What Singapore’s “woke” General Election means for news media

Illustration by Alisa Gao

By Sherlyn Sim

The influences of the coronavirus pandemic and first-time Generation Z voters together helped make Singapore’s July 2020 general election campaign season the most digital so far. An examination of young voters’ consumption of election news—and how news media adapted to it—suggest that live streams, viral memes, and fake news are on their way to becoming a staple of politics and political reporting.

“This has been what we term the ‘digital election’ as votes could have been won and lost on social media,” said Augustine Pang, professor of communication management at Singapore Management University. 

Generation Z are those Singaporeans born in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Its vanguard, age 24 to 21, voted for the first time in a general election. As they represented an estimated 10% of the voting population, these digital natives had a large impact on the two-week campaign season. 

“Traditional newspapers or mainstream media are still relevant in setting records of what has happened and who has said what,” said Pang. “However, in terms of understanding news, young people around the world are turning to alternative forms of media like TikTok and Facebook, …which can be presented to them in attractive ways and in a language they appreciate.” Pang added that Gen Zs flock to social media for news as it enables them to absorb information in an engaging and snapshot manner.

Chan Jun Hong, a 23-year-old rising senior at Yale-NUS College, shared his news consumption habits: “I browse various websites for an hour or so daily, …share interesting articles on Facebook with short excerpts and comments written by me, …[and] I also follow interesting people on Facebook and source for fringe political news from their shared posts.”

Alternative news website Mothership edged out top mainstream broadcaster Channel News Asia as the media outlet with the highest total Facebook interactions for election-related posts during the election period, according to a tweet by Chua Chin Hon, chief data analyst at AnalytixLabs. 

That an alternative news site was more popular online than a large, traditional media company didn’t surprise Julian Wong, managing editor and co-founder of alternative Rice Media, who said Rice reached slightly more than two million people via Facebook during its month of general election coverage. Wong attributed the site’s popularity to the lack of a political agenda.

“It was mainly how we connected on the ideological front—we discussed a lot of ideas that connected well with our demographic, that either echoed what they thought or helped them to think more critically about certain issues,” said Wong. He  listed in particular the videos Rice posted in which older generation Singaporeans were interviewed on the general election and a series of editorials in which the publication looked at what mattered to different types of Singaporeans and questioned whether our assumptions about these voters were true. “We are neither pro- nor anti-establishment and are also a lot more moderate than many platforms. I think our relative success this GE is reflective of a growing desire for more objective and unbiased coverage,” he said. 

Although it is Singapore’s dominant print media, The Straits Times (ST) adapted and responded to the demand that readers wanted fresh ways to consume news online. Sam Jo Yeo, the organization’s multimedia correspondent, said that the ST engaged its election-news consumers with multimedia package videos, live blogs, and livestreams on its social media sites Facebook and YouTube.

“The unspoken motto this time round in our newsroom was to bring the election to people,” said Yeo. “We did quite a few live videos with parties doing walkabouts, where we asked them questions and got in on the action. It was very raw, current and on the pulse. I think some viewers appreciated that it was all unfiltered live-action and not curated in that sense.”

Media were not alone in their digital efforts to capture the attention of the Gen Zs. Tan Cheng Bock, veteran politician and chief of Progress Singapore Party, shot to Instagram stardom in July for using millennial lingo, such as “woke” and “hypebeast,” as well as heart-shaped finger gestures originated by South Korean entertainment stars. According to his Instagram account, he had 67,000 followers in July, up from 10,000 at the end of June, according to Yahoo.

“It is a smart strategy for any political leader to use social media where young people communicate,” said Augustine Pang. “It is not easy for an 80-year-old to take on these new tools and speak this new language. He was willing to embrace such technologies,” he added.

But the speed and decentered sourcing of digital media makes it vulnerable to misinformation campaigns, political trolls, and so-called fake news. 

Natalie Pang, a senior lecturer in the communications and new media department at the National University of Singapore, studied the role of the internet in Singapore general elections since 2011 and noticed a disturbing trend. “When voters base their discussions on these falsehoods, it’s hard to unwind and realise the conclusions they have come to are based on inaccuracy.”

A prominent case of a false rumor was that the newly introduced self-inking pens would not stamp properly on polling cards and thus render votes invalid. This went so viral that the Elections Department had to release a statement debunking misinformation online.

“Falsehoods are like a disease,” said Natalie Pang. “When people see that this rumour is false, the next time they read something circulating online about the voting process, they may start thinking ‘is that false as well?’ There isn’t as much transparency as we hope about how tech platforms are working on disinformation campaigns.”

Although Natalie Pang agreed that Gen Z consumed news via digital channels in the recent election, she said that this did not undermine the significance of mainstream media, which, she said, still remains the gold standard of political news.

“The role of journalism actually becomes more important because we are so overwhelmed and overloaded with information.”