Saturday, June 28, 2014

Social Media: The new political battleground for hearts and minds …

The on-going presidential election in Indonesia continues to reinforce the trend that social media is the new battleground for the hearts and minds of the electorate. Recent past elections in countries like Malaysia and Singapore have credited social media’s influence as a major factor in the outcome of the elections. Besides, US President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, few incumbent governments have been able to replicate Obama's success in this information domain.
 
It is safe to say that incumbent governments know the importance of social media and many are trying to establish their online presence. Unfortunately, there are three key challenges limiting their ability to win in the social media domain:
a.         Hierarchical vs Flat Decision Structure. An inherent characteristic of social media is that it is non-hierarchical. Everybody and anybody is able to effectively share their views and perspectives as and when it happens. This is a significant advantage to opposition candidates (and their supporters) as, unhindered by bureaucracy, they can aggressively and rapidly “push” their agendas on social media. By the time an official response is issued, opposition candidates would have gained first mover advantage and the government will now be fighting from a defensive position to correct electorate perceptions. And by constantly pushing new agendas, the opposition maintains the information initiative which ties-up government resources and keeps the government “cornered”.
b.         One vs Many. As social media is now ubiquitous, the “attacker” to “defender” ratio is overwhelmingly in favor of the opposition. Anybody with a view or grievance against the government can go to social media. Unlike main-stream media there is no editor to filter the relevant from the irrelevant or the genuine from the fake. In a country the size of Singapore, even if .1% of the 4 million electorate engages the government on social media, that will mean 4,000 people. The Singapore government, or no government for that matter, will not have the manpower or resources to wage and win this battle.
c.         Anonymity. The third and possibly the biggest challenge for incumbent government is that of online anonymity. Fake accounts can be easily created and, at the extreme, a single individual can have an infinite number of online identities. As such, without a system that ensures accountability online, it is easy for unscrupulous politicians to plan and execute campaigns of disinformation, rumors, untruths, myths and smears (DRUMS). While it is possible for the incumbent government to disprove these DRUMS or even identify the culprits, it will once again require considerable time and resources.

In short, the new political battleground for the hearts and minds of the electorate is clear to all. Unfortunately, the “terrain” on which it is fought favors the attacker (or opposition) and there is little that incumbent governments can do. The only way, in our opinion, is for incumbent governments to step-up efforts to educate the electorate on the dangers of social media so that they learn to filter the truths from the rhetoric and thus make an informed decision on who to cast their vote for.

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Note: We welcome comments about our views. However, as I believe in taking responsibility for ones views, anonymous comments and those assessed to be from fake accounts will not be approved for publication.

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