SINGAPORE: It was not too long ago that Facebook was a politician’s best friend.
As the social media platform started taking off in Singapore about a decade ago, politicians — from across the political spectrum — rushed to get onboard, setting up their Facebook accounts, posting comments and pictures, and engaging fellow users.
At that time, it seemed as though Facebook could do no wrong, and politicians saw it as a godsend — an ideal platform not only to communicate their messages, but also to gather feedback and gauge public sentiments.
Of late, however, Facebook has come under scrutiny around the world, as news emerge of how the social media giant inflated its metrics, tried to cover up data breaches, as well as allowed itself to be used as a conduit for spreading mis- and disinformation.
Earlier this week, Facebook also admitted to hiring a Washington-based lobbying company that pushed negative stories about Facebook’s critics, including philanthropist George Soros.
Meanwhile, governments around the world, including Singapore, want Facebook to do more to curb the spread of deliberate online falsehoods.
Singapore’s leaders, in particular, have repeatedly stressed the need for new laws to make the company accountable, pointing out that Facebook cannot be relied upon to protect users from online falsehoods.
It was recently reported that parliaments in eight countries — including Singapore, Australia, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Latvia — had issued separate requests for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to respond to them on the platform’s negative impact.
Against this backdrop, some observers here are calling on the Government and Members of Parliament (MPs) to reduce their reliance on Facebook, especially as a platform for garnering feedback and assessing how the public feels about certain initiatives and policies.
After all, how much of the feedback or sentiment is genuine? Or could it be part of a nefarious campaign designed to sway public opinion?
Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, who is active on Facebook, stressed that MPs do not rely solely on the social media platform as part of their outreach. “If you’re using one platform to gauge support, you are seriously misguided,” said Mr Tan, who is an MP in Marine Parade GRC.
Other People's Action Party (PAP) MPs interviewed by TODAY agreed that there are limits to the efficacy of Facebook, and they are tapping the platform with their eyes wide open. Workers' Party MPs could not be reached for comments on this report.
Still, given that Facebook is susceptible to manipulation, media industry veteran Viswa Sadasivan said it is important for the Singapore Government to “maintain a healthy distance” from the company.
“It would be awkward, if not unwieldy, if the Government sees the need to take action against Facebook when the Prime Minister and leading political leaders appear beholden to it as their key online communication platform,” said Mr Viswa, a former Nominated MP who is the chief executive of strategic and crisis communications consultancy Strategic Moves.
He had previously served as the Chairman of the Political Development Feedback Group of Singapore's Feedback Unit, which is now known as Reach.
FACEBOOK AND POLITICS: A LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP
Back in 2008, there was a rush among ministers and MPs alike to boost their online presence. Mr Teo Ser Luck, who was a senior parliamentary secretary at the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, said that he used Facebook to gauge public support for Singapore’s bid to host the Youth Olympics Games in 2010.
“If translated into a political strategy, Facebook could be a powerful tool,” Mr Teo said at the time. Mr Teo stepped down from political office last year and is now a Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP.
Several other ministers and MPs had also spoken on the need to engage the online community to get a feel of the public’s views and opinions on issues and policies. If not, they would be seen as being out of touch.
The Singapore politician seen as the most adept at using Facebook is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself.
Since joining Facebook in 2012, Mr Lee has amassed 1.2 million followers.
When he first launched his Facebook page, Mr Lee said in a welcome note that using the social networking site allowed him to share what he was doing and thinking about.
He also wanted netizens to “help shape ideas and understanding of what we can do together to improve our lives”. And in one status update, he had said that he took netizens’ views “very seriously”.
When Mr Tan set up his Facebook page in 2007, he had used it to connect with family, friends and colleagues, especially “when you’re separated by distance, time and space”.
After he joined politics in 2011, he noted that Facebook was useful — but not vital — for politicians to gather feedback.
Mr Tan, who was formerly Minister for Social and Family Development, said:
“Saying that Facebook is vital is overstating it. One, not everyone is on and active on Facebook. You also have watering holes, where people of similar interests gather in certain groups. There are also echo chambers.”
Expressing a similar sentiment, Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat added: “I always find it hard to gauge sentiments through Facebook because is the sample size sufficient? Are the views skewed towards one side and is this representative of the views of the entire population?”
Ms Sun Xueling, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Home Affairs and National Development ministries, said she uses Facebook to send out updates on her grassroots activities.
As an MP of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, she also uses the platform to gauge sentiments on proposed initiatives in her ward, such as setting up a study corner or a community garden.
As with all online platforms, Ms Sun said there are vocal individuals who want their feedback to be heard. Though they are important, “it can sometimes take on a disproportionate scale as ‘online echo chambers’ can be formed where like-minded individuals congregate, shutting out other individuals who might not be as proactive online in making their views heard”.
MPs who spoke to TODAY stressed that sentiments online do not, at times, tally with views on the ground, such as during the 2015 General Election (GE).
Following the 2011 polls, which saw the ruling PAP losing a GRC for the first time and garnering its lowest vote share since independence (60.1 per cent), the sentiments on Facebook and other Internet platforms indicated that the party would fare “a lot worse” in the 2015 GE, Mr Tan recalled. “You get that sense online,” he said.
In the end, the PAP won with a vastly improved national vote share of 69.9 per cent — the highest vote share since 2001. The results showed that the “response on the ground was quite different”, Mr Tan noted. “So then you ask yourself whether the sentiments online are truly representative?” he said.
MULTIPLE SOURCES OF ENGAGEMENT
While Facebook is useful depending on how it is used, the platform is not the “be all or end all” when it comes to engaging the populace, said the MPs. As Mr Tan noted, it is just one reference or contact point among many other platforms that politicians use in combination to get a better sense of the ground.
“To dismiss it would be to lose a platform not just to gather feedback but for politicians to put across our thoughts and perspectives because we cannot go to every event and engage the people,” he said.
Still, “face-to-face interactions of course trump everything else”, he added.
Ms Sun similarly combines the online feedback with house visits and walkabouts around her ward to get a fuller picture.
“So I see for myself the situation on the ground and cross-reference it to what I read online,” she added.
“I also ask the local agencies to stake out at local hotspots where there is a lot of feedback to get real data on the ground to fact-check the feedback we receive online.”
Given that it is evidently easy to manipulate information – including views – on Facebook, how do the MPs decide which comments they should look at?
A useful guide is to look at comments that are thoughtful, said the MPs. Of course, there are instances where there are a few monikers or fake profiles of individuals or groups that seem to appear regularly, said Mr Tan.
They do try to distort information or paint an inaccurate picture of public sentiments. Genuine comments, however, still exist, he noted.
Mr Saktiandi said that even if there are criticisms, they are put across in a “fairly constructive” manner. “If there are useful perspectives – whether positive or criticisms – shared, you take them onboard and you channel them to the different agencies,” he added.
With Facebook embroiled in one scandal after another, are the MPs more cautious of the platform? Not really, they said.
Mr Tan said that Facebook is still an important platform, but relying on it solely “wouldn’t be a wise move” as it does have its shortcomings.
Views on Facebook should be complemented with evidence-based data such as surveys on perspectives about issues or policies, coupled with traditional on-the-ground engagement, he added.
Having evidence-based data “is not being unfeeling or unsympathetic”, noted Mr Tan. It is just one of the touch points to inform policymakers.
“Facebook does not give you an absolute picture of what Singaporeans are thinking or feeling. No single platform can give you that,” he added. “What you need is a collection of tools – house visits, walkabouts, dialogues and social media platforms.”
While these activities may still not offer a full picture of people’s sentiments, “they give you a much better sense of it”.
READ: States Times Review post: Facebook cannot be relied upon to filter falsehoods, says Law Ministry
Responding to TODAY’s queries, a Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) spokesperson said that it leverages “a myriad of platforms” to engage and gather feedback from different segments of the population on national policies and issues.
“We encourage agencies to embrace digital communications and tap on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to augment their public education and outreach efforts,” said the MCI spokesperson.
“On their end, social media platforms are also working with governments and other stakeholders to promote and ensure the responsible use of their services.”
Even as online channels grow in popularity, the MCI spokesperson noted that face to-face engagement will remain a “key component of government communications as they enable a deeper and robust level of interaction that cannot be achieved through online platforms”.
For instance, the Government feedback unit Reach co-organises dialogues with citizen representative groups as well as conduct ground surveys, among others, to gather public feedback and views on various issues, said the spokesperson.
RISE OF THE "DARK ARTS"
In recent years, state actors have exploited the Facebook platform to undermine both the political process and integrity in countries such as the United States and France.
