Exploring the Emancipatory Potential of Social Media on the Political Narrative in Singapore

Abstract

It verges on tautology to point out that social media has had a profound impact on how people relate to one another, embark on social campaigns, and participate in the political process. As the social media networks du jour, Facebook and Twitter have been widely studied by various political analysts and scholars since the turn of the previous decade. Yet, current literature argues that the inherent qualities of social media are what makes it beneficial (or inimical) to collective action, which is a facile line of reasoning. I offer another approach to this analysis by taking the spotlight off the technology itself, and placing the focus on external factors instead.

This paper presents its findings as follows. First, we listen in on the existing conversation between 2 diametrically opposite camps – Clay Shirky and the techno-optimists against Malcolm Gladwell and the techno-skeptics. With this contextual knowledge, we see how the Singapore version of the Occupy movement, Occupy Raffles Place, failed and offer three main reasons why it did – the lack of a physical public sphere in Singapore, a paucity of emotion and purpose in such campaigns, as well as the people’s attitudes towards them. Such factors have not been discussed before in the current conversation.

 

Keywords

Occupy Raffles Place, political activism, slacktivism, choreography of assembly, physical space, cultural narrative

Introduction

The Occupy movement was initiated by a group of activists as a peaceful demonstration to protest against growing inequity, corporate greed and industry influence over democracy. The protest first started in early September 2011 and spread worldwide in over 82 countries, with Occupy Wall Street held in Zuccotti Park being the most prominent. While there is much disagreement over whether these protests have resulted in actual change, it is evident that social media played an instrumental role in their success.

Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, the Singapore version of the movement called “Occupy Raffles Place” was to be held on October 15, 2011. However, despite having garnered thousands of supporters on its Facebook page and gaining widespread attention throughout the island in both new and traditional media channels, Occupy Raffles Place was a failure, with only reporters and plainclothes policemen turning up. Why did Occupy Wall Street succeed where Occupy Raffles Place failed? Could it be the inherent qualities of social media (ie. slacktivism) rearing its ugly head or something beyond that line of reasoning?

Existing Perspectives: Shirky vs Gladwell

The celebration of the social media revolution counts Clay Shirky as one of its more prominent supporters. He argues that social media is a game changer in political activism, primarily because such tools “spread not just media consumption but media production as well” (Shirky, “The Political Power of Social Media” 6). He further affirms that “as more people adopt simple social tools, and as those tools allow increasingly rapid communication, the speed of group actions also increases” (Shirky, “Here Comes Everybody” 161). With lower barriers to entry in political activism, impediments to the collective action problem are removed. This collective action problem arises because each rational person in society will choose an option that is more beneficial to oneself, instead of the other option which is less beneficial to oneself, but is more utilitarian to society as a whole. Such a problem is ameliorated because it is now much easier to create a blog sharing one’s political opinions or talk about an issue. Similarly, it is a cinch to form groups and galvanize together people with similar interests or opinions on a particular issue. Shirky also asserts that “as the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action” (Shirky, “The Political Power of Social Media” 161). With this, he means that more information is equated to more possibilities for collective action. This optimistic view is also shared by Paul Mason in his rhetorical question about the effects of modern day activism: “Why should a revolution in knowledge and technology not be producing an equally dramatic – albeit diametrically opposite – change in human behavior?” (Mason 147).

Of course, not all scholars agree with Shirky’s optimistic vision of social media’s impact on the way political activism is executed. Notable skeptics include Malcolm Gladwell who downplays the importance of social media in effecting socio-political change. In his now-famous piece in The New Yorker, he argues that social media does not foster strong ties which are a necessary precursor to high risk, meaningful political activism. Strong ties are formed when those involved in a particular political movement are close friends and thus each have more at stake in the movement. Social media tools such as Facebook are built around weak ties and creates weak ties which are insufficient in political activism (Gladwell 45). Secondly, Gladwell also notes that increasing prevalence of a phenomenon called ‘slacktivism’. This arises because social media, while increasing the level of participation in a particular activity, has also simultaneously reduced the amount of motivation which is required of its participants (46-47). Put simply, the increase in number of people who seem politically active are made up mostly of people who do not have the same amount of dedication to the cause as people who joined the cause in the pre-social media age. This is a regression in political activism caused by social media. Gladwell sums up this concern when he says that “we seem to have forgotten what activism is” (44). Hence, Gladwell concludes that new media is only useful in low-risk activism. This pessimistic view of social media is also shared by Evgeny Morozov, a known researcher into the political and social implications of technology. He notes that the Internet and social media can be easily and tightly controlled and censored by the state and is thus impotent as a tool for the political activist. Also, more often than not, it is used mainly for entertainment purposes (Morozov xii). Simply put, in the oft-quoted Twitter Revolution in Tunisia, Twitter is a tourist – a passive onlooker rather than an active participant.

Having heard from both sides in this current conversation between the techno-optimists and the techno-pessimists, it is apt that we now explore these dichotomous perspectives in the context of Occupy Raffles Place in Singapore to determine which is more relevant in explaining why social media has failed to make the movement succeed.

Framing the Singapore Case Study

One would think that as one of the most networked countries in the world, Singapore would have greater online activity in the case of online activism. Indeed, Shirky’s views have a modicum of validity in the Singapore paradigm case. It has become easier to mobilize people, both for social and political causes. However, we can see that virtual support for a cause does not necessarily translate to on-the-ground support. For example, the Occupy Raffles Place Facebook page had 3000 supporters and 75 people who indicated they would turn up for the physical protest at the Raffles Place subway station. In this respect, Shