SINGAPORE--As social media enters the country's General Elections arena for the first time, Singaporeans are increasingly turning to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to get real-time updates and news coverage. However, industry observers here express doubts that social media will play a significant role in affecting voters' final decision.
The ruling People's Action Party (PAP), for instance, has seen a jump in pageviews on both the party's main Web site and constituency-targeted microsites since these were launched on Apr. 22, according to a local daily Today. The PAP's new media facilitator Zaqy Mohamad, who is also a Member of Parliament, noted in the report that the party's "multi-pronged" approach to new media that includes podcasts, videos, Facebook and Twitter had seen viewership increase threefold since Mar. 27.
Opposition parties such as the National Solidarity Party (NSP) and Workers Party, among others, have also made efforts to attract the electorate's attention by creating Facebook Page profiles of their respective candidates. In fact, NSP candidate Nicole Seah on Monday briefly surpassed Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew in the number of "Likes" on their Facebook Pages.
Local mainstream media also attempted to engage their audience in real-time. The Straits Times, for instance, set up a Web site dedicated to election news coverage that straddles conventional news reports, photos, videos of the rally speeches, interviews with candidates and selected tweets from users and candidates made on Twitter.
Alternative political news and commentary sites such as The Online Citizen have also been posting updates on Twitter and Facebook covering key points made during rally speeches and functioning "mailboxes" where notes sent by readers regarding the elections are "shared" through their Facebook accounts to online subscribers.
The diversity of news coverage and sources available online has kept Singaporeans tuned in to the latest updates on the elections, culminating to polling day on May 7.
Online discernment needed
Gina Daryanani, a consultant with public relations firm Weber Shandwick, shared that she spends on average one to three hours each day on social networking platforms, following news updates, watching videos and reading thoughts shared by other voters on key issues such as rising housing costs and difficulties in balloting for public housing.
However, she told ZDNet Asia in an interview that information circulated online must be taken in context and should be balanced out by coverage from local news agencies.
Daryanani explained: "Many young voters here get their news from social media platforms without reading the papers or watching the news, which I was guilty of until recently. [But] here's where it becomes dangerous. While newspapers typically report the news with a neutral stance, the online community is free to air opinions, share links and rouse [partisan] emotions without needing to validate their claims with a source."
She cited the example of a tweet from a rally-goer who was denied entry to the toilet housed in a community center because he was wearing an NSP shirt, leading to reports that community centers were biased against opposition supporters. She said voters should supplement the information they read online with traditional media for a "more holistic outlook".
Prominent local blogger Benjamin Lee, who goes by the online moniker of "Mr Miyagi", noted that social media is "taking election coverage by storm" and many political candidates have not fully grasped the platform's impact.
"One wrong move, such as a campaign truck parked in a handicap lot or one wrong utterance, and a split second later, everyone interested [in the political candidates in question] is consuming the news," Lee said. "There is no time to edit, play down or think calmly before people tweet about their actions and words."
Parameters for online discourse
To better manage the boundaries of political discourse on the Web and how political parties campaign online, the Singapore government last year amended its election laws to open up social media and other forms of online media such as videos to be used for political campaigning.
According to Bryan Tan, director of Keystone Law, Section 78A of the Parliamentary Elections Act allows "the Minister to make regulations for non-printed election advertising, which includes material on the Web".
Furthermore, foreigners are prohibited from partaking in election activities such as election advertising during the election period, and this prohibition also extends to the Internet, Tan noted.
For candidates, political parties and electoral agents, he added that the law does not allow things such as election surveys, garnering of financial and other contributions and political films contrary to the Films Act to be published online. Offenders who fail to observe these regulations to their best efforts may be barred from publishing further electoral advertising as well as have existing ones taken down, the lawyer explained.
Additionally, political parties and their candidates must declare all Internet avenues used by them to publish campaign materials, he added.
Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre under the Nanyang Technological University, reiterated Tan's points, noting that the new rules recognize the role and importance of new media.
"But, because of the uncertainty of new media's impact, the government is cautious over how it may have a free run," Ang elaborated in his e-mail. "This is why there are limitations on election advertising on the eve of polling day and polling day itself."
Little impact on votes
The director also predicted that, despite the heavy use of social media during this election, it will have "little impact" on the voting results ultimately.
Ang said: "Given the new and unexpected situation of opposition candidates, some of whom were previously interviewed by PAP [as potential candidates], there would be stronger interest to keep up with news and developments and a subsequent increase of usage across all media platforms.
"But, at the end, I don't expect a major shift in electoral outcome because of social media," he said, referring to the fact that the ruling PAP is usually returned into the government with an overwhelming majority of votes. In 2006, the party garnered 66.6 percent of total votes and won 82 out of 84 parliamentary seats available.
Tan, however, said it was difficult to predict the impact of social media on the electorate. He pointed out that the various political parties clearly feel that social media is "more significant" now, which explains why they have all ramped up their online presence.
"It does seem that certain parties are more present online than others and seem to have benefited from wide exposure," he added.
Local voter and freelance artiste, Edwin Tham, believes social media "will affect voting results". Elaborating, he said previous election coverage was limited to content generated by local mainstream media which is generally perceived as biased toward the PAP.
"With social media providing the platform for a diversity of new news sources, the more balanced coverage would likely bring in more votes for the opposition parties," Tham told ZDNet Asia.