“Globally, social media has transformed government-citizen and politician-voter interaction, and it is here to stay” (Social Media’s Influence In Singapore Politics Here To Stay, Carol Soon).
Social media may have increased propinquity between politicians and their constituents – heightening that sense of nearness and immediacy – but that does not necessarily guarantee “dialogic communication” or a “cooperative and communicative relationship” (ST, Jun. 20). After all, such phenomena seem more applicable for personal interactions, not parliamentarians with a large following. More broadly speaking, it is hard to ascertain the influence of social media in politics, and even harder to determine whether social media engagement has tangible impact: to “legitimise government decisions, promote a co-sharing of the ownership for shaping policies, [or] increase citizen trust”. Neither have they been able to “navigate online clutter and make sense of the information and signals they are sent”.
I enjoy the occasional social media post from our ministers or members of parliament, as I do when I scroll through most Facebook timelines or Twitter feeds. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong snaps nice photographs on his excursions around Singapore. The “A Day in the Life of a Minister” video featuring Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam offered a unique glimpse into his exhausting daily routine. Most politicians – including those in the opposition parties – are also eager to share interactions with residents or their grassroots work, to show their connections to the people.
Yet in these ubiquitous updates thoughtful discourse is rare. And it is hard to evaluate their implications on governance if our politicians do not go beyond manicured statements on events or somewhat superficial posts of their day-to-day undertakings. In the first place – as difficult as it may be, with the sheer volume of comments or “likes” or “retweets” – it is not clear whether the aggregated perspectives guide policy decisions. In the event such feedback is actually used, thoughtful observers have pointed to the proliferation of “echo chambers”, wherein like-minded individuals congregate to reaffirm their own perceptions.
In this vein, the positive assessment of social media may be a tad optimistic.
It might make more sense to describe social media as a prerequisite for our politicians, and how they use it beyond the cosmetic posts of their roles and responsibilities remains up in the air. The tangible influence of social media in politics will only be evident if they dabble in meaningful socio-economic commentary, if they use the many responses they receive online, and – even more interestingly – if they engage in spaces beyond their spheres of influence. The Internet brims with diversity, which has yet to feature in Singapore.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.