Opinion: Shifting tides in politics & social media in Singapore

Today's public affairs PR professionals in Singapore must take heed of and react to the country's changing online political dynamics, says Jason Lee, account director at Isentia.

Jason Lee
Jason Lee

Mention social media to any government agency involved in communications work, and I can imagine irksome looks, as if you spoke of a subject as abhorrent as Donald Trump’s hair. Such a reaction is to be expected in the digital age, where everyone has the ability to generate media content on their own with their own audiences.

The concept of a media crisis has taken on a dramatic evolution with the onset of social media. No longer are PR professionals dealing with the media and journalists. Social media influencers must now also be considered in a crisis plan.

Against such a backdrop, public affairs professionals have had to adapt in recent years when faced with a crisis.

In the last few years, however, the social media landscape has shifted towards the middle. Back in 2011, the worst riots of the last 30 years took place in Singapore, in Little India.

In orderly Singapore, where even the trees are systematically pruned and chewing gum is banned, riots are unheard of.

This set off a chain of online vitriol and the rhetoric was largely very anti-establishment and anti-foreigners, providing a hotbed for xenophobia to manifest. 

Now juxtapose that with the recent news that 27 Bangladeshi workers in Singapore were radicalised and forming a jihadist terror cell.

The online rhetoric and sentiments were less anti-establishment and anti-foreigners. The discussions normalised to provide opinions on the other side of the argument.

Another case in point would be Singaporean politicians and their Ashley Madison-inspired exploits.  Michael Palmer and David Ong are both PAP politicians who got involved with their grassroots advisors outside of their marriages.

In 2013, Palmer’s affair was met with a flurry of anti-establishment social media chatter, questioning the moral high ground of PAP politicians.

Compare that to the recent similar scandal that hit Ong, where online sentiments were less damning. There were calls for him to not step down, with many praising his contributions as an MP.

Such a shift in social media response can be attributed to the proliferation of alternative news sites, as well as bloggers and influencers. They have provided a more balanced viewpoint without much of a political agenda, as compared to earlier alternative outlets.

Many have also said the 2015 general election was not reflective of social media sentiments. That, however, might not be a completely accurate perspective.

While the elections saw a swing vote towards the establishment which many believe was against the tide of online anti-establishment voices, what was not observed was the rise of voices in the online political discourse through these neutral, alternative channels and sites.

Based on an Isentia study that focused on profiling online users in political discussions, we were able to identify the different ways in which netizens were engaging with the conversations over the political landscape.

As expected, there was the negative, anti-establishment angle, which had become commonplace online.

What was interesting, however, was finding that there was a middle ground that provided a balanced and constructive voice in the discourse, and that it was even bigger than the usual anti-establishment rhetoric.

This can be attributed to the shift in the social media landscape for political issues and discussions.

As such, it is absolutely critical for public affairs professionals to sieve out the noise in such social media conversations and hit the rational and neutral demographics online. They must properly target the issues that really matter, which will help better craft their communications strategies.

Hopefully this will lead to a rethink in the shifting nature of the socio-political digital landscape and how communications professionals need to adapt to it.

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