Asian Conference for Political Communication

Social media 'can be a bane and a boon in politics'

Experts discuss the role of social media in political discussions at inaugural conference

Social media apps seen on an iPhone 5 smartphone.

As social media gradually takes over a bigger share of political communication and discourse, the jury is still out on what this will do to the overall quality of discussion.

Scholars say social media can be a bane when it is nasty, perpetuates misinformation or prompts hasty judgment. But it can also be a force for good when it forges more direct and authentic connections and projects underrepresented views.

These debates over the role of social media took place yesterday on the first day of the two-day inaugural Asian Conference for Political Communication at the Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore, organised by German think-tank Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

Among the reasons for pessimism about the new phenomenon: The conversation can get very hateful very quickly. Two women speakers recalled being threatened with sexual violence by people who disagreed with them.

The backlash tends to be harsher when the target is a woman, said Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, who faced the wrath of online rogues after she exposed fake social media accounts spreading messages in support of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

More misinformation, put out deliberately or otherwise, also passes through social media. This is due to its spontaneous nature and its lower, or even non-existent, thresholds of verification.

Fake articles are sometimes written and attributed to writers who never wrote them, and then distributed via WhatsApp groups, said Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs in Malaysia.

Dr Jan Melissen of the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands said that as a result, voters "have sometimes voted on the basis of being badly informed" .

Social media can also coarsen political discourse because it cues users to pass immediate judgments on complex issues that require more thought and deliberation.

"Asking 'What do you mean?' could have rendered a more fruitful discussion," said Dr Nicole Curato of the University of Canberra, about such instances.

The issue of whether social media tends to build echo chambers generated debate among panellists. These are "chambers" which lack diverse viewpoints because people over time block from their news feeds what they dislike to hear.

Ms Ressa said echo chambers do form, with opposing sides on an issue pushing each other further apart, worsening polarisation.

But Mr Vincent Harris, chief executive of Harris Media in the United States, argued that without social media, people could end up living in worse echo chambers, consuming only from media outlets that reflect their own biases. Social media at least allows for some "incidental exposure" to contrary views.

Social media can also be a boon when it provides a platform for disadvantaged or minority groups and viewpoints to get organised and be heard, said Mr Harris, who cited Egyptian protesters in the 2011 Arab Spring using social media to communicate and avoid the government crackdown.

It also has the potential to build more direct and authentic links between voters and politicians, making the latter more accountable and responsive.

The German government does this well by using social media as a two-way channel. It tries its best to answer questions posted on its Facebook page, said social-media expert Matthias Lufkens of Switzerland.

Another example he gave is Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who would post a photo on Facebook and ask Singaporeans to guess where he had taken it.

"That's a personal touch which I really enjoy. We do have the impression that he can connect with people, and he's just one of us," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline Social media 'can be a bane and a boon in politics'. Subscribe