when the crowd had looked at me and my camera with suspicion, but the mood changed instantly when I told them I was from TOC. We received thanks and gratitude for “opening our eyes”, as one gentleman put it.

But it was not from recognition that we were alternative media that TOC received these thanks. It was recognition that, despite all the political fires and the perpetual love-hate relationship with traditional media, they have bonded to TOC as a community. These communities were sought for, not because we offered the most extensive or most accurate coverage, but because we were a bunch of people who were not afraid to say what we believed in, and it reflected what they, too, believed in.

Failure to recognise that is failure to recognise how online media works, in an area where our traditional media has so far failed to replicate. Come next general elections, LKYSPP will surely report the same incremental increase in the influence of “the Internet”. It is a generational and technological reality that fuels this, just as surely as we will have births and deaths. And election after election, we would not really know exactly why, because we see only readership, not belief.

It will come a time, too, when the political stronghold will seek to control online media more aggressively to curb its growing readership in the political domain, by default of the same evolving population. They would not realise that their attempts will be futile, because what they seek to control is not really media, but community.

As such, this survey has not been beneficial to the intellectual progress of our society, because it still casts a two-dimensional view on media influence, when the general election has clearly demonstrated that it is anything but.

That realisation in itself is more important than any swing percentage or maturity of political parties, because it represents a coming-of-age of a more politically aware citizenship in an increasingly mediated world.

We have now learnt to actively seek out answers to our questions, even if they are not the answers we have always been comfortable with. We have also learnt to make decisions based on having considered all angles, even if we do not agree with all of these angles.

That is the basic truth of an evolving media environment that is increasingly online. Welcome to the brand new world.

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