Where & Why did Social Media succeed & fail in GE 2011?

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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.

Acknowledgements The author thanks Harish Pillay, Adrianna Tan, Daryl Tay and many others for a discussion on the impact of social media for GE 2011.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist

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10 thoughts on “Where & Why did Social Media succeed & fail in GE 2011?”

  1. Hi Bernard, a great write-up and overview indeed, and reasons why PAP fail much in social media this time. But it just makes me wonder, with PAP such vast network and resources, why didn’t they engage some social media professionals or consultancy to guide them during their campaign on Social Media? :) Would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. I always wondered too.

      I guess it shows how little the PAP thinks or thought of social media? It seems to be left to volunteers/ YPAP to run it. This parellels how many corporations just let employees who are most passionate in facebook, twitter run it as one man shows with little support. The mystery is our inept some of the handling of the social media accounts was even by standards of “hobbyists”.

      To be fair with the very negative sentiment against the PAP, leaving “hobbyists” to run such accounts is tough, how many people even the ones active on social media on personal accounts have experience handling very negative feedback?

      I would hate to be in their shoes:)

      I bet though it is not a mistake they going to do twice, and social media is going to be a big focus of the government and PAP going forward.

      I wonder also whether social media naturally favours underdogs.Obama is no longer a underdog so it will be interesting to see the reception he recieves on social media for his reelection bid.

      For what it is worth I am absolutely sure PAP is not going to make the same mistake twice.

    2. Well, from sources which I can’t reveal, I was told that they did engage some professional consultant to do their social media, except that close to the elections, they pulled it out and asked their volunteers who have no training to do it. Very typical Singaporean mentality, ask the consultant for advice and quotation and then thinking that they have learnt everything and ended up screwing it up. 

    3.  I think they need PR professionals who know how to use social media, not social media consultants.  George Yeo was prolific in his Facebook usage, he said he learnt from his younger team members.  His videos are posted on Viddler, and he tweets occasionally.  He has done the right things, but the messages that PAP had offered did not connect, and even he had to improvise, like the recent video and his last rally speech on transforming PAP.  He lost because he was collateral damage in the battle against PAP.

  2. Success in social media, especially for politicws, must be spontaneous, not socially engineered. Engaging consulatants may have limited impact.  Witness the spontaneous success of Yam Ah Mee.  He is part of the establishment, but was an instant success!  Neutrality can have its virtues.
    Nicole Seah’s success was due to she being herself and her sentiments resonate with many of us.
    Wasn’t Tin Pei Ling supposed to be in charge of New Media?  Her failure was to hide behind the iron curtain (maybe she was told to keep quiet…), instead of engaging citizens to improve her image.
    What is true though is that videos are key to influencing people.  I was included in a few email distributon lists and almost all the time, links to Youtube would be used.  These are people who do not use Facebook orTwitter.  But nothing beats real life interaction, on the ground to get votes.

  3.  Good analysis, Bernard. The key component here, apart from missing the social media impact, was that ultimately, we are dealing with people, People want to be connected. The MSM fails miserably on that count. They have their economic constraits, but even with the online offerings of the MSM, they still failed. Failed because they have consistently taken the PAP party-line and never offered any means for non-PAP arguments to take root.

    So, while the PAP missed the boat on social media’s impact even with George Yeo’s last minute plea not gaining traction, the rest of the supporting ecosystem of the establishment played significant roles as well. 

    Institutions such as the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), have yet to put out any commentary on this year’s hustings. A casual search of the word “elections” (http://ur1.ca/46nfk) on http://www.spp.nus.edu.sg shows nothing with a 2011 date. The LKY-branded think tank has thus far failed to be involved. It is a pity. 

    Having said that, the one significant outcome of GE2011 is that Singaporeans have firmly debunked the oft-repeated falsehood that we are collectively daft and devoid of considered opinion. Look at the overflow of cogent and credible analysis from Alex Au (yawningbread.com) and the humour/satire of Mr Brown (mrbrown.com), has helped to recalibrate the Singaporean intelligentsia. 

  4. Good post Bernard. I’m thinking about the advise/consultants the ruling party hired and the kind of negative campaigning that resulted. Like this Youtube video for example http://bit.ly/mfuBuh. Or even @aljuniedauntie on twitter.http://bit.ly/mfuBuh. Or even @aljuniedauntie on twitter.

  5. Actually, my first thought when I saw George Yeo’s video was that it was a farewell video. Ok, specifically, it looked like the farewell video that a suicide bomber would record before he goes off  on his mission.  My deconstruction of the video was that he knew he was going to lose, and Christ-like, possibly knew that he had to sacrifice himself for the good of the nation.  Would be interesting to poll Aljunied voters to find out whether his video changed any of their minds, or induced any undecideds to go with the PAP.

    Ironically, part of the PAP’s problem in social media is that since it is already so dominant in MSM and because it has to present a consistent message on all media platforms, no body bothers to pay attention to it on social media. Even in print media, I was quite surprised to discover how disproportionate the coverage of PAP was when I helped out in one part of the Maruah media monitoring project. When I casually read the newspaper myself, I just automatically skip over the PAP articles because I already know what they are going to say. Conversely, I’m more likely to actually read articles quoting an opposition figure, so psychologically, to me, coverage of both sides is unbalanced but not that lopsided. It was only when I helped out in one part of the Maruah media monitoring project and actually quantified the column-inches given to each party that I realized how skewed the coverage was.

    I’m not sure that any political party can really turn social media into a potent campaign tool. Most of the good stuff in this year’s campaign came from unaffiliated individuals crowdsourcing rather than from official party channels. If any opposition figure incurs the wrath of the crowd, social media will very likely turn around and bite him or her instead of the MIW.

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