‘Alternative’ netizens were ‘alternative’ before they were netizens

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:

‘Alternative’ netizens

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.

17 Responses to “‘Alternative’ netizens were ‘alternative’ before they were netizens”


  1. 1 Tan Tai Wei 19 September 2011 at 17:36

    Ah, ask Ngiam Tong Dow, Tan Jee Say, Tan Kin Lian, and others. They could not say what they really thought when they were still were in service. Just like those still presently earning their keeps in the Straits Times, etc! I recall a former prominent MOE official. After she retired, she told me that “now” she could say what she couldn’t whilst in office!

    So, you are right! They had already been “netizens”, even before the net gave vent to them!

  2. 2 Anonymous 19 September 2011 at 19:33

    I belong to the 12.6%. I find myself being forced to read alternative socio-political websites as I find the mainstream media too biased in reporting local politics.

  3. 3 Anonymous 19 September 2011 at 19:50

    If you are sharp enough, even IPS surveys are used selectively by government to spread propaganda supportive of PAP policies.

  4. 4 SN 19 September 2011 at 21:26

    “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.”

    I would like to think that the powers that be are more sophisticated than that. Perhaps all this talk of radicalisation is just for the consumption of the rank-and-file of the party, and members of the wider public over whom the party still has a hold. The objective, of course, is to control the scope and pace of politicisation. Whether this is the best way to do just that is another question altogether.

  5. 5 ape 19 September 2011 at 22:04

    It appears to me that some people who are more inclined to question the norms, seek more perspectives merely regards alternative media as what the name suggests – alternative views.
    Also, we should not simply infer that these people will agree with the alternative views.

  6. 6 BK 19 September 2011 at 22:27

    The survey should include the difference between male and female when it comes to political interest and awareness. I am sure female are much less interested in politics and therefore politically naive. I am however not sure how big is the difference.

    • 7 Anonymously Annoyed 20 September 2011 at 10:36

      As a female who considers herself very politically-aware – I started following and discussing local politics at the age of 14 – I don’t take too kindly to the assertion that “females are much less interested in politics and therefore politically naive”. I also know for a fact that there are many others out there like myself. May I suggest you reconsider that statement in its entirety, or to at least nuance it a manner that doesn’t smack so blatantly of sexism.

    • 9 Brendan 20 September 2011 at 22:58

      Even if your hypothesis is true, then it’s up to the males to convince and give and lecture their wives/sisters/daughters/gfs/grandmas/aunties etc. to be more politically savvy, right ? Not a very good excuse.

  7. 10 Jog My Memory Please 19 September 2011 at 22:59

    Good article, I am glad you did not draw too much of a conclusion. The truth is, the internet is still a new medium of communication. It will take a few more years, perhaps by the next GE??, for the netizens to mature. For example, Yawning Bread’s articles are well argued and logically laid out, but there are several occasions where, no matter what the subject matter under discussion, someone will reply with irrelevant whines about say, jobs being taken by foreigners, overcrowding in public transport, etc.
    This is one reason why I stopped reading TRE and TOC – some of the comments and responses are totally irrelevant (rude or irreverant comments are fine if they dealt with the subject matter pointedly).

    • 11 yuen 20 September 2011 at 01:21

      > I stopped reading TRE …

      TR went offline on 28 August, the day Newpaper published an interview with a former moderator of the site; I assume the group running the site feared exposure; TR ran a feud with Newpaper over several months, which started after TNP published a report about Chee Soon Juan’s visit to an SDP rally; i guess in the end TNP won

      judging by the low level of reactions to TR’s closure on the web, it seems the thousands of people who used to read it every day, and the hundreds of people who donated US$30K towards its running cost, did not miss it that much; I guess you are not alone in feeling unhappy about TR

    • 12 Poker Player 20 September 2011 at 15:56

      “It will take a few more years, perhaps by the next GE??, for the netizens to mature.”

      This makes no sense.

      *Individuals* mature – or don’t.

      *Some* individuals mature. Some don’t. The netizenry gets new recruits. Some drop out. Overall “maturity” remains the same. Look at old soc.culture.singapore from almost 20 years ago.

      Any “maturity” is an effect of moderation – from letters to the editors and one end, to the free for all at TRE.

  8. 13 georgia tong 20 September 2011 at 12:21

    Right, most of us read main stream media as main source of news. We read alternative media for more balance view. Those hard core PAP supports like some of my friends do not read alternative media at all.

  9. 14 CRICKET 20 September 2011 at 14:17

    That’s right. Alternative netizens were aternative before they were netizens. And they were pushed to take an alternative stance and seek out alternative views by the SPH newspapers which were so disgustingly bias in favour of the PAP when reporting or writing on local political issues that one has to believe that they were just propaganda organs of the PAP.

    I still read the Straits Times and watch CNN but I also read Singapore Democrats, Littlespeck, Yawning Bread and other local political blogs. And I form my own opinion after that.

    Mr Alex Au, please continue to write.

  10. 15 patriot 21 September 2011 at 00:16

    Me am a senior citizen with lower secondary education who has hold my political view consistently since me was a teen many decades ago.
    It was in 2006 that me learnt to use the computer and before that it was the main media that provided me the news. However, me relies more on my personal encounters and what me sees and hears as me goes about making my living as a Singaporean. Dare me says that the main media has ALWAYS been making propaganda more than providing intellectual food for the people.

    Okay, many acquaintances had said that me am ‘hard headed’ and even radical. Me readily agrees with them and senses nothing wrong with the way me sees and interprets events and the political exertions made and are being made on us by our rulers. Me was sure that there are many more in our society who are having similar view and when me went into cyberspace to read and participate in local social/political blogs in 2006, me confirmed that the main media was/is never able to brainwash the born neutrals who examine politics and policies with no bias.

    patriot

  11. 16 wikigamwikigam 21 September 2011 at 08:12

    To : Yuen

    “…..hundreds of people who donated US$30K towards its running cost….”

    Please do provide the data source !

    • 17 yuen 21 September 2011 at 12:29

      unfortunately, the data source was Temasek Review, which is, as I said, offline since 28 August; you might be able to find a cached page in google, or just ask some former TR reader whether they remember this


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