[The Angle] The value of diverse views in “political listening”

Sep 04, 2015 at 4:30 pm | Hits: 1935

By Valerie Yeo

Does size determine reach or influence in the blogosphere? Preliminary research from a study of the blogosphere by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and Singapore Management University’s Living Analytics Research Centre suggests not. This is due to the “political long tail” online, where blogs with infrequent updates or non-partisan opinions can suddenly become a significant political voice with just one viral post.
In June and July 2015, I assessed blogs with political content for different variables such as emotionality, objectivity and partisanship. These blogs exhibited a range of political sentiments — such as being positive or negative about political developments — and writing styles.

I also found that, like the offline space where the mainstream media dominates discussion of political issues, the blogosphere has dominant players. The big players include websites like The Online Citizen and Temasek Review Emeritus (TRE); they generate their own content, have a high readership or frequency of posts, and are mentioned regularly by the smaller players. Small players consist of blogs by individuals who are less active and garner lower readership. The small players also tend to respond to content produced by the big players or repost their articles. This dynamic runs contrary to the notion of an “open” Internet.

In “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996) by digital rights activist John Perry Barlow, which put forth a vision of a self-governing Internet, healthy conversation among netizens is encouraged. But in reality, while the Internet provides everyone with an opportunity to speak, some voices are more influential and impactful than others.

Thus, instead of an “equalisation” process where all players have access to the same platform, a “normalisation” of power play is evident. 
In examining the contribution of new media to electoral democracy, those who advocate the “equalisation” theory argue that the Internet levels the playing field for political parties as they can reach out to more voters with fewer physical resources. Those who believe in the “normalisation” theory however say that as bigger and stronger political parties already have the capability to use traditional or offline media, they would gradually duplicate their present dominance and pre-existing advantages on traditional media onto the web. Thus, parties who gain most from new media are those who are already powerful and politically active, while small players who are less influential offline, remain relatively less significant online.

In the Singapore context, big players in the blogosphere have a larger impact on online political discussion, but the websites of mainstream media continue to be influential sources of political news for people. For instance, 34.2% of the 1,092 respondents in an IPS survey of how people used traditional and new media during the 2011 General Election said that they went to the online sites of mainstream media to get political news. Only 12.8% went to alternative media sites. In that sense, the Singapore blogosphere so far would appear to conform to the “normalisation” school.

It will be interesting to assess in future surveys if things have changed. Several new big players in the blogosphere have emerged since 2011 and the number of small players now far surpasses that of big players in terms of sites.

The “Political Long Tail”

The increase in small players online has given rise to the “political long tail” comprising a non-exhaustive list of small players. In the US, Arnold Kling, adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, used “political long tail” to describe the wide variety of political beliefs that do not fit within the Democratic and Republican parties. President Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 tapped the long tail by appealing to the many and smaller supporters instead of polarised bigger donors.

In cyberspace, the blogs I studied “tail down” in terms of the wide variety of topics discussed and positions held. Compared to the bigger players, smaller players’ frequency of posts and impact are also lower, as reflected by the number of times they were cited by other sites. Such blogs consist of laments about day-to-day issues, and only comment on political issues from time to time. In some posts, small players make appeals to the online community to redress their grievances against the government or make their views known on policy issues. They get thrown into the limelight when mainstream media, by the big players online, picks them up or when shared widely through Facebook.

How should these online perspectives — even when they are airing grievances — be viewed? They are an attempt by netizens to raise awareness of their plight, to seek information or affirmation from others and to be part of a larger, multi-layered conversation about national issues.
Most of the time, such blogs are read only by their regular followers. But some can grow to have an impact on public and political opinion beyond their usual following.

For example, with transport being a hot-button issue for Singaporeans, many irate commuters took to the Internet to complain about the recent major train breakdown in July. When an SMRT staff member was unduly shouted at by commuters, the staff member’s daughter went on Facebook to explain that he had apologised “100 times” to inconvenienced commuters. She pointed out that staff members were doing their best and should not be blamed for the disruption. Her post was shared by bloggers and Facebook users who agreed that empathy for staff members was crucial, even as they continued to press SMRT and the government for better contingency planning.

The different viewpoints and perspectives expressed by the “political long tail” or small players are useful for political listening. Acknowledging that the cumulative effect of these sites exceeds their individual influence, the website Singapore Daily collates a list of these small players according to the themes and issues they cover. This canvassing of a diverse cross-section of the blogosphere offers readers a sense of the varying shades of political opinion and concerns on the ground. 
In the offline realm, one’s influence in political discourse depends on the person’s position in the political system or in the mass media. The power dynamics of cyberspace are less influenced by such status positions, as even a single post can become influential if it gains traction among other users.

As the General Election looms, it is worthwhile noting that the different voices online — from the influential blogs and mainstream media outlets online to smaller players — are useful platforms to disseminate information and address political grievances. While a normalisation of power dynamics offline and online was observed for the 2011 election, the coming General Election may see an equalisation of big and small players due to the prominence of the “long tail”. What this also means for Singapore’s future is that more people can be involved in, and influence, productive and inclusive discourse on political issues.

 

Valerie Yeo is a fourth-year History student at the National University of Singapore. She recently completed an internship at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Category: Arts, Culture and Media, The Angle

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