October 20th, 2011
PAP backbencher Baey Yam Keng has provided one of the most considered establishment assessments of new media in the post-GE period. In contrast to the moral panic that has been sweeping through government ranks, Baey argues that there is no need to over-react, and that the government should instead adapt by being more open-minded to criticism and by loosening its grip on mainstream media.
Baey is deputy chairman of the government parliament committee (GPC) for information, communication and the arts. A former director of creative services at MICA, he is now at the public relations consultancy, Hill & Knowlton. He is also the founder of a Chinese drama company.
Below is the full text of his speech in Parliament in the Debate on the President’s Address on 19 October 2o11, as posted on his Facebook page. The emphases and SUB-HEADINGS have been added for easier reading.
ADAPTING TO NEW MEDIA
There has been much discussion about the “new norm” in governance. Singaporeans are demanding more engagement, consultation and transparency. We are expressing ourselves assertively and freely on the internet and through social media. President Dr Tony Tan himself had acknowledged the importance of new media as a platform for citizen engagement. Nonetheless, I perceive a degree of reservation and apprehension among government agencies due to the inherent challenges presented by social media.
Advances in technology improve the quality of our lives, enhancing the way we interact with our environment and with one another. On the other hand, history is full of examples of those who were left behind because they were unable or unwilling to make the transition.
Let us turn the time back to 1927. It was the year when “talkies”, ie movies with sound, were introduced. It was a technology break-through and audiences enjoyed a new level of entertainment, but many movie stars lost their job. They had dominated the silent screen but did not manage to make the transition to the new world of moving pictures with sound. These actors included Emil Jannings, the first winner of the Oscar for Best Actor, whose heavy German accent did not go well on American screens. On the other hand, Charlie Chaplin was able to thrive on both sides of the sound divide, which is one of the reasons why we remember him today.
All communication media are neutral and social media is no exception. It is just another milestone in the evolution of media landscape. It is up to us to adapt and leverage on them. Even as the establishment is proceeding with caution and perhaps, with some trepidation, our younger generation has taken to social media like ducks to water.
Personally, I have found Facebook and Twitter very useful in engaging the public. I give updates on what I do in the community, share my thoughts and sometimes snippets of my personal life, and I receive very good feedback and suggestions. I ask for opinions and even call for volunteers and help. In July, I asked for volunteers via my Facebook to help distribute rice packets to needy families in Tampines North. In just two days, more than twenty people turned up that Saturday morning. There were young and old people, both residents and otherwise, one even came all the way from Teban Gardens!
I have learnt a lot from my Facebook friends even though I have not met most of them personally. Many have become familiar names and profile photos. There are of course a few ‘friends’ who are not so friendly and choose to be critical of everything. But if I keep myself out of social media just because of these few characters, I will be missing out on the diversity and richness of views and comments offered by the majority.
NO NEED TO HAVE THE LAST WORD
I hope my experience can offer the government some food for thought in its mode of engagement. On social media, the government does not have to rebut every single rumour or set the record straight for every misrepresentation made, even on the platforms it chooses to engage. Sometimes, it is better to leave the discussion open and not jump into defence too quickly or even at all. Firstly, it is not possible. Secondly, the time, money and effort expended would not be justified. Thirdly, the government should also trust in the public’s ability to make logical assessment of the information they encounter online. The government has to accept that it cannot and should not try to have the last word on every debate.
Whether we like it or not, civic engagement in cyberspace has to be treated with the same level of respect and care, planned and delivered with the same competence we wish to achieve in our physical domain. Netizens expect their government to engage with finesse, diplomacy and sincerity. This is no different from face to face interactions.
The government must be able to differentiate among different areas in cyberspace, customise its communications strategies and apply the appropriate treatment.
If I may share some light-hearted analogies: mainstream media sites like ST online and channelnewsasia.com are the newspapers of the city; Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking sites are the virtual cocktail parties; chat rooms and forums are the coffee shops of the online world; and Twitter contains casual exchanges similar to housewives comparing notes on what’s fresh and cheap at the market.
If the government posts on Facebook the same official statement or press release it sends to the mainstream media, the message will be lost. This is where an understanding of the respective media and creativity in repackaging the same message is needed. The housewife is unlikely to worry too much about the global food crisis and diversification of food sources, but will flock to buy more apples if her neighbours tell her they are sweet, juicy, and on promotion.
Regardless of the medium and the presentation format, the content and core of each government message must be consistent. More importantly, the government must be able to demonstrate that it is objective, transparent, open-minded and sincere about addressing the issue at hand.
Another aspect of social media is that because of its interactivity, it builds a community. Netizens will frequent certain forums, follow certain blogs or ‘like’ certain Facebook fanpages because of similar interests, and they recruit the like-minded. Just like one cannot just gatecrash a cocktail party and be welcomed, the government cannot just intrude into a social media space and expect to be listened to. It needs to build the comfort level and develop the relationships.
Two years ago, the Government rejected a recommendation by a government-appointed advisory council on new media to respond to posts at blogs and online forums. It asserted that such engagement would be “extremely difficult” and better facilitated on REACH, its own feedback portal. Obviously, the government is not able to engage in all social media platforms. As a member of the REACH Supervisory Panel, I do know that REACH has done a lot in reaching out to the public in the digital media, via Facebook, Twitter, webchats, forums etc.
The government can choose to stay put at its own cocktail party. However, why limit ourselves to one cocktail party? Why doesn’t the government tap on other forums and reach out to different demographics? We can tap on the following that others have developed and reach out to them in a sustainable manner.
DON’T OVER-REACT TO NEW MEDIA
It is not surprising that many people perceive social media to be a contributor of “noise” to the media landscape. Is the voice of people really getting louder only now? I do not think so.
