Impending crunch on New Media?

Donaldson Tan

A third wave of socio-political bloggers, the Straits Times reported on 7 October 2011

A third wave of socio-political bloggers emerges, the Straits Times reported on 7 October 2011

In Singapore, New Media is often framed as having an antagonistic relationship with the government. This goes back to as early as 2006 when the government first attempted to ban internet electioneering. The move failed miserably. Over a span of 5 years from then, the government’s shift towards a more hardline position could not be clearer. This is reflected in the evolving choice of language.

In May 2006, then new face MP Denis Phua of the People’s Action Party told the audience of GE2006 post-mortem panel discussion organised by the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) how shocked she was to learn how overwhelming the online sentiment is against the ruling party.

“I remember the days when I felt very bad as a Singaporean to be bashed by other countries. I felt they did not understand the full picture nor give us a chance and hear our side of the story. By the same token, I felt bad that PAP bashing becomes commonplace especially in cyberspace. When more than 80% (85%?) of what is in the internet traffic becomes so negative to the PAP, I know something has gone wrong. That is no longer a balanced perspective,” she told the audience at the post-mortem panel discussion.

Fast forward to September 2009, then Acting Minister for Information, Communication & the Arts Lui Tuck Yew reiterated the same position on New Media’s lack of balance at a lecture organised by the Singapore Press Club and the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore.

What was particularly instructive about the lecture was the Minister’s combative tone towards New Media. He stressed to the audience that the government’s preferred solution on New Media was for Mainstream Media to expand into the New Media, presenting information and news in appropriate packages for various platform.

He also added that Mainstream Media should not adopt practices from New Media. “Not their approach, not their practices, not their standards. Because this, in my view, would be subtraction by addition. Adding some of their practices, some of their approaches, actually detracts and subtracts from what you have painfully gained and built up over many, many years,” he said.

Today, the government’s hardline position couldn’t be more obvious. New media, according to the Ministry of Law (MINLAW), is now considered “harmful”. In an addendum to the 2011 Presidential Address last week, MINLAW noted that “the proliferation of New Media has brought about new challenges to the rule of law” and it will “review legislation to deal with harmful and unlawful online conduct”.

The Ministry of Information, Communications & the Arts (MICA) also raised concerns on lies and misinformation online. “Operating under a cloak of anonymity, some content creators also resort to lies and misinformation,” noted MICA in its addendum to the 2011 Presidential Address issued last week. As a gatekeeper for the community at large, MICA also stressed its role in safeguarding community values and public interests in the same addendum.

Structurally, New Media and Mainstream Media are organised differently. In New Media, sites cluster around communities of interest. In each cluster, the pattern of some highly visible nodes continues, but as the cluster become small enough, many more of the sites are moderately linked to each other in the cluster. Through this pattern, the network seems to be forming into an attention backbone. Local cluster can provide initiating, vetting and peer-review to individual contributors made within an interest cluster.

Observations that are seen as significant within a community of interest make their way to the relatively visible sites in that cluster, from whereby they become more visible in larger clusters. This continues until an observation makes its to a superstar site that attracts many eyeballs. The result is that attention in the networked environment is more dependent on being interesting to an engaged group of people than it it is in the mainstream media environment.

Because of the redundancy of clusters and links while many clusters are based on mutual interests, not on capital investment, it is more difficult to buy attention on the Internet than it is on mainstream media. These characteristics prevents the introduction of excessive power of any single party or a small cluster of them over other the entire New Media space, and without causing a resurgence in the role of money as a precondition to the ability to speak publicly.

The shift signals the end of light-touch approach towards New Media and the beginning of a whole-of-government approach towards New Media. The government’s posturing in the New Media space is already demonstrated by blogs and Facebook pages representing MPs, ministries and other public agencies. However, uncharted water still lies ahead for the government and players in the New Media space.