After the past 10 days of intensive campaigning, cooling off and subsequently polling day for the Singapore General Elections 2011 (GE 2011), an interesting question comes to mind, “Why has social media worked for the opposition parties and failed badly for the ruling party particularly the case of George Yeo?” I examine certain aspects of the campaign in an attempt to answer this question and point out the lessons learnt from this election and how the learning points can be move forward to the next.
A Tale of 2 Opposing Worlds
Within the span of the 10 days, we observed the following:
- The “Nicole Seah” effect: If you traced the emergence of the Facebook page of Nicole Seah, you will be surprised how she gathered a total of 67K within the first 7 days of the campaign, in contrast to George Yeo’s accumulation of Facebook fans up to 20K++ over three years. Upon the 6th day, our Minister Mentor Lee received an external boost from a local blogger and the likes on his Facebook page overtook Nicole Seah, but tapered off at the end of the campaign. In the end, Nicole Seah has gathered a total of 100K++ likes after polling day.
- The social sharing of articles and videos via Facebook and Twitter: Over the 10 days, articles debunking the major urban myths from the property values between the ruling party and opposition to the message “voting is secret” were distributed at a rapid rate. Mr Brown’s “The Stall Next Door” coupled with a few creative works where they made parodies of failed local policies such as housing and costs of living added to the contest. While George Yeo’s video garnered a lot of attention which is in fact a social media success, it did not manage to translate to votes like how social media has been doing for the opposition. It is a bit of irony, but one has to say that of all the politicians in the ruling party, George Yeo is probably the most successful in tapping on social media. Does that mean that social media is just an overhyped tool since it does not help to garner victory for anyone who used it?
- Hearing the voices of many people from Twitter and Facebook: Individual and powerful anecdotes coming from people who come from all walks of life were spread across the Internet. On average, the rate of tweets increased from about 20-30 per hour to about 100 per hour on polling day. Of course, the extent of using social media via the mobile phone has greatly extended the reach and distribution of content all over Singapore. The young were more vocal about their distaste with tactics from the ruling party, but were swayed when the ruling party pivoted in the middle of the campaign with an apology from the Prime Minister.
Comments, Shares and Likes translate to Engagement & Interaction
“You should not talk to or talk at the people, but rather talking with the people, and answer respectfully to their feedback and comments.”– Scott Goodstein, External Online Director in Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign 2008.
Facebook is probably the most utilized social media tool in GE 2011. What most people do not know is that there are 2.5M Singapore users on Facebook (which constitute almost 50% of the population) coming largely from the demographics of ages between 18-35, which has now become a significant voting bloc as compared to 300K users in GE 2006. Unlike in this election, Facebook enabled a few features which are not present in the last election: Facebook Notes (blogging engine), Facebook Pages for People and Organizations, Shared Links with the social utility functions of comment, like and share. Based on the Metcalfe’s law, the maximum reach of content from users will approximate to the square of number of users that they share is about 6.25M users at most, ignoring the number of degrees of separation.
The way to explain the ruling party’s failure and the opposition party’s success can be summarized in a quote from Randy Komisar from one of the top tier venture capital firms, KPCB during the Stanford Entrepreneur Thought Leader Series. Randy Komisar made a remark on why his firm has totally missed out investing in social media companies (Facebook, Linkedin, Youtube). The reason paraphrase in his words, “I don’t know how to put a value on share and like.” He based his assessment of value on e-commerce sites during the dot boom and bust period when KPCB was investing in these type of companies. He totally ignored social media because he did not understand how to value a share and like button. The real power of social media business is in its ability to virally spread messages in the shortest time possible and hopefully push people towards action in the real world.
Extending that analogy to GE 2011, the ruling party only registers and creates Facebook pages but totally ignore the best practices of engagement and interaction with users because of the way they think of the KPIs. The best part is that they terminate the engagement tools when the heat gets too hot, for example, the party deleted the comments on Vivian Balakrishnan’s facebook page . To justify what I mean, I collected rough data on my own activity feed and I placed a counter on every hour of the day on the content during the GE 2011 for 3 days and also see how much the social shares will go, and realized that 7 in 10 on average are messages coming from people who support the opposition cause, while the remaining from the ruling party.
What are the best practices and lessons that we can learn?
- The quality of the candidate and authenticity of opinions on issues always prevail in a social media campaign: Some say former foreign minister George Yeo’s appeal to the young video has worked to sway voters towards him during the campaign. The video came too late and was unable to change the sentiment of the ground towards voting for the ruling party in Aljunied GRC. One thing is true, for the past five years, George Yeo has been successful with his usage of social media in terms of engaging people with his Facebook Page, but why it did not work. It reminded me of an interview with David Plouffe, the campaign manager for Obama’s Presidential Campaign 2008. David Plouffe made a very important comment on the role of social media in that campaign. Paraphrasing his thoughts, he made the argument that the social media tools (Facebook and Twitter) will not work if candidate Barack Obama has not been a great product who can deliver his ideology, views and policies in a clear, honest and authentic way. If the ruling party has been fair to the opposition wards by not tying estate upgrading to who you vote, the lack of authenticity and fairness will push the sentiments of the ground against you. That’s why the social media campaign of the ruling party failed so badly, because they are unable to engage and be principled in the way they deal with the feedback coming from their critics in the social media platforms. If they continue to ignore social media or dismiss it as being useless because George Yeo did not win even if he used social media, the next general elections campaign will see a similar and even worse outcome than this one in 2011.
- Listening to the sentiments of the ground and know your channels: If one has to think about GE 2011, it has to be the Facebook & Twitter election. It did not just propagate the views of the opposition parties better but also the voters. We see a lot of anecdotes and creative use of video and parodies (from the maid agency to the Chinese song on HDB flats) from the voters. It also clearly showed that these messages were able to propagate much quicker than before, allowing others to understand why the opposition’s message of putting checks in balance was important. In fact, it also helped non-partisan causes as well, particularly in the case of “voting is secret” video.
- Social Media Engagement does not translate to Votes: Although it did not translate to votes, it did help to raise the awareness of the public on several issues. While it is a good tool to revise your message, retool the speeches, answer to the critics and sharing of information, it is not a tool to translate votes. Ultimately, offline engagement such as rally speeches, door to door visits, and walking the ground is what matters in an election, even if the electorate demographics will change to people who are using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter.