General Election (GE) 2020 has been widely dubbed the “Covid-19 election”. But results from the July 10 vote and my post-mortem suggest that the pandemic mostly shaped the election in form but not in substance.
Sure, voters had to don masks and endure snaking queues due to Covid-19 related precautions. Fears of new clusters of infection also prompted the authorities to ban outdoor rallies and curtail traditional retail politics.
But the pandemic did not appear to be the central issue that framed the Singaporean voters’ decision. Instead, many were swayed by the Opposition’s call for a more balanced Parliament — so much so that the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) suffered an eye-popping 8.62 percentage points drop in vote share from the last election in 2015.
This major vote swing upended predictions of a “flight to safety”, where anxious voters would supposedly back the PAP in larger numbers because of the Covid-19 crisis. Some pundits and politicians had even warned of a potential “wipeout” of the Opposition parties.
So what happened? This post takes a closer look at Facebook data leading up to GE 2020, and re-examines overlooked trends which should have thrown up serious doubts about the conventional political wisdom.
1. DATA, DEFINITIONS AND CAVEATS
This article is based on over 8,000 GE-related FB posts from 15 public FB pages in Singapore between June 22 (a day before the election was announced) and July 11 (a day after Polling Day).
The FB pages are those of four political parties — People’s Action Party (PAP), The Workers’ Party (WP), Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) — and four political figures: Lee Hsien Loong, Pritam Singh, Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Lee Hsien Yang. The seven Singapore media outlets are: CNA, The Straits Times, TODAY, Mothership.sg, Lianhe Zaobao, Lianhe Wanbao and Shin Min Daily News.
Additionally, I’ve also used 33,882 Covid-19 related FB posts from the aforementioned media outlets to gauge the level of public engagement with the issue.
- A considerable number of the FB followers on these 15 pages are not based in Singapore. CNA, for instance, has large numbers of FB followers in Myanmar and Malaysia. But there is no way, publicly at least, to separate FB interactions originating in Singapore from those overseas.
- Data from other social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn were not included as FB is the dominant platform, by far, for Singaporeans when it comes to news consumption.
- “Total Interaction” on Facebook is defined as the sum of “Likes”, “Shares”, “Comments” and the six emotions that users can choose to express themselves: “Love”, “Wow”, “Haha”, “Sad”, “Angry”, or “Care”.
- To keep things simple, no weight was assigned to each form of user interaction. This means someone sharing or commenting on a GE breaking news story is regarded no differently from a user who merely pressed the “Angry” button. But in reality, sharing and commenting are seen as more important forms of social media behaviour as they reflect a higher level of involvement on the part of the users.
2. WHITHER THE “FLIGHT TO SAFETY”?
The first Covid-19 case in Singapore was confirmed on January 23, with the outbreak peaking in April when thousands of new cases were discovered in the dormitories for foreign workers.
The outbreak scrambled all political calculations for this year’s election but one major assumption went unchallenged — that Singaporeans spooked by the fallout from the pandemic would likely return the PAP to power in greater numbers, just as they did in 2001 when an election was held months after the September 11 terrorist attack in the United States.
That year, the PAP clinched 75.29% of the vote share, its highest since Independence in 1965. With Covid-19 ushering in a bigger global economic crisis than the one in 2001, many political watchers expected the PAP to maintain or improve on its 2015 vote share of 69.86%.
But as the polling results were announced in the early morning of July 11, the PAP saw its vote share drop to 61.24%. The Opposition parties gained ground across the board, with the Workers’ Party clinching a second Group Representative Constituency (GRC) in Sengkang.
There was obviously no “flight to safety”. On hindsight, any such sentiment among Singaporean voters might have been grounded by June, as the chart below shows:
The chart, which tracks total user interaction with Covid-19 related FB posts by the seven local media outlets, shows how public interest in the issue had fallen sharply since peaking in April. By the time Nomination and Polling Days came around, public interest in the issue, at least on FB, had dipped to levels not seen since the beginning of the year.
To be sure, the dip in user interaction is also due to the fact that the media outlets turned their attention to the election in a big way, hence producing far fewer articles on Covid-19. The Government’s success in reining in the outbreak and an eight weeks lockdown between April 7 and June 1 also contributed much to the “normalization” of public attitudes to the pandemic.
As I have pointed out in a previous article, a considerable level of desensitisation towards news of Covid-19 had set in. To the extent that a “flight to safety” instinct existed among voters, it had likely dissipated in a big way by the time the hustings were in full swing.
In other words, the electorate was open to competing political messages. And in GE 2020, the PAP and the Opposition parties campaigned on vastly distinct narratives.
