“Much has been said about how unprepared the opposition (and even the incumbent) was for the massive swing in sentiment towards the People’s Action Party (PAP)” (Social Media And The Eclipse Of The Opposition, Walter Theseira).
Without meaningful information about data usage and content publication during the campaign period or the perceptions of Internet users on political content, analysts who seek to explain a “social media effect” following the recent general elections appear to be grasping at straws. And few of these analysts also account for the diverse motivations which influence the way Singaporeans consume or make use of content available on online platforms.
One of these recent arguments is that “the rise of social media may have eclipsed the importance of voting the opposition into parliament because social media has provided an effective means for individual Singaporeans to speak their views directly to those in power” (ST, Sept. 16). First, it seems unlikely for individuals to have assumed that their freedom to articulate perspectives on the Internet is equivalent to – or as effective as – questions or motions raised by parliamentarians. Second, it is not necessarily true that members of parliament and ministers of the People’s Action Party (PAP) are “accessible round the clock via their Facebook pages”. If “accessible” means the ability to post or send messages, then yes; but there is no guarantee that these messages or feedback would be attended to.
Third, and most importantly, the commentary assumes that these acts are mutually exclusive. That if Singaporeans can reach different representatives of the PAP, they would not need representation of the opposition parties in parliament. On the other hand, public spaces are characterised by contests of positions, and informed individuals – with different agendas – would want to maximise all opportunities to have their opinions heard.
In this vein, the answer to “why did the Internet activists-turned-politicians fare so badly in the elections?” cannot be reduced to the aforementioned argument that the opposition has been eclipsed by the empowerment of social media. Not without additional research, that is. What might be a plausible hypothesis on the role of social media is that engagement is perceived to be a given by the voter, also evidenced by the increased activity on the part of the PAP and its candidates. And that negative publicity is amplified at a quicker pace.
One might even advance the proposition that the Singapore Democratic Party and the Workers’ Party fared better vis-à-vis their contemporaries because they were able to communicate their alternative policies or policy messages online, yet along the same tangent this is far from a conclusion without more rigorous studies.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.