IN FOCUS: At Singapore’s first pandemic election, did parties do enough to win support online?
SINGAPORE: As political parties campaigned during General Election 2020, first-time voter Mr Yap Zheng Yi, 26, often found himself sifting through a variety of offerings on social media.
The election was held amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with physical rallies and mass gatherings banned, and so it was touted as one that would be largely fought online.
Mr Yap got his election news through articles from the mainstream and alternative media, memes and viral videos, as well as widely shared, well-written observations by people online. Facebook’s algorithms meant he barely saw content from the parties or candidates themselves.
Many of the articles, memes and videos poked fun at candidates and showed the lighter side of the hustings. Candidates fumbling their nomination and vernacular speeches made for viral content. Political broadcasts were a source of entertainment too.
Some of it was more serious and made a meaningful impact.
Mr Yap, a university undergraduate who lives in Marine Parade GRC, read an article about Marine Parade People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate Tan Chuan-Jin. It quoted Mr Tan as saying he learns more from his failures and inadequacies. “That sentence resonated with me,” he said.
But Mr Yap said one particular thing stood out because it was heavily liked and shared, popping up regularly on his news feed.
It was a snippet from a live televised political debate on Jul 1. In it, Workers’ Party (WP) candidate Jamus Lim said the WP was not trying to stop the ruling PAP from getting a strong mandate, but to deny it a “blank cheque” in Parliament.
Dr Lim’s comments left a positive impression, said Mr Yap. “That’s when I thought this opposition party has potential,” he added.
THE PANDEMIC ELECTION
Singapore's 2020 election put huge significance on online campaigning, with parties producing their own talkshows and e-rallies, and exploring different ways and platforms to connect with voters.
The PAP and WP held its respective Straight Talk and Hammer Show talkshows. The Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) secretary-general used millennial slang terms to connect with younger voters, while Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) candidates took part in “Ask Me Anything” dialogues. Other opposition parties organised Facebook Live or Zoom sessions.
Beyond producing their own content, public relations (PR) experts CNA spoke to said some parties managed to get a publicity boost through viral memes or videos, and controlled the online narrative by responding effectively to negative incidents. These helped them reach out to more voters.
The consensus view among the experts was that the WP had the strongest online campaign with its personal and authentic style coupled with some viral elements, while the PAP’s trademark polished brand did not have the same broad appeal.
The WP and PAP did not respond to queries about their online campaigns.
READ: GE2020: Opposition vote swing shows people are looking beyond bread and butter issues, analysts say
But political analysts also said a better online campaign does not necessarily translate to votes. The PAP eventually retained its supermajority by winning 83 out of 93 seats. The WP clinched the remaining 10.
Nevertheless, PR experts said parties’ online campaigns played a significant role in determining their performance at the polls. Candidates who garnered more mentions on social media largely did better, an analysis of the data showed.
The WP’s win in Sengkang GRC is one example, experts said, citing how its candidates Jamus Lim and Raeesah Khan had attracted positive chatter on social media.
Moving forward, the analysts said online campaigns are here to stay, although physical rallies remain relevant. Parties are likely to go with more targeted and comprehensive online strategies that complement traditional methods, they added.
READ: In Focus: A General Election with a 'COVID twist' - how a pandemic may shape a pivotal contest
Political observer and Singapore Management University (SMU) law professor Eugene Tan said some parties' online campaigns were more successful than others.
"But what is clear from GE2020 is that parties would have seen online campaigning in a different light (if they haven't), and will redouble their efforts in online campaigning," he said.
"Now that they have experienced the potential, pitfalls, and the power of online campaigning, we can expect parties to exploit this during the period in between elections."
WP “PERSONAL”; PAP “PROFESSIONAL”
The parties started rolling out their online campaigns early in the proceedings.
On Jun 24, a day after the Writ of Election was issued, the WP released a slick 15-second video introducing some of their candidates. They shifted slightly and smiled into the camera, against a backdrop of movie-like orchestral music.
PR experts said the video set a high bar.
