Sunday 23 December 2012

Online voices = vox populi?

Social media is a force to be reckoned with, but its users may not represent the voice of the majority
By Leslie Koh, The Straits Times, 22 Dec 2012

IT IS time for the silent majority to speak up.

For too long, a small but vocal group has appeared to dominate public debate in Singapore, making its judgments so strongly that it often shapes public opinion as fast as the public can form one.

Its members are quick to comment on significant events and often, they do reflect the sentiments held by at least some quarters of the populace.

But there are times when this group makes bold declarations that may not sit well with the majority. Or when it compels organisations and companies to pre-empt their judgments, or to respond to situations faster than they might prefer.

There are also times when it is quite intolerant of criticism and differences in opinion, occasionally responding with a vindictiveness that is akin to bullying.

All of which might be somewhat acceptable, if social media truly represents the majority of Singapore society. Then its views, no matter how extreme or biased, should be taken more seriously.

Looking back at some examples of the impact of social media over the past year or so, however, that is clearly not the case.

When NTUC employee Amy Cheong spouted racist remarks on a posting, for example, the online furore that ensued was seen as a factor for her sacking. But the same netizens who demanded it later came under fire for overreacting and acting like a lynch mob.

Netizens were also quick to deride organisers of the visit of Prince William and Princess Kate for staging a "wayang" - forgetting, perhaps, that there were many other Singaporeans who really did not mind, and even took part in it.

The depth of Singaporeans' resentment against the presence of foreign workers here remains difficult to determine. In the wake of last month's strike by SMRT bus drivers, opinions on social media were decidedly mercurial - first an outpouring of anger against mainland Chinese, which quickly turned to sympathy. (Of course, the Government got the blame either way.)

To be sure, social media is a force to be reckoned with. The democratising power of social media in allowing everyone and anyone to speak on an equal basis has often been touted, and its voice should not be underestimated.

The question is, whose voice is it?

Almost every household in Singapore has access to a broadband connection, so theoretically almost every Singaporean can go online. But social media users - especially active ones - do not form the majority of the populace.

One in two Singaporeans is said to have a Facebook account, half of whom check it at least once a day. The number of Singaporeans who are active on political and social forums will likely be smaller - and the most strident voices, even fewer.

So, if social media does not always contain the views of the majority, then it could be said to be no more than just another voice in society - more independent than most, admittedly, but surely not vox populi.

And if this is the case, it begs several questions about the power of social media. Namely - is its impact and influence disproportional to its actual size? Are government and corporate organisations paying more attention to it than is justified?

Indeed, the fear of how the online world will respond has become a major factor when government officials and corporate leaders decide what to say or do. Where many had made the mistake of ignoring social media in the past, some now appear to be swinging in the opposite direction.

That is not to say social media should be dismissed in any way. The online world has proven its value to society, such as in exposing cases of individual or official wrongdoing or highlighting issues of public concern.

But it can also be worrying when social media speaks so loudly that its voice is taken to be that of the majority by decision makers, or when it succeeds in shaping public opinion even when it circulates myths along with facts.

That it sometimes succeeds, however, is something that its users alone should not bear the blame for.

If social media indeed wields a bigger influence and impact than it should, the responsibility also lies with the silent majority. It is this group, after all, that ultimately gives credence and credibility to the online world and expands its influence, by reading, believing and redistributing the information on their Facebook postings, in e-mail, in homes and in coffee shops.

Perhaps this majority cannot afford to be silent any more.

Somehow, some way, it might want to register its presence and sentiments a little more strongly, so that a relative minority of vocal netizens do not get to dictate what the public thinks.

As to how it can do this - well, that is a tougher question to answer.

For some, it could mean getting more active online themselves, so that there is a wider representation of voices on social media websites. For others, it could mean being more vocal in the real world.

The silent majority might also want to be more discerning and circumspect with social media, assessing reports and opinions circulating online as critically as it does with those in traditional media.

Perhaps then, social media will truly be a voice of the people.

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