As far as the Singapore public is concerned, such state-backed activities on Facebook have yet to make their presence felt — at least not on a similar scale — in the Republic’s political sphere.
However, the use of fake accounts to promote certain views on Facebook is prevalent within the commercial sector here.
Ms Cho Pei Lin, managing director of public relations, communications and marketing firm Asia PR Werkz, noted that there had been a growth in social media agencies in the last five years.
In addition, PR and advertising firms have established their own social media departments to cope with rising demand.
Most of the time, both government organisations and private companies engage these agencies to create their social media content.
When clients, often private firms, face criticisms about issues relating to their products or services, these agencies would engage an “army of social media influencers” to “drown out the noise”, said Ms Cho, who has 15 years of experience in her field.
These “micro-influencers”, who typically have under 10,000 or 5,000 followers, would be paid a “token fee” of between S$20 and S$50 per post to portray a company in a positive light or distract the public from the criticisms against it.
“They are not your ‘big influencers’ with hundreds of thousands of followers. They are genuine, ordinary people. Nothing spectacular about them,” said Ms Cho.
Then, there are large companies which activate their own employees, or organisations who use their members, to go out and “right the wrong” or spread the word on their key messages.
Ms Cho said that her company does not execute such plans for clients, but “if the situation requires it, I would not hesitate to recommend it”.
Ms Rachel Ooi, a digital and content marketer, similarly said that she has had clients who request for such tactics to be used. In her previous role at a digital marketing agency, which she declined to name, Ms Ooi was working on promoting an app that allows consumers to buy products and services.
One of the campaign requirements was to create fake personas and start a comment thread with positive comments as well as giving the app high ratings. “That was in the contract with the client,” said Ms Ooi, who added that her agency rejected that requirement in the contract.
Such tactics are not unique to Singapore — they tend to be used by China and Hong Kong-based companies, which she has worked with. Thus far, her work here has been “more commercial and not political in nature”, said Ms Ooi, who has nearly a decade of experience in the field and blogs about digital marketing.
Asked whether such tactics present an ethical dilemma, Ms Ooi responded: “As every marketer would do, you have to present your clients in the best light.”
Mr Daniel Yap, who previously managed a PR and communications firm, said that PR, advertising and social media agencies use the “dark arts” on Facebook, where they create fake accounts and stories as well as buying likes to promote their clients.
“When I did consulting work, it was my job to advise and inform my clients of all the options on the table and to analyse the effectiveness and implications of each option,” said Mr Yap, who has been in the field for over a decade.
“My clients over the last decade have both been targets of fake account attacks as well as users of that tactic.”
A PR professional, who wanted to remain anonymous as she had signed a non-disclosure contract, said that PR firms “generally avoid using fake identities and do not circulate fake news”.
The backlash can be horrendous, she said, as seen from the rapid demise of the United Kingdom-based PR firm Bell Pottinger after it was found to have run a racially charged PR campaign in South Africa that included creating fake Twitter accounts to spread falsehoods.
Increasingly, PR, advertising and social media agencies are also employing “dark social” tactics, where content is shared through private channels such as WhatsApp, WeChat or Lime, where it is “untraceable”, compared to public platforms like Facebook, said Ms Cho.
The aim in sharing the content on these platforms is to change mindsets or counter narratives that may be floating around.
Asked whether government organisations, too, have asked to employ “dark social” tactics, she said:
“Whether they are government agencies or private firms or other organisations, they do not openly declare they do it – to have people drown out the noise. These are practices people want to keep under wraps.”
TOUGH TIMES FOR FACEBOOK
The technology behemoth is today a beleaguered company, fending off one controversy after another.
Its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been trying to salvage the company’s reputation, including testifying at the US’ Senate commerce and judiciary committees in April this year to explain how Facebook is leveraging artificial intelligence to sort out hate speech, among others.
He also apologised for the mistakes that Facebook had made.
Facebook first came under fire after it was found that Russian agents had used the platform to spread misinformation to influence the United States’ presidential election in 2016.
Next came the revelation that Facebook knew British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was illegally accessing the private information of millions of people in 2015, but did not disclose the data breach.
Facebook’s reputation took yet another beating in 2016 after it admitted that it had inflated its metrics showing the amount of time people spent watching videos on the platform. Advertisers who sued the company said they had uncovered evidence that Facebook had been aware of the miscalculated metrics since January 2015.
