Myth: The rise of socio-political websites with non-mainstream views created the increase in anti-People’s Action Party voting sentiment. Such an arrow of causation is not supported by data. What probably happened: The rise in frustration and education that led to the rise of anti-PAP sentiment, also created an audience for socio-political sites.
“Are they looking for [something that] the alternative sites of the internet are, and that the mainstream media are not?” asked Tan Tarn How, a political researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies, at a seminar last week.
The survey which this seminar centred around, also had another finding consistent with the above. Hardly anyone consumes these sites to the exclusion of mainstream media; nearly all of these “alternative” netizens simultaneously consume mainstream media. Yet they continue to hold different views.
1,092 Singapore citizens aged 21 and above responded to the survey, which was conducted by a commercial survey company. The method used was that of computer-assisted telephone interviews, conducted in English, Mandarin or Malay. The main sample of 1,000 was conducted in July and August 2010 with a booster sample in October 2010. The booster was needed to make up enough respondents from demographic groups that had been underrepresented in the main sample. The total sample was compatible with the 2010 census.
Tan presented a useful matrix for the various mass media, which I have adapted slightly, for the purposes of this article:
When people were asked which of the above types of sources they obtained news from, about politics, governance and public policy, a far higher number named local mainstream print and television than other sources.
The survey also asked respondents how many minutes they spent per day consuming from the various sources. While it’s too detailed to go into here, two correlations are worth noting:
1. Those aged 21- 39 consumed alternative online websites for more minutes than older age groups;
2. By educational level, respondents’ consumption patterns split into two groups: consumption of online alternative media was almost non-existent for those with less than secondary education; however among those with ITE level and A-levels and above, their consumption levels were about steady, i.e. they did not appreciably increase with more education, once past the ITE/A-level threshold.
Importance and trust
Younger people are more likely to say that the internet is important or very important for political news. However, it is not clear to me from the data presented in the seminar what the researchers mean by “internet”. Do they mean only the alternative socio-political websites, or do they include the online editions of mainstream media?
Less dramatically so, younger people placed more trust in the internet — again I don’t know what the researchers meant by “internet”, or what respondents understood by the term:
That said, trust of the “internet” was lowest among various formal media channels (i.e. excluding talking to others):
Individual responses had been rated 1 to 5 (with 1 being “untrustworthy” and 5 being “very trustworthy”). The scores shown in the bar chart above are the averages.
While the above might flatter mainstream media, yet about half of responses agreed or strongly agreed with two statements concerning government control and bias:
One interesting finding from the survey was that about 14 percent of respondents did not read or watch any media at all, for politically-related news. “And if we include those who said ‘I don’t know’ to the questions, it is 21 percent,” said Tan Tarn How. This is quite a big number. There is some relationship to age, but a lot of young people are there too.
On the other hand, there are people who consume a lot of media. And the most interesting group among them are the 12.6 percent who consume local alternative websites (as seen in the first bar chart above). It’s a total myth to think that they only consume alternative websites:
- 93% also read print newspapers
- 89% also read mainstream media’s online editions
- 84% also watch TV
- 60% also read foreign online media
Other findings from the survey show that this 12.6% group were
- politically more knowledgeable
- politically more interested
- politically more liberal
- politically more engaged online and offline
- politically more talkative
- politically more likely to disagree when talking
This group is consuming alternative socio-political websites “because they are just different from the people around them,” suggested Tan. They are exposed to mainstream media as much as they are exposed to alternative websites, and yet their political traits are distinct. That being the case, one cannot say that alternative media changed them. It might be more correct to say they were different first, and then found a way to voice their different outlook through the internet.
For anyone, including the People’s Action Party, to accuse alternative socio-political websites of “radicalising” Singaporeans, is to misunderstand the dynamics. And that has implications, as a coming article will discuss.