Internet politics myth-busting, part 1

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.

The survey

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.

IPS’ findings

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.

8 Responses to “Internet politics myth-busting, part 1”


  1. 1 yuen 8 October 2011 at 17:44

    After the 2006 election IPS did a survey and found that the two issue voters were most interested in were (a) good government (b) fairness; I remarked at the time that it was like a number of the 2006 PAP new candidates declaring “I am not a yesman” – they said what I expected them to say, hence they provided no new information to me.

    The 2011 election survey is a bit more informative, but still not very useful. It fails to identify any of the ways I think internet affected election behaviour: (1) the presence of numerous websites and blogs gave opposition supporters the feeling “I am not alone” and the motivation to act more boldly; in fact, it became fashionable to declare that one intends to vote opposition (including I think among some who actually voted PAP) (2) it became much easier for opposition candidate to raise the money needed for election expenses, including the rather large deposit, by using appeals on the web (3) seeing the large amount of alternative news sources available, the mainstream press made a greater effort to cover alternative views.

    None of these possibilities were covered in the IPS survey; maybe it did not occur to the survey designers to look for these, or they did not know how to measure such issues using their familiar polling techniques (presumably adopted from well known western consulting organizations)

    In passing, may I mention that the new director of IPS is an ST editor…

    • 2 Anonymous 9 October 2011 at 11:47

      You mean Janadas Devan? Look at his demeanor and the way he “interrogated” Tan Jee Say during the roundtable forum. He sounded more like someone from ISD. There are many ways to present the survey data, IPS is obviously trying very hard to undermine the existence of Alternative Media while promoting the pro-PAP Mainstream Media.

      • 3 Anonymous 10 October 2011 at 11:44

        common pro-opposition/anti-PAP reaction

      • 4 Poker Player 10 October 2011 at 13:33

        “common pro-opposition/anti-PAP reaction”

        There is another explanation. Many of us lived through the “Marxist conspiracy” and saw the televised “confessions”. Many believed it as much as they later believed the confessions of captured USAF pilots in the Gulf wars.

        Except that at the time it was Kenneth R Liang rather than Janadas Devan.

  2. 5 It is just Internet 8 October 2011 at 18:52

    One can do all kinds of analysis, study, etc whether it is internet election, politics, influence of the internet, myths, fact etc, etc.

    But one thing for sure, at least for Singapore. And it is this. No matter what the Internet has become, PAP will continue to dominate SIngapore politics and government.

    For the simple reason that Singapore internet (or armchair or keyboard) surfers, bloggers, commentators, warriors, activists etc are just that. They will not become a strong force on the ground to challenge the PAP. And if they challenge, they will (or most likely may) face defeat at the hands of the PAP, even if they are well known bloggers or activists with huge followings on the Net.

  3. 6 georgeyeo -not that guy 8 October 2011 at 19:05

    Alex,

    I hope you would not forget the ‘start point’ of the 2006 GE results, i.e. 34%/66%, achieved without new media figuring so prominently in the PAP’s mind as in 2011.

    The MSM too was relatively less discredited than this time round although IMO they thoroughly deserved to be completely discredited as far as there biased reporting went – bending over backwards for the PAP and not giving the opposition a fair hearing. Some may argue that this time round the MSM has been ‘fairer’. IMO, if they seemed ‘fairer’ it was due not to any believe after soul searching. but more like due to the twin factors of self-interest (their obsequiousness towards the PAP has become so obvious that they had to relent a bit to avoid been labelled as such and as a result lose all credibility with all of their readers) and perhaps for some reason, the political masters have rein them in a bit for its their image sake.

    The other point I like to point out and I think would not have been lost on you is the sudden changing of the guards at the IPS. Out of the blue, the late ex-president son, Janadas, was lifted out of virtual obscurity from behind the writer’s desk of the Straits Times straight into the IPS director’s seat. Now, I don’t remember what became of the previous director. Was there ever a director before him?

    To be able to make a living in the ruling party propaganda nest for an ex-president’s son whose late father had a serious falling out with LKY must take some doing (persuading?) that he is not cast in his late father’s mould at all. Can it all be so innocently coincidental? LOL.

