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Online clamour v Polling Day reality

Netizens paid tribute to victims of 9/11, with a photo by pop singer Beyonce garnering 805,000 likes within 24 hours. The Workers' Party rally in Punggol Field Walk on Sept 5. Political pundits online had pointed to the massive turnout at WP rallies
The Workers' Party rally in Punggol Field Walk on Sept 5. Political pundits online had pointed to the massive turnout at WP rallies and the long queues for Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan's autographs, and said these might mark a shift in voter sentiment. They did not.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Netizens paid tribute to victims of 9/11, with a photo by pop singer Beyonce garnering 805,000 likes within 24 hours. The Workers' Party rally in Punggol Field Walk on Sept 5. Political pundits online had pointed to the massive turnout at WP rallies
Netizens paid tribute to victims of 9/11, with a photo by pop singer Beyonce garnering 805,000 likes within 24 hours.PHOTO: BEYONCE'S INSTAGRAM

Social media is not an exact science, but ignoring it would be a big mistake

THE VOCAL MINORITY SILENCED?

Going by the People's Action Party's whitewash performance at the polls, did social media get it wrong or was it too effective a communication tool?

Since Sept 1, supporters of the various parties had been out in force. Not only did they throng rally sites, but they were also vocal in their opinions online.

From Nomination Day to Polling Day, about half a million Facebook users had 2.7 million interactions - meaning an election-related post, like, comment or share - on the platform. Twitter recorded more than 200,000 conversations around the general election during the same time period, surpassing all events in volume, with the exception of the National Day Parade.

But what were people saying?

Social media analytics service Meltwater, which uses an algorithm to trawl through the usual social media channels, as well as forums, blogs and YouTube comments to determine sentiments, provides a rough idea.

  • NOTABLE TRENDS

  • #GE2015

    It was an exciting general election, with memorable quotes and gaffes that were quickly shared online.

  • #WPRALLY

    The turnout at Workers' Party rallies led many to draw comparisons between them and rock concerts. Some of them were that packed.

  • #PAPrally

    What the People's Action Party rallies did not make up in numbers, they did so in spirit. Supporters came decked out in party colours, holding LED signs and home-made placards.

Specific to parties, the PAP had the largest percentage of negative comments, at 17 per cent, compared with the Workers' Party (WP) at 11 per cent and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) at 14 per cent.

To be fair, however, the PAP also had the highest percentage of positive feedback, at 12 per cent, compared with the WP's 7.5 per cent and the SDP's 10 per cent.

But overall, negative conversations about the elections - at 11 per cent of total volume - far outstripped positive ones, which stood at 2.5 per cent. The sheer amount of dissatisfaction in cyberspace even convinced some politicians and observers.

First-time anchor minister Tan Chuan-Jin said that he had not expected such a big win, based on "sentiments" he picked up and what he read online.

Political pundits pointed to the massive turnout at WP rallies and long queues for SDP party chief Chee Soon Juan's autographs, and said these might mark a shift.

They didn't.

Did the pervasive negative sentiments online scare those sitting on the fence into voting for the ruling party?

Observers now point to a "flight to safety" response, which might have driven the middle ground towards a tried-and-tested refuge.

And this middle ground - comprising the silent or neutral majority - is huge. According to Meltwater, some 86 per cent of comments online were neutral in tone. Perhaps even more damning, the Facebook users who actively participated in election-related conversations made up only 12 per cent of the total number of active users in Singapore.

Mr Walter Theseira, a senior lecturer at SIM University, said online sentiment is not an accurate gauge for what happens at the ballot box. "There is an echo chamber effect on social media, as many people with the same sentiments gather. But that means that you don't hear from the majority," he said.

Would a better gauge, then, rely on what people look for, instead of what they say?

Based on the data he collected with Singapore Management University research fellow Ernie Teo, there was a surge of interest in the PAP on the Internet on Cooling-off Day. This was the first time searches for the PAP outranked those for the WP during the election season.

"People were interested in hearing what opposition politicians had to say at first, but when the sound and fury died down, they seemed to gravitate towards the PAP," he said.

But this is not to say that what happens on social media should be easily dismissed. It comes as no surprise to many that the best results for group representation constituencies were for those helmed by two of the most popular political personalities online - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

PM Lee has consistently been the most-mentioned or searched-for politician across all platforms, while DPM Tharman's rally speech earlier on Singapore's need for financial prudence was wildly popular.

Perhaps, then, the key takeaway is this: Despite all the metrics available, social media is far from an exact science, but those who ignore it do so at their own peril.

HOW #GE2015 PLAYED OUT ON TWITTER

Elections, said Twitter's Rishi Jaitly, are the most prominent manifestation of the platform.

"With virtually no curation or censorship, it is like a national focus group - surfacing trends as they happen," said Mr Jaitly, the vice-president of media partnerships in Asia-Pacific and Middle East.

Aljunied, one of the most hotly contested wards, is unsurprisingly the most discussed. PM Lee is the most-mentioned party leader, followed by Dr Chee, the resurgent SDP chief.

The Workers' Party, however, was the most-discussed party. At the end of the elections, it is also the only opposition party to have a place in Parliament.

The way it has played out in Singapore echoes similar usage patterns in other countries like India, Indonesia and the United States. Activity spiked during hustings and rallies.

"Politicians and users alike are becoming more sophisticated this time round," said Mr Jaitly.

Another interesting parallel? The rise of comedy.

Top tweets this #GE2015 include upside-down political posters, awkward moments at the nomination centres and comparisons between cruise ships and the Titanic.

Now, who says Singaporeans have no sense of humour?

#NEVERFORGET

Netizens took to social media to pay tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks 14 years ago in New York City. A total of 2,977 people were killed on Sept 11, 2001.

Celebrities who paid tribute included talk-show host Ellen Degeneres and actors Mark Wahlberg and William Shatner.

Among the most iconic images shared were those of the Tribute in Light, where twin beams pierced the sky over Lower Manhattan in remembrance of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A photo by pop singer Beyonce, for example, garnered 805,000 likes within 24 hours.

THE FALL OF GUO MEI MEI

Be careful of what you post online. What started as a way for Chinese social media celebrity Guo Mei Mei to connect with her fans turned out to be her downfall.

The 24-year-old first gained notoriety in 2011 after posting pictures of luxury cars and flashy boyfriends on her Weibo account, which had nearly two million followers. Her lavish lifestyle was all the more unlikely, given that she claimed to be working for a firm affiliated with the Red Cross.

Of course, that soon attracted the attention of the authorities.

Last week, she was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $11,000 for running an illegal gambling den.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'Online clamour v Polling Day reality '. Print Edition | Subscribe