3. OF JOBS AND “BLANK CHEQUES”
The number of dominant campaign themes in GE 2020 is surprisingly small despite the appearance of an endless stream of political content, as I noted in an earlier article. The PAP stuck to its core message of “jobs, jobs, jobs”, while the Opposition, particularly the WP, focused on urging voters not to give the ruling party a “blank cheque” for passing unpopular policies.
Results of the election showed that voters were clearly won over by the Opposition’s pitch. But political watchers were surprised that the Opposition’s message struck such a strong chord with the electorate. Were there signs of this leading up to the July 10 vote and did we miss it?
My analysis of 154 FB posts that contained the dominant keywords for the rival campaigns threw up some interesting clues about the public reaction to the PAP and Opposition’s core messages:
Public interaction with FB posts mentioning the PAP’s core campaign messages (for examples, “jobs” and “economy”) peaked on June 27, when the party launched its jobs-focused manifesto. However, interest in this issue among FB users appeared to have sputtered out by July 8, the last day of campaigning for GE 2020.
In contrast, FB traction for posts mentioning the Opposition’s calls for a balanced Parliament (as well as keywords like “wipeout” and “blank cheque”) largely held steady during the campaign period. But user interaction with FB posts containing these keywords surged strongly on July 8 as campaigning wound down.
The surge in FB interaction for the Opposition’s posts on July 8 was largely driven by three heartfelt videos by current and former WP chiefs, Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Low Thia Khiang respectively. In the short clips, the two Opposition leaders thanked their supporters and made an emotive appeal for Singaporeans to “make your vote count”.
On July 8, the FB posts in our sample that mentioned the Opposition’s messages enjoyed 40,661 interactions — 5.5 times more than the 7,372 interactions garnered by FB posts mentioning the PAP’s messages.
This notable “enthusiasm gap” and the build up to it could have given us a hint of the surprises to come on Polling Day. But it is unclear whether the PAP or Opposition parties paid any attention to these signals on FB.
The question of social media’s impact on voter behaviour remains a controversial and little-understood one in Singapore politics. But results from the biggest upset of GE 2020 could well shift the debate on this issue for future elections.
4. THE “SENGKANG SURPRISE”
Sengkang GRC is one of a handful of new wards carved out for GE 2020. Most analysts expected the WP’s team of mostly newcomers to give the PAP team a good fight, and did not think that a major upset was in store.
But user interaction on FB painted a very different picture, with clear warning signs for the PAP team almost from the get-go:
The chart above is based on 325 FB posts between June 28 and July 11 by the seven media outlets in my sample that mentioned the contest in Sengkang and the core members of the PAP and WP’s teams in that ward.
The main caveat here is that those who reacted to the FB posts aren’t necessarily Sengkang voters, or even Singaporeans at all. But the gap between the two teams is so huge that there is no doubt that WP’s Sengkang team garnered far greater mindshare and name recognition than their PAP rivals.
Anecdotal accounts in media reports confirm as much, with one resident telling TODAY that news and images of WP Sengkang candidate Jamus Lim “kept popping up” on his social media feed.
Dr Lim, an economics professor, was indeed the unlikely spark that lit the social media fuse for the WP Sengkang team with a solid performance at a nationally televised debate on July 1. Two video clips related to Dr Lim’s debate performance went viral on social media a day later, earning him the moniker of “Famous Jamus”. These two videos, by millennial-focused news site Mothership.sg, have been viewed at least 1.28 million times on FB:
Days later, a controversy over past social media comments by WP’s Sengkang candidate Raeesah Khan erupted, pushing FB interaction with posts mentioning the WP Sengkang team even higher. We’ve seen with the Ivan Lim incident that sky-high social media mentions is not always a good thing.
But the Raeesah Khan incident turned out to be qualitatively different in nature, with many netizens and commentators coming out in strong support of her and the WP, further reinforcing the team’s prominence on social media. In contrast, the Ivan Lim incident was notable for the very small number of people who came forward to defend the former PAP candidate, who dropped out of GE 2020 amid a fierce online backlash.
Throughout the campaign period (June 30 to July 8), the WP Sengkang team averaged 32,744 FB interactions per day, while the PAP team only managed 4,205 FB interactions daily — a nearly eight-fold gap. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong could not help raise the PAP Sengkang team’s social media profile by much when he campaigned online with them on July 4.
On Election Night, the WP scored a historic win in Sengkang, becoming the first Opposition party to win control of two GRCs. As official results confirmed WP’s win in Sengkang — 52.13% versus 47.87% for the PAP — cheers rang out off and online in the early hours of July 11.