  4. 7 T 9 October 2011 at 01:12

    “What was interesting here was that despite the critical tone of online commentary, this group (of FB/blog users) was actually a shade less cynical than the average Singaporean.”

    I am inclined to think that at some point for some people, they will start to realize and respect the complexities of governance and public policy through both online and offline sources of information. From this perspective, they will assess the government based not only on what it does not do or does wrongly, but what challenges it faces (behind the scenes) in daily operations.

    Such a mental framework may even be reinforced through more (online and vigorous) debate on national issues. For example, pro-opposition voices that are non-constructive will further add to the perception of such governmental challenges, thus actually steering one to “sympathize” with the PAP government. Also, the lack of strong alternatives to the current socioeconomic system (note: not just good piecemeal solutions) will compel one to settle for the PAP as either a “lesser evil” or a reasonable choice for the time being. Of course, this is not helped by the relative lack of transparency and disclosure of national/municipal processes and statistics for citizens to form their own informed judgments and to provide alternatives.

    On another note, their critical tone may stem from the perception that the PAP government could have (but did not) used their hegemonic influence (or high salaries) to better fulfill ideals such as being more compassionate, more inclusive, more pro-Singaporean and attaining a more holistic quality of life. This balance between being critical and being sympathetic of the PAP is likely not to please extreme ends of the local political spectrum. Yet at the same time, it does better capture the reality that “one cannot possibly agree or disagree totally with whatever the PAP thinks and does.”

    It may only be in such a phase in local politics where it is heading towards a “new normal” that this group of people is becoming more apparent. What follows is that political parties may want to cater to this internal equilibrium act in these individuals and formulate discourse and proposals accordingly, especially in a time where there is increasing polarization along lines of nationality, social class and arguably political affiliation, in Singapore.

    I would not consider such a group as swing voters as they seem to be more biased towards the opposition. But at the same time, they are not ideologically antithetical to the PAP. Their existence however should imply the presence of their mirror political category: people who are biased towards the PAP but not ideologically antithetical to the opposition. In light of this, more apt terms such as liberal right, libertarian, conservative right, conservative socialist (https://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/talk-at-the-post-museum-election-perspectives/), along with their moderate versions that tend closer to a centrist position, will have to be contextualized and used more often in attempts to analyze accurately the diverse political dispositions of Singaporeans.

    • 8 georgeyeo -not that guy 9 October 2011 at 12:33

      IMO, no serious minded people would deliberately seek to minimize the challenge facing the govt. What it does/does not/would not do, affects us intimately all the time.

      But it is entirely the case that the govt of the day, the ruling party, has a case to answer as far as Singapore is concerned because of the way the country has been sewn up so tightly, top to bottom, and left to right. The state control is 99.99% if not 100%. You can’t even walk the street alone shouting slogans for your dearest beliefs – whether bread and butter or political – without being accosted and arrested by the arms of the law and high tail into a police van and thence into a lock up and with alacrity dealt with in court for breaking the law – inter alia, not have a POLICE permit, creating a public nuisance, and BEING A MEMBER OF AN ILLEGAL ASSEMBLY!

      For an apt analogy, consider what became of a Chinese woman’s feet when she binds them? Have you seen how they looked like when the binding fabric/cloth is removed? I have seen them in photos on the Internet. The ‘feet bound’ women of feudal China supposedly represented all that is beauty and grace, the epitome of classic female charm!

      Well, metaphorically the national psyche of the people of Singapore has been subjected to a rather similar treatment after decades of the PAP rule. Even when the bind material is removed what do you expect to see. Rehabilitation, if this is possible at all would take time. But, it would certainly help if the one who insisted one such ‘beauty treatment’ on the minds of Singaporeans would come forward to express regrets, to cast away the spell and evil spirits, even to offer compensation and redress as an expression of sincere repentance and contrition, it MAY help to heal the still open wounds.

      But would it? Would it be able to overcome yet another traditional Chinese socio-cultural more, that of ‘FACE’?


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