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Singapore general election reveals growing importance of social media

Organisations in all sectors in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries are recognising the influence of social networking

Social media may not have predicted the polling results of Singapore’s 2015 election campaign, but the buzz it generated is indicative of its growing role in Asean as a barometer of public opinion and a useful tool for disseminating information.

As one of the most technologically advanced nations in the Asean region, Singapore’s social media space was abuzz with elections-related data in the lead-up to the island state’s most hotly contested general election on 11 September 2015.

This was the first time that opposition parties contested all 89 parliamentary seats against the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been in power for 50 years.

The election campaigns generated a lot of buzz on social media, as the different political parties, candidates and supporters used put up party-focused websites and Facebook pages, Twitter, Instagram and videos on YouTube to rally voters, canvass for support and disseminate their news and messages. Twitter users in Singapore sent out some 170,000 tweets over the past two weeks leading to the elections.

“The different age groups would use different social media technologies to different degrees,” said Eugene Tan, political analyst and law academic at Singapore Management University. “I would imagine WhatsApp being popular with the older crowd, who may not be so savvy with Facebook.”

However, social media may not be the most accurate predictor of election results. Social media analytics firm Meltwater found13% of conversation sentiments for PAP were negative, while just 8% was positive with 79% being neutral. The final election results were quite the opposite, where PAP won a resounding victory, snaring nearly 70% of the votes cast and winning 93% of the seats.

“I don't think social media was the game-changer of Singapore’s elections in 2015. It played a bigger role than it did in 2011 [the previous Singapore elections] but it still hasn't quite shaped how Singaporeans voted,” said Tan.

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“Had social media made a difference, the PAP would not have attained the famous electoral win on 11 September. This suggests that social media remains very much an echo chamber and the Singaporeans voters are relatively discerning in separating wheat from chaff as they navigate vitriol on social media,” said Tan.

While it is unclear whether the internet and social media have overtaken traditional media for political parties to announce news, hit at rivals or rally voters, it has certainly made its presence felt.

“Social media is still a sounding board. While it may not absolutely represent the sentiment on the ground, it is here to stay and is one mode by which young Singaporeans communicate and access information on the elections. To ignore or write it off will be foolish,” said Tan.

Undoubtedly, social media has proven to be a useful tool for the speedy and viral dissemination of important news, said Shiv Putcha, associate director at IDC Asia Pacific.

“While we don’t believe that social media will replace traditional media, it is much more effective in reaching wider audiences due to the inherent network effects of such services. The combined reach of Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks is also critical in generating buzz around trending topics and important events,” said Putcha.

Social media as commercial tools

“Last year’s elections in India were a great example of not only record usage and relevance of social media but also how indicative they were of the eventual results.”

Just like political parties, organisations can tap into the data generated by social media to gauge sentiment and track opinion.

“There's no doubt that social media in Asean is becoming increasingly important to its enterprises. It may have been a bit behind in the pick-up and integration overall, but we've seen that social media spends are some of the largest in marketing budgets these days,” said Neil Brennan, area director Japan & South East Asia at Meltwater.

“We've seen companies use social media data in product development by listening to what their stakeholders are saying about recently released products. Social media also drives content creation and marketing campaigns by providing marketers with the ability to look back on previous work and campaigns to understand what worked and what didn't.”

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Social media can be a useful heuristic, but people and organizations that use it as such need to remember that heuristics are not guaranteed to be optimal and that they are fallible. That said, ignore the influence that social media can wield at your own peril.
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Social media is a double edged sword. On one hand, it can be a terrific conduit for getting information out to lots of people and getting feedback in return. On the other hand, it works just as well for spreading misinformation, and like minded individuals will glom onto whatever they personally believe or stand for, regardless of the truth or merit of such information. Ignore it, and it can spell your doom, as mcorum points out, but it can also come back and bite those looking to harness it. Caveat emptor, and all that.
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