In a New York Times expose earlier this month, it reported that a year after Facebook discovered dodgy Russia-linked activities on its platform in 2016, the company had yet to contain what the newspaper said was “Russian infestation”.
Last week, Facebook’s ability to spread misinformation — and its inability to stop misinformation from spreading — hit home after the Singapore authorities slammed socio-political website States Times Review for posting an article on Facebook linking PM Lee to the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal.
Describing the article as defamatory, the authorities filed police reports against the website and directed Internet service providers in Singapore to restrict access to the website.
Facebook, however, refused to take down the offending States Times Review post, saying that it will remove inaccurate information circulating on its platform only if it leads to voter suppression, or poses a threat of imminent violence.
The Facebook episode came not long after a 10-member Select Committee here, tasked to study deliberate online falsehoods, recommended that new laws be introduced to hold technology companies accountable for what is being published on their platforms, among other things.
Pointing to the need for such laws, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong told Parliament this week that Facebook’s lack of action illustrates why the country “cannot rely on the goodwill of such service provider platforms” to protect it from disinformation campaigns.
In its report released in September, the Select Committee also made known its concerns about the armies of bots flooding Facebook. The aim is to distort information and amplify falsehoods in an attempt to create disruption within society, noted the committee which started its work earlier this year.
When asked about the number of fake accounts that it had detected in Singapore, and whether it had taken any action, a Facebook spokesperson told TODAY that it did not have the breakdown of fake accounts removed per country. Only global data was available, added the spokesperson.
Based on its latest Community Standards Enforcement Report, Facebook said it had disabled 800 million fake accounts in the second quarter of this year, an increase from 583 million in the first quarter. It disabled 754 million fake accounts in the third quarter.
The company said that in both the second and third quarters, it had found and flagged 99.6 per cent of those accounts removed even before users reported them.
Saying that “we work hard” to keep fake accounts off the platform, Facebook said it blocks millions of such accounts at the registration stage every day. It has “made recent improvements to recognise these inauthentic accounts more easily by identifying patterns of activity, without assessing account contents themselves”, added the social media giant.
“For example, our systems may detect repeated posting of the same content, or aberrations in the volume of content creation.”
MAINTAINING A "HEALTHY DISTANCE"
For the Government, Facebook is but just one of its engagement tools, several communications and political analysts reiterated.
Associate Professor Alton Chua, from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), said that even if the Government uses Facebook to pick up any “online buzz, they’ll treat the platform only as the first port of call”.
Dismissing online feedback as “noise” can lead to the accusation that the authorities are out of touch. “To strike a balance, both online and offline approaches need to be used,” said Assoc Prof Chua.
“While remaining plugged in to the social media, they cannot avoid walking the ground, talking to people face-to-face, and experiencing first-hand of what is happening for themselves.”
Assoc Prof Edson Tandoc, from the same school in NTU, noted that social media platforms provide efficient channels for groups to scan the social landscape to have an idea of the range of opinions and sentiments on an issue.
But he cautioned that “it would be a mistake to think that the distribution of such opinions and sentiments online match the actual distribution in the population”.
Professor Lim Sun Sun, who heads Singapore University of Technology and Design’s Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences cluster, said that the online space is not directly representative of the broader population.
That is because online platforms tend to attract those who are younger, educated and more digitally connected. As such, Prof Lim – currently a Nominated Member of Parliament – believes the Government has never used online platforms as the main or the “only yardstick” to gauge sentiments.
“Few governments would be so naïve as to rely on only one source,” said Prof Lim. “I don’t think it (the Government) ignores it but it takes the online feedback as one data point against a broader constellation of views that are gathered through other means.”
Mr Viswa said that for political leaders not to view or use Facebook as a “key source of intelligence on ground sentiment would amount to denying that there is this elephant in the room”.
However, he observed that it has become “almost standard practice for ministers and MPs to post about their engagements on Facebook”, leading him to conclude that there is “excessive reliance” on the platform.
This has had the unintended effect of boosting the platform’s legitimacy and endorsement of its content, Mr Viswa said.
If the Government does not recalibrate its approach on Facebook, it will not only further legitimise online chatter, but could also result in “false positive or negative reading of ground sentiments”.
He felt that the Government needs to invest more in the traditional means of engagement. These include engaging mainstream media and through face-to-face interactions.
“Let us not forget that most Singaporeans still rely on these (channels) for information. Expediency needs to be balanced with accuracy,” he cautioned.