Mr Edwin Yeo, general manager of PR firm SPRG Singapore, said everything about it was “balanced and nuanced”.
“It was just short enough to hold our attention span, well-made enough that it looked like something a YouTuber could have made, but not so slick that it looked insincere and expensive,” he said.
Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC resident Ganesan Chinniah, 57, said he was “really impressed” by the way the WP candidates presented themselves in the full-length version of the intro video.
“My first impression was that we are getting … a real good opposition party that is going to be taking the present Government to task,” he said.
Second-time voter Joel Lim, 27, said the video was not only well-produced but also timely. “The production values, scripting and soundtrack of the video made it exciting for audiences to watch,” the PR and events executive said.
SMU's Associate Professor Tan said the really effective thing about the WP campaign was how "the authenticity of their candidates and party shone through clearly even online".
"That meant they connected well with voters and that their campaign messaging did engage voters and won them ballots as well."
Beyond its own content, Mr Yeo said the WP managed to inspire social media to generate positive content on its behalf, pointing to how Dr Jamus Lim repeated his “warms the cockles of my heart” catchphrase during speeches, spawning memes in the process.
The “ultimate compliment” for a campaign is when it “becomes a noun or a meme”, said Ms Wong Pei Wen, who teaches PR at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
“Generally, good campaigns, not just political ones, are the ones that create buzz,” she said.
While political analyst Felix Tan said the WP had adopted a “good strategy” of finding a balance between serious and frivolous for its campaign, he highlighted how the PAP went with a more straight-laced style.
This showed in its Straight Talk series, he said. It was hosted by a former news presenter and featured serious topics like jobs and education.
“There are people who love the PAP style of professionalism,” said Dr Tan, an associate lecturer at SIM Global Education. “(But) there will be a group that will doubt the attempts by the PAP, because if you watch it over and over again, it just feels so contrived.”
Nevertheless, PRecious Communications managing director Lars Voedisch said “professional-looking” content can help voters build confidence in a party.
“Content that is professional-looking can help position a party to be seen as credible and build confidence in abilities and strategies,” he said. “Some of the long-term serving PAP candidates are very versed in those more formal environments.”
The PAP also held more informal talkshows at a constituency level. Some voters felt that several of its candidates produced commendable content.
The second-time voter Mr Lim, who in his leisure time had analysed parties’ political content on his Instagram account, said Sembawang GRC candidate Ong Ye Kung’s “measured but sincere videos” and Marine Parade GRC candidate Tan Chuan-Jin’s “playful and self-deprecating memes” were successful in resonating with different audiences.
Still, Dr Tan believes the PAP needs a “complete overhaul” of its media structure, with a campaign leader who can drive a consistent style and messaging throughout the party.
“Obviously, the PR has failed. Obviously, their creatives are not that creative,” he said. “I think they really need to get people who can think out of the box, and I think the PAP needs to be open to new ideas.”
Assoc Prof Tan pointed out that there had been "too many moving parts" for the PAP online campaign.
"This meant duplication and perhaps even the lack of a coherent message," he said. "For a party that is big on consistent messaging, they did not grasp fully how the many initiatives online did not click well and so they got less bang for their buck."
Mr Voedisch noted that the PAP could have been at a disadvantage from the start as the party that has had the strongest mandate across all demographics for a long time.
“This means that it has to be appealing to a very wide spectrum ... leading to a more factual narrative that might come across as less exciting,” he said.
“On the other hand, opposition parties are more free to take a risk, appear less polished and through this come across more authentic and relatable. Many social media styles and formats are supporting that kind of image.”
Apart from the PAP and WP, experts highlighted notable efforts by other parties as they tried to reach out to voters via social media.
This includes PSP chief Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s use of Instagram and youth lingo like “woke” and “hypebeast” to engage younger voters. He would also interact regularly with his followers, reposting videos they shared with him.
“Woke” refers to awareness of social justice issues, while “hypebeast” describes a fashion trendsetter.
READ: GE2020: 'Hypebeast' and 'Woke' - PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock embraces lingo to connect with younger voters
“One of the biggest surprises was to see 80-year-old Tan Cheng Bock becoming an Instagram star with more followers than some well-known local celebrities,” Mr Voedisch said.
