Every research exercise proceeds from a conceptual model. The data collected is then analysed to see if they validate or invalidate the model. And so it was with the Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) study, Impact of new media on general election 2011.
The question IPS said they went out to answer was whether the May 2011 general election was an “internet election”. But what would constitute an internet election? Implicit within that is a certain model of political opinion-making.
This model is at least partly borne out of People’s Action Party (PAP) propaganda – that Singapore’s deferential mainstream (i.e. pro-establishment) media are “trustworthy” while the internet, by contrast, is a dangerous source of half-truths, irresponsible allegations and moral depravity. The shrill peaks this propaganda reached over the last ten to fifteen years belied a view that the average Singaporean is little more than a sponge, passively absorbing whatever he sees in the media. As more and more of his media consumption switches to the internet, there is a palpable fear that the PAP will lose its influence over voters’ minds, unable to “set the agenda” – a determinant of success that the PAP has long considered of critical importance.
Two unstated assumptions lurk within this panic attack. While they are not essential to the construction of the afore-mentioned propaganda, it is quite obvious that in the years of our discourse over the growing influence of the internet, people seem to apply these assumptions:
1. Internet-consumers and mainstream-media consumers are mutually exclusive categories;
2. People form their political opinions directly from their consumption of media; thus which media they select will largely determine their political views.
IPS themselves didn’t put it like that in their introductions to the conference they held on 4 October 2011. However, after a few days of mulling over the facts presented, that’s the impression I am getting – the research was partly shaped by this prevailing model, but also ended up by contradicting it.
Below is the slide that researcher Tan Tarn How presented as what the institute would consider an “internet election”, making a distinction between “hard” and “soft” effects along the way. Whether the influence of the internet was “hard” or “soft”, the premise was that to be an internet election, it had to be one where views expressed on the internet strongly shaped the experience of an election.
IPS conducted a survey of 2,000 Singaporeans aged 21 and older during the period 24 May to 17 July 2011, just after the general election (Polling day 7 May 2011). It was a computer-assisted (land-line) telephone survey, with respondents matched by quota to Census 2010 based on these criteria: Age, gender and race matched to within 3 percent of census data; education and housing type matched to within 5 percent of census data.
By way of introduction too, Tan presented this slide (below), pointing out that “mainstream media” does not equate with “old media” or traditional platforms, but are better characterised by their pro-establishment editorial leanings. “Alternative media”, likewise, are not necessarily internet-based, but also characterised by their editorial positions.
I will adopt the same terminology in this article.
The data the survey produced largely addressed the “hard” possibilities, i.e. direct communication effecting voting behaviour. They found little evidence consistent with it. As for the “soft” possibilities, the problem was that the study wasn’t really designed to measure them, and frankly, I am not sure if quantitative questions can really do that. It’s a problem that I am sure IPS is acutely aware of.
There is a third set of possibilities, neither hard nor soft, but more in the form of indirect effects as opposed to direct, i.e. where alternative online media has effects on political views and voting behaviour in ways that people aren’t even conscious of. In this case, asking people via surveys what they were consciously doing or thinking might not unveil these effects. This angle is turning out to be the more interesting one because other academics’ papers and passing remarks at the conference hinted at the likelihood that if ever there are going to be internet effects, they would be indirect.
I will take up this point in Part 2. Here in Part 1, I present the key findings from IPS.
The blue bars, representing mainstream media, tower over the orange bars. Consumption of mainstream media is much greater than alternative online media, when it comes to election news.
Aside: I find the result for TV somewhat suspect. The average the survey found was 32.24 minutes of election news a day, which means that they were some people who would have claimed to have watched 45 or 60 minutes of election news a day. Was there even that much election news on TV?
Another way to look at the data is to ask how many people consumed election news from online sources, whether mainstream online or alternative online?
Only one in three read the online editions of mainstream media; only about one in five went for alternative online media.
Not all Facebook users read blogs, nor vice versa. Yet, even when we add them together, only about 30 percent consumed election news from social media and/or blogs. The profile of this group (“the 30 percent”) will be sketched further down – they make interesting reading.
If the above slide gave the impression that consumers of alternative online media were a distinct group from consumers of mainstream media, the next slide said otherwise:
Those who consumed alternative online media also consumed mainstream media.
Turning to the “30 percent” who consumed alternative online election news (95% of whom also consumed at least some mainstream media), IPS found that they differed from the general population in the following ways:
IPS didn’t give details about how much they differed, probably due to constraints of time. I assume, at least, that they tested these differences for significance.
The next slide is where it gets really interesting. The “30 percent” differed in their political traits as well:
Perhaps I need to explain the terms used in the slide above – at least my understanding of the terms, which could be slightly faulty.
- Internal political efficacy is the belief that one is capable of effecting change.
- External political efficacy (for which there is no significant difference between the “30 percent” and the general population) is the belief that the government is responsive.
- To be politically authoritarian is to NOT believe in the freedom of expression.
- Political knowledge is self-evident (respondents had been asked a few questions testing their awareness of political personalities and facts).
- Cynicism is a term that must be handled with care. The definition in political science is narrower than the everyday use of the word. Here it means the belief that politicians are self-serving, driven by motives such as those of enriching themselves; not just that they are deaf to public opinion (which was measured in External political efficacy). What was interesting here was that despite the critical tone of online commentary, this group was actually a shade less cynical than the average Singaporean.
These “30 percent” talk more, disagree more, and are also more interested in politics, compared to the general population.
The general picture is that these alternative onliners (the “30 percent”) are just more engaged politically, but also a little more optimistic that they can make a difference.
Now, let’s see what they think of media:
These “30 percent” rate most sorts of media as more important and more trustworthy than the general population (“NS” in the slides means the difference is not significant). Their trust levels point to a degree of self-confidence in their ability to consume media discerningly.
Was this entire group lost to the PAP? Not at all. Within this group, those who said they voted for the PAP outnumbered those who voted for the opposition (see second bullet point of the slide below).
However, this question in the survey faced considerable resistance. Almost half of survey participants did not answer when asked whether they voted for the PAP or an opposition party, so one has to be careful about this part of the findings.
What we’re seeing here is a picture that is far more nuanced and complex than the simple belief in discrete groups of mainstream media consumers and alternative media consumers, each characterised by distinct political opinions. As an explanation for the findings of the survey, such a model fails miserably.
A better explanation would have to take the form of a spectrum of media consumers, with voracious consumers of political and election news at one end, and those who take little interest in such news, whatever the platform. The results indicate, after all, that consumers of alternative media were at the same time consumers of mainstream media. They are a group of citizens who are politically aware and more engaged, and perhaps more discerning, but also to a degree politically more optimistic about their ability to effect change.
All well and good, but it leaves unanswered the key question: What was the effect of alternative media on the 2011 general election? More generally, what is its effect on Singapore politics in general?
To say the picture is nuanced and complex does not mean it has no effect at all. Other academics at the conference also tried to tease out its effects and explain the role played by alternative online media in local politics.
Part 2 will discuss some of the other ideas and findings presented.