Singaporeans were not necessarily more docile in the past. It is the ubiquity of the internet, along with the rise of social media, which has allowed the perennial opinions, including those of the government, to be heard through new platforms. As each generation becomes better educated, more will utilize social media. Whatever chatter and rumours which used to float around coffee shops and markets or exchanged between taxi drivers and passengers can now be heard online. The government can go to new media to listen to the ground and gauge the sentiment.
The recent suspension of the Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement along Orchard Road seems to be sparked by a couple of letters to the Straits Times forum which found the uncovered male torso to be indecent. If the industry regulator was acting on public interest, did it note the strong support online for the ad to stay put? The online chatter is the closest to coffee shop talk that should have been taken into consideration before a final decision is made.
Nonetheless, just as we should not underestimate the impact of social media, we should not overestimate it either. We observed this during the Presidential Election. According to online polls, certain candidates enjoyed extremely high levels of support but in the end, they did not win.
This outcome suggests that the rise of new digital platforms had merely enabled certain opinions to be articulated and amplified rather than reflect real changes in public opinion. For me, I cannot assume that just because more than 80% of the comments on my Facebook have largely been supportive and encouraging, I will achieve similar levels of votes at the General Election.
In a survey on “Political Traits and Media Use” last year, the Institute of Policy Studies found that people on social media are politically more knowledgeable, interested and liberal. They also tend to be more politically engaged online and off-line, be it posting a comment on a blog or speaking to politicians. Dr Zhang Weiyu, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Communications and New Media, urged the government and policymakers to take advantage of the online platforms to reach this group directly as “interpersonal talk has a big influence on political psychology.”
Our President, Dr Tan, had also engaged the “social media crowd” including bloggers such as Mr Brown and The Online Citizen team during his campaign. How will this be continued, or has it continued? Is the government going to stand in the way, or build on the starting point and facilitate a closer and constructive relationship?
However, here is a dilemma. How can a consistent message be conveyed by the government where there is no framework for the rules of engagement, where efforts are very much individually driven, appear ad-hoc and are neither organized nor uniformly applied through the government or civil service. On the other hand, if online engagement is conducted in a very systematic or uniform fashion, would the discourse become very impersonal?
BUILD MAINSTREAM MEDIA’S CREDIBILITY
Mainstream media will still be a very good vehicle to set the agenda for our nation for the day. Once set, the conversation may be continued online. It is natural for us to consume information with an inherent bias. If we come across information that seemingly contradicts our own experiences, we will want to address it and the internet is an excellent platform for such discourse.
Hence, it is important that mainstream media be held in high regard by the public. It can only maintain credibility if it is perceived to be neutral and objective. Ideally, mainstream media should be the benchmark for quality of information, and the reference point against which information on new media is compared and analysed.
Five years ago, I had appealed to the government to relax regulations for traditional media. I believe the government can afford to loosen up more.
Former Straits Times journalist, Lynn Lee, in her response to the WikiLeaks report on her comments on journalism in Singapore, mentioned that the government tried “to set the tone and form of media coverage.” The Review Editor, Chua Mui Hoong, subsequently clarified that it was only natural that “the Singapore Government tries to influence coverage in the national newspaper – just as … anyone who has ever held a view …has tried to influence the media.”
However, I would urge the government to reduce its effort to remove or correct what it perceives to be negative reports. The relevant departments should take them as constructive feedback, a form of check-and-balance, and work on rectifying the situation. If the government were to persist on keeping a tight rein on mainstream media, it would lose credibility and people will rely even more on social media and the internet for alternative news and views. As a PR professional, I know that we can only participate in, shape and influence what the traditional and new media portray. We do not and cannot own or dictate the media conversation.
What the government should seek to achieve is to maintain balanced and healthy discussions on all forms of media. The world portrayed in our newspapers and TV and the world in our blogs and online forums should not appear too different. As it is, we are already seeing a better balance of views in the internet. Netizens have set up sites to debunk negative myths about the PAP. Facebook pages like “Fabrications About the PAP” have sprung up to offer a better balance to the mostly negative online comments about the PAP and government.
MEDIA LITERACY EDUCATION
Last but not least, we must teach our people, especially the young, to be discerning in their use of media. They must learn to navigate in particular, the internet and social media platforms and judge for themselves what is accurate and reliable.
During a survey of students in a school in London, an independent think tank Demos found that most young people did not know how to navigate information on the Internet. What is even more worrying is that the students placed Youtube as the closest to the heading ‘Trust’ and the government somewhere near ‘Distrust’. Next, when the students performed searches for information on Google, a significant number “believed the first answer that came up”. To them, “Google is like a trusted website”. The students did not verify sources, had poor understanding of how search engines work, and were not good at differentiating between propaganda and facts.
The think tank recommended that ‘digital judgment’ should be a core part of the UK education curriculum. The emphasis should be on research and interpretation of information.
I understand that IDA has worked with our schools on some media literacy courses. However, I understand that these courses are not part of the core curriculum. It would be better if these courses can be integrated into our core syllabus to ensure that every cohort attains a minimum standard of competence.
I would like to come back to my analogy of the movie world. The cinematic experience has come a long way since sound was introduced to film. Every other movie is now made in 3D, or has a 3D version. However, CGI effects do not guarantee a blockbuster, nor is a low budget independent film not able to win awards or be a box office hit. Good story telling is still fundamental.
Likewise, whether the engagement is via the newspapers, TV, radio, Facebook, Twitter or face to face dialogue sessions, the right message in the right tone will reach and touch the hearts of people. The government must continue its efforts with sincerity, transparency, magnanimity and willingness to accept differences and failure.