First-time voter and East Coast GRC resident Mr Kelly Wong, 22, said Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s campaign bore similarities with American politician Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
“Both are elderly but also at the same time they managed to appeal to the young crowd,” said Mr Wong, a university undergraduate. “(Dr Tan’s) was very clever. It is a technique that I don’t think has ever been used here before – having that adorable grandpa perception.”
Dr Tan’s Instagram account currently has close to 75,000 followers, more than the PAP’s roughly 42,000 followers, the WP’s 41,100 followers and his own party’s 16,300 followers.
“You don't hear the Workers’ Party or the PAP using that sort of lingo all the time,” SIM’s Dr Tan said. “But I think what the PSP has done is to attempt to connect with social media users using their language, so that matters as well.”
The PSP could not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.
Dr Tan also highlighted the SDP’s “Ask Me Anything” sessions on Reddit, which allowed Internet users to have a direct discussion with their candidates.
“It's their approach of being open and being anything can go,” he said. “It entices a certain group of people who love that kind of honesty and directness of discussion.”
An SDP spokesperson told CNA that targeting its audience forms an important part of its online outreach efforts, noting that the party has been using the online medium since before the 2011 election.
“We have, for instance, videos in the vernaculars to reach the older population and talk shows to reach the younger generation,” the spokesperson said.
“Over time, our productions have improved in quality and increased in quantity. What the COVID-19 pandemic did was it underscored, many times over, the importance of such online reach.”
The party reviews comments on its posts as initial feedback, the spokesperson said, adding that both Facebook and Google analytics provided further information.
“Voter preferences are varied. Whether it is through online campaigning or conventional methods, we must reach out to our voters,” the spokesperson said. “We will be doing them – and ourselves – a disservice if we ignore one or the other.”
DO BETTER ONLINE CAMPAIGNS EQUATE TO MORE VOTES?
Experts, however, emphasised that a good online campaign is only part of the process and does not necessarily result in success at the ballot box.
“You might have all those memes popping up, you might have everyone viewing one particular video or making it viral or sharing it with everyone else - it does not necessarily equate to votes for that particular party,” said Dr Tan.
“It’s just like when you go to a physical rally, you know there are certain opposition parties that will garner a turnout by the thousands, yet it does not necessarily reflect that kind of vote swings.”
Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC resident Mdm Rukilah Abdullah, 53, said she went on social media to keep up with the latest election developments and better understand parties and candidates. But she said the content did not form the basis for how she voted.
“I know who is running here and when I vote, it is not based on what I read on social media,” said Mdm Rukilah, a homemaker.
But data from social media monitoring and intelligence company Circus Social paints a somewhat mixed picture. The figures showed that candidates who got the most mentions on social media from Jun 23 to Jul 8, or the full campaigning period, generally did better at the polls.
For instance in Sengkang GRC, the WP’s slate of candidates garnered a 91 per cent share of the chatter, compared to the PAP team’s 9 per cent. The WP eventually won Sengkang with 52 per cent of the vote.
There were a few exceptions, however. While opposition candidates in Marine Parade GRC and Bukit Batok SMC attracted more mentions, the PAP emerged victorious in both constituencies.
SPRG’s Mr Yeo noted that online campaigns had a “big impact” on the result in the newly formed Sengkang GRC, marking the first time that an opposition party will hold two of multi-member constituencies since the scheme came into effect in 1988.
He gave the example of the episode involving its WP candidate Ms Raeesah Khan, who is being investigated by police over comments she made online about race and religion.
Police announced that it was investigating Ms Khan on Jul 5, in the middle of the campaigning period, following several reports made against her. Ms Khan apologised for her “insensitive” remarks later that evening.
In a statement the following day, the PAP called on WP to clarify its stand on Ms Khan’s posts, questioning why it still considered her “worthy of consideration as an MP”.
“From my chat groups, I could see that even pro-PAP supporters were uncomfortable with the press release that PAP wrote, and the sharing of that release in the groups was met with disdain,” Mr Yeo said.
“No one defended the PAP, even those who thought Raeesah was wrong. Coupled with social media movements such as #Istandwithraeesah and the endless memes of Jamus, you could argue that online campaigns had a big impact on the Sengkang result.”
Mr Voedisch had no doubts about the “significant importance” of online campaigns in relation to a party’s performance at the polls.
“Whether one garnishes a good result will depend entirely on how well they connect with the voters and they should leverage online campaigns to boost their poll results,” he said.
PARTIES WORKING WITHIN LIMITATIONS
Still, given that this year’s election marked the first time that parties had to adapt to a “fully fledged online strategy”, SIM’s Dr Tan felt they did okay.
“So to be fair, I think it's not their fault that they were not prepared,” he said. “I think everybody was trying to grapple with the changing landscape and changing media usage.”
In addition, there are also limits on election expenses, with parties spending an amount commensurate to the number of registered voters in each electoral division they contested in. The current limit is S$4 per registered voter.
With parties forking out on the usual election collaterals like banners, posters, flags and flyers, some relied on volunteers contributing their expertise to their online campaigns.
“We are fortunate to have a battery of professionals who volunteered and contributed to our productions. Many of whom brought not only their equipment to share but their particular sets of creativity,” SDP said.
Volunteers aside, some professionals also contributed to an online campaign in the course of their passion projects.
Professional photographer Mr Edwin Koo, who has been documenting the elections through different parties since 2011, decided to follow a number of WP’s candidates this year as part of a “natural progression of the narrative”.
“In the usual campaigning, the days often end off on a high with the rallies, especially the well-attended ones,” he told CNA.
“But this year, there were no rallies, so there were no epicentres where we can capture the buzz and drama characteristic of hustings.
“This is also a very special election. It was very personal, resident-by-resident, house-by-house, walk-the-ground campaigning. At the same time, the buzz on social media is tremendous, and that probably rang well with younger voters.”
EXPECT MORE SPENDING ON ONLINE CAMPAIGNS
Moving forward, experts pointed out that parties are likely to ramp up their online strategies at and in between elections, given the larger number of younger voters.
For one, NTU’s Ms Wong predicts that parties could spend a larger portion of their election budget on targeted advertising and different engagement mediums.
“We may see significant budgets diverted to digital advertising in the next GE to target specific content at different audiences,” she said.
“Different platforms should be used for different target audiences, but the key is in having variance in your messaging to target different audiences and having different formats to appeal to wider demographics.”
Mr Oo Gin Lee, a former technology editor who now runs the PR firm Gloo, said he expects to see parties produce lighthearted content for younger voters and nostalgic elements for the older generation.
Ultimately, there is no one size fits all approach to online campaigns, said Ms Wong, highlighting that people have different information needs and things they care about.
But Mr Oo believes that online campaigns will not replace “the real thing” in the form of physical rallies, where supporters chant slogans and candidates fire up the crowd.
SPRG’s Mr Yeo said there is still “a kind of emotional energy that physical rallies generate that cannot be replaced online”, noting that a combination of both online and traditional methods might be the way forward.
“Look at football matches today, it's just not the same playing to empty stadiums,” he added. “COVID-19 might have forced us to distance ourselves from each other, but ultimately, humans are social creatures and that physical human interaction can never be replicated online.”
Mr Voedisch said parties could create the “emotional experience” of a physical rally, which is orchestrated to build tension and a story, then keep this alive on social media.
“By nature of the setup, large scale events like rallies are more orchestrated to build up tension and a story. You can ... create emotional euphoria and tell stories people connect to. However, often that’s not long lasting and by default limited to those in attendance,” he said.
“So a key target for the future would be to create that emotional experience of a rally and then keep that feeling and enthusiasm alive through retelling the story via social media.”
All that said, Mr Oo said parties are “just starting out” on their digital journeys.
“This might be the watershed election which marks the arrival of digital marketing for elections, and I am confident that digital will be one of the key focuses of online campaigning for future elections,” he stated.