5. ELECTION DAY MOOD METERS
As results came in on Election Night, a mood meter of reactions on FB further confirms the signals we’ve seen in Sengkang and with regards to the “enthusiasm gap” between the competing messages from the parties.
The chart below is based on 390 FB posts between 11pm on July 10 and 5am on July 11 from the seven media outlets in our sample. The biggest spikes in FB-style celebration, with users choosing the “Love” emoticon, took place around the times when WP’s victories in Hougang, Aljunied and Sengkang were announced and later confirmed.
Another way to look at the public reaction: Of the 10 Election Night FB posts that had the highest total interactions, nine were related to WP’s victories:
Earlier in the day on July 10, as hundreds of thousands of people went to the polls, some had wondered whether an unexpected string of problems at the voting stations would affect how Singaporeans voted. The problems ranged from inordinately long queues at some stations, to an unprecedented decision by the Elections Department (ELD) to extend voting hours.
Looking at the FB mood meter for the voting hours of 8am to 10pm, there were indeed clear expressions of voter frustration and anger, as the chart below shows. But without more data, we’ll be taking a huge leap to say that voters changed their minds as a result of this. In any case, the magnitude of the emotive reactions on the FB posts in my sample appears to be low (low thousands).
The FB analytics seen here is only a limited proxy for the broader public conversations taking place in multiple platforms and “dark social” channels like WhatsApp and Telegram, where user metrics are far more elusive.
These platforms can also be manipulated and exploited for political and financial gains. A healthy skepticism of the sound and fury on social/online platforms would indeed serve Singapore well, whether during election time or not.
But as we’ve seen in GE 2020, there are times when social media data contain important signals that political parties ignore at their own peril.
For one, the rapidly declining levels of public interaction with Covid-19 news should have raised serious questions about whether there would be a “flight to safety” effect in this year’s election. Likewise, the gulf in social media reception towards the WP and PAP teams contesting in Sengkang GRC should have alerted us to the prospects of a major election upset in the making.
The trick, of course, is in discerning the signal from the noise. That, unfortunately, is a skill that the political parties here can only gain from more practice.
Over the last three GEs, the media and political parties in Singapore have gotten noticeably better at producing content for social media, as well as leveraging the platforms’ network effects to reach a wider audience.
But they appear to have a limited ability to analyse the impact and efficacy of the torrent of content they are creating directly or indirectly. That’s a major blindspot — and competitive disadvantage — that would prove increasingly costly as more digital natives become old enough to vote.
While there is no telling which social media platform will be dominant by the time GE 2024/2025 rolls around, it is a safe bet that that an ever bigger chunk of the public conversation will move online by then.
Winning people over will require more than just the ability to pick the right candidates or craft viral campaign messages. Success will increasingly go to the team that can also accurately interpret and react to the tsunami of online/social media data.
7. BONUS SECTION: THE MEDIA BATTLE AND THE YOUTH AUDIENCE
Big events like GE 2020 can shape readership habits in a big way, and I was curious about how the key local media outlets performed in this election. The chart below is based on around 3,000 GE-related FB posts by the seven media outlets between June 23 and July 11.
The shake-up in the media status-quo, as show in the chart below, is a shot across the bow for the legacy media outlets:
While CNA dominated on big news days like Nomination and Polling/Results Day, millennial-focused news site Mothership.sg had a higher combined total for FB interactions throughout the entire GE period. This is remarkable, given that CNA has 6.5 times the “fan base” of Mothership.sg on FB.
Mothership’s “news-as-entertainment” formula is made for this moment. But they’ve also been really good at exploiting the areas where the legacy media outlets won’t or can’t go, such as the viral videos of Dr Jamus Lim’s debate performance. So if you are wondering where the youth readership has gone, this is one major clue.
For years, Singapore’s news media companies have worried about the lack of a millennial-facing product and wondered what sort of threat Mothership.sg would pose to their readership one day. Now they know.
To be sure, FB metrics don’t tell the whole story about news readership. Legacy news outlets derive a lot of their traffic from their own news apps, so FB is far from the only consequential front in this battle for eyeballs. The outlets with a print product and/or paywall can still rely on subscribers for a chunk of readership and revenue.
But there is a clear shift in readership patterns and preferences that newsroom managers can no longer ignore. The conventional wisdom that Singaporeans will turn to legacy news outlets for coverage of major local events is no longer true. Failure to respond to this new “market reality” could have painful financial consequences for some of these legacy news outlets.
See you in GE 2024/25!