~by: Benjamin Cheah~
“We want to get people thinking, get them to reflect on media and politics,” said Mr Tan Tarn How. Mr Tan, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), was speaking about a conference conducted by the IPS on the 4th of October to discuss the impact of new media on the 2011 General Elections.
TOC’s Howard Lee analysed the data and methods as presented in the conference in his article (see HERE). This article will discuss the findings most relevant to TOC and its readers.
Was GE 2011 an Internet election?
The research effort was guided by an overarching question: Was the 2011 General Elections an Internet election? Mr Tan and the other researchers wanted to determine if the Internet mattered as a channel to communicate news and views, for parties and candidates to reach out to voters, and to influence voters’ views and voting. The researchers surveyed 2000 people to answer this question.
The answer was a clear ‘No’.
51.4 per cent of the participants revealed how they voted. Of this figure, 57.6 per cent said that they had decided whom to vote for before the elections were announced. It seems that events prior to the General Elections play a greater role in determining voting patterns than the hustings.
Of particular note is that only 4.9 per cent of respondents said they made up their minds on Cooling Off Day. This is the lowest score among the other six options. This contradicts the government’s position that Cooling Off Day was necessary to allow voters to calmly reflect on the hustings and make their choice.
Information regarding the media consumption patterns of the people who made up their minds during the hustings was not presented during the conference. Nevertheless, the survey data revealed that only 30 per cent of the participants turned to Facebook and/or blogs for election information. Of this 30 per cent, 95.5 per cent also turned to the mainstream media for news regarding the elections.
Further, 86.3 per cent of the participants read election news offline, while 41.1 per cent consumed election information from the Internet. The survey results indicate that the traditional media still dominates election coverage in Singapore. For this election, it appears that alternative media, such as The Online Citizen, complements mainstream news coverage instead of supplanting or competing with it. It also seems that people who consume online news are not in a ‘ghetto’, in which they shut themselves off from other views.
Consumers tended to think that the media only played a somewhat important role in determining how they voted. The survey tested for the importance of various media as a source of information on the elections. This test used a five-point scale, with 1 as ‘unimportant’ and 5 as ‘very important’. Newspapers and television were at the top, rated at 3.65 and 3.59 respectively. Blogs were measured at 2.58 and Facebook scored 2.39.
Speaking at the sidelines, Mr Tan said, “The Internet had an impact on the elections, but this was not an Internet election.”
Profiling the Alternative Online Media
Dr Cherian George, Associate Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, discussed the editorial stances and strategies of alternative online media. Dr George focused his research on four websites: TOC, Temasek Review (now Temasek Review Emeritus, or TRE), Yawning Bread, and the Singapore General Election Portal (SGEP).
Different bloggers had different approaches to regulations. On the issue of Cooling Off Day, SGEP observed Cooling Off Day, while TOC and Yawning Bread continued posting. This suggests that bloggers will tend to ignore blanket bans. Regarding more specific legislation, such as that on defamation, TOC “takes no chances” and moderates defamatory content, while TRE publishes defamatory posts.
Comparing TOC’s and TRE’s approaches, Dr George calls the latter “Singapore’s top rumour website”, saying that people “are willing to tolerate the fact that it is wrong most of the time if it is right once in a while.” On the other hand, TOC “is more exposed to political risk … but arguably this limitation is more than outweighed by the benefits of being able to network face to face in Singapore.” These benefits include getting donations, drawing volunteers, working with civil society organisations, and playing a leading role in progressive movements.
Alternative media tended to share similar views on fairness and balance. The four websites in Dr George’s study “identify with the opposition underdog”, and aim to level the political playing field. They reject traditional standards of balance, instead claiming to be a counterweight to the mainstream media, thereby creating a more balanced media system.
With the exception of TRE, the three blogs studied by Dr George “expressed some disappointment with the public.” These blogs do not trust prevailing popular sentiment on many issues, as some progressive causes – gay rights, foreign worker rights, abolishing the death penalty – are not usually popular. These blogs do not see themselves in a popularity contest or task themselves with winning votes for the opposition, instead working towards “raising the level of political maturity of Singaporeans”.
Dr George concluded by predicting that “alternative media will continue to evolve in Singapore… they will not converge around a set of common norms… (and they will) continue to be fragmented and diverse in their interpretations of their journalistic mission’.
The impact of the Internet is intangible
While alternative online media may not have a major role in influencing GE 2011, the impact of the Internet may well be intangible and difficult to measure. In his presentation, Dr George noted that these media see themselves as part of a “long term struggle in which the quality of the debate matters as much as their outreach or the election outcome.” The goal of alternative online media is not so much as influencing election outcomes as influencing attitudes and perceptions of politics.
Mr Alex Au, owner of Yawning Bread, said that the effects of alternative online media are indirect. Instead of focusing on the type of media used during the elections, he said researchers should instead study how the media influenced ideas and behaviours. Speaking to reporters, he said, “We can’t reduce everything to the medium. We need to look at the meme.”