Online campaigning: more freedom to shoot oneself in the foot



March 15th, 2011

The liberalisation of online campaigning rules raises intriguing questions about the upcoming polls. At one level, the move merely acknowledges the new realities, as Alex Au of Yawning Bread told the Today newspaper. But, so much more space is being opened up for legitimate use that one is bound to ask:

What’s the catch?

The obvious catch is that this is a liberalisation of so-called prior restraints (rules that shut you up before you’ve had a chance to say anything) but doesn’t necessarily represent any easing in post-publication punishments (getting you for what you actually say).

Parties would be unwise to assume that defamation law, in particular, will be any less relevant in Campaign 2011. The government does not accept that the cut and thrust of campaigning is an excuse for politicians to sully opponents’ reputations with allegations that they can’t prove in court.

So, it’s been the case that general election season would be followed by defamation suit season. Opposition politicians in high spirits on the rally ground would crash down to earth in court. Learning from this, parties were far more careful with their words in the last GE. But now there’s a chance that the multiplication of online platforms and the ease of publication will encourage politicians to cast caution to the wind.

Most of us have had personal experience of how new media miraculously transports one’s foot into one’s mouth. The question is whether this tendency will translate into more defamation suits in this GE, now that red lights have turned green. Note that the regulations require parties to declare which online media are part of whose campaigns. This will make it easier for lawyers to know exactly whom to address their letters to.

I’m not suggesting that the move is part of a conspiracy to entrap the opposition. But even if exposure to defamation suits is not the intention, that could be the effect. The PAP won’t subject everyone’s postings to legal scrutiny. But if it decides that a particular opposition politician needs to be utterly demolished, you can bet that no tweet of his would be too tiny, no Facebook update too fleeting, to be given the CSI treatment in order a build the case against the individual.

Parties will have to think carefully about whether the potential benefits of an aggressive online media strategy outweigh the risks of saying things they shouldn’t say and being sued for it.

The second catch is a related one: while electronic bandwidth may be virtually unlimited, executive bandwidth is still finite. The internet will take anything, but somebody’s got to decide what to feed it.

Now that parties are allowed to use the new media more, who will actually produce the content? More importantly, who will check and edit the content before it’s uploaded? This may be a non-issue for an internet forum or portal, but it’s an important consideration for a political party: what’s posted needs to be in line with the party’s election strategy – and shouldn’t score own goals.

This internal management challenge is probably why some parties – including the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party – have been quieter than one might expect online. The technical capabilities and manpower are there, but these big parties apparently haven’t cracked the puzzle of how to marry the spontaneity and informality of cyberspace with the need to stay on message. Both parties have had gaffes related to this problem. The WP had internal disputes soon after the last GE over how much leeway members should have online. The PAP has had its share online missteps.

Workers’ Party 2006 candidate James Gomez has noted in an academic article that “a culture of caution and the parties’ control over its members’ online communications” are among the reasons why their online outreach has been “less than optimal”. Chia Ti Lik, one of the WP’s most promising young candidates, attributed his resignation to the party leadership’s “overly conservative” approach. He has set up his own party, the Socialist Front.

Based on its far superior numbers and the lack of any fear factor, you might expect the PAP to have the most substantial online presence. However, the latest article posted on the Young PAP website is almost two weeks old; and only three articles were posted in the month of February. The ruling party appears to be facing a similar bottleneck as WP.

The challenge will only intensify during the hustings. It is tough enough staying in command of the conventional campaign battlefield. On top of that, to manage round-the-clock online platforms will require party leaders to have either superhuman multitasking skills or the confidence to cede control to activists who can run their online campaigns on their behalf. So far, the PAP and WP seem to be reluctant to embrace the latter strategy, opting instead for a less lively and less risky online strategy.

The party with the most prolific online machinery is instead the Singapore Democratic Party. Clearly, it has an able team of cyber activists in place, proficient in all the newly permitted technologies – and, apparently, empowered by the party leaders to muck around in the online sandbox. (Gomez, one of the country’s pioneers of cyber activism, joined the SDP after he quit WP.)

The SDP therefore stands to benefit the most from the latest liberalisation. No doubt, though, the party’s online strategy will come under severe test. Take, for example, something posted prominently on its website yesterday: a letter accusing the Singapore embassy in Japan of failing in its duties because an email addressed to it got an unhelpful auto-reply. But a quick check of the MFA website would have revealed a 24-hour hotline for Singaporeans to reach the embassy. (A relation happened to call me last Friday wondering how to contact the embassy; I was able to check and give her the number within less than a minute.)

One can understand a stressed-out individual shooting off an angry letter. But a political party or media organisation might need to be more careful about what allegations it chooses to publish if it wants to avoid injuring itself during and after the coming campaign. So there’s the catch: the liberalisation of online campaigning rules gives parties the freedom to shoot themselves in the foot.

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