The Economics about Banning Political Films

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driI have been thinking about the political films discussion that took place during the Seminar on Internet Regulatory Reform. Two of my colleagues, Alex Au aka Yawning Bread and Gerald Giam have voiced their opinions about section 35 in the Films Act and their reaction to the comments made by Mr Cheong Yip Seng, the Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMES). Alex Au is worried that AIMES may be trying hard to justify why section 35 should stay after hearing Mr Cheong’s point about the high impact factor that a political film can sway how people think after his visit to a conference in Canada. To reinforce his point, Mr Cheong also cited that Japan and Korea were the other two countries that banned political films. On the other hand, Gerald took a different position by arguing that the political films act benefit PAP more than the other opposition parties. In this post, I adopt the relationship between the demand & supply with the impact of a political film to explain why banning section 35 is a worse option for the PAP to stay in power.

Basically, I will address the issue starting from the fear of a political film being potent enough to change the outcome of an election. Indeed I do not dispute with what Mr Cheong said about political films. He is definitely right to say that the political films can have a powerful impact on the audience. In fact, coupled with modern filming techniques that kept on repeating the same subliminal political message over and over again, the film may be so powerful that it would convert a voter to sway to another political ideology. In fact, I can even push Mr Cheong’s argument further by offering the example of  the religious fundamentalists under Osama Bin Laden who have adopted such approaches to radicalize people towards extremism.

However, something is missing in the entire argument. That missing link is how demand and supply for such political films is correlated to its impact and how much emotions it can stir. If there is a huge demand, the political impact is greater and vice versa. So, the real question that one should ask is under what conditions, a political film can create a huge demand. The answer is when the film becomes a forbidden fruit, i.e. we set up legislation to ban political films that can incite potential damages to society. It’s a situation of high demand and low supply in economics. Seriously, I found out that everyone I know when I was living in overseas, gets a thrill out of  watching some of the banned political films in Singapore, for e.g. the Singapore Rebel from YouTube and Google Video in the UK. The reason for the thrill is that they believe that they will not run into problems with the Singaporean law if they watch it in UK.

Here’s the part which made it so difficult for our establishment to deal with the YouTube problem. They can ban the film, but they cannot stop people from uploading the film into YouTube and continuously pervade the entire Internet with the film. The enforcement of a ban, bolstered by the printed press, created even bigger demand in people who will go all out to search for the film in Google. The same argument also works for the political films which are used to radicalize people to become extremists. In fact, every time the American media tries to make a big deal out of an video tape from the leaders in Al Queda, everyone will flock to YouTube to search for the video. It is human psychology to find out more about the forbidden fruit and sample it even if you use the law as a deterrence. In this case, given the evolving technologies of the Internet, it becomes even easier for people to get the forbidden fruit and at the same time, believe that the political film must have a high impact such that the establishment bans it.

What about the other side when the demand is low and supply is high? To reinforce my argument, I will use Michael Moore’s "Farenheit 911" as an example. For most people outside America, we are swayed by his film to believe that the US administration harbor bad intentions to invade Iraq. As a matter of fact, Michael Moore wanted to use the film to change the outcome of the 2004 US Presidential election. He was so determined that he offered to give free showings of the film to people all over US and marketed the film everywhere so that he can sway the people to vote for John Kerry instead of George W Bush. In the end, he failed even his film was made available everywhere. What happened? A few factors contributed to why the political film achieved so low impact in the US elections. The first reason is that the opposing side created similar films that distorts Michael Moore’s facts in his film, and better still, using the same set of techniques Michael Moore adopted to attack his credibility. The second reason is that the American mass media is divided into different political ideologies, and hence the public develop a type of social immunity to be skeptical about the truths in political films. Imagine Fox News spending every day telling everyone that the movie "Farenheit 911" is a bad movie and they did exactly that.

Does that sound familiar? Yes, for the longest time, as Gerald rightfully puts it, banning section 35 of the political films benefits the PAP more than the opposition. In a game theoretic sense, they suffer from being the bully for banning political films and the outcome is that it encourage the situation of high demand and low supply. The situation instigates more people to search for the banned political film.  The same goes for publications. Imagine you ban a book today, the next day someone goes to Amazon and buys the electronic copy and downloads it without you detecting it. In fact, the ruling party have so much more resources to create political films of better quality than what has been done by Martyn See. I find it ironic when Martyn said during the seminar that he was out to prove that political films do not make such a big impact as the establishment claims. In fact, by banning it, more Singaporeans are eager to watch it. Since a large population are socially conditioned not to think critically, they start to believe the information from the political films.

Of course, at the end of the day, I will not dispute what some naysayers will tell me that it’s a waste of time to try to convince the authorities about abolishing section 35. That is why they are still holding power. My answer to them is that technologies and social practices change and the same kind of deterrence can falter against the backdrop of innovation in the Internet. I will end with an anecdote told to me by a Singaporean friend who lived in New York. On the day when the Obama campaign executed their internet strategy to organize people using Facebook for caucuses and fundraising through online means as early as July 2007, a Singaporean friend of mine and an expert on social media called up his American friend from the Hillary Clinton campaign and asked whether they have  an internet strategy. He wanted to help but got a snub back from his American friends in the Hillary Clinton campaign, "We don’t believe in a Internet strategy." Perhaps history might have turned out differently if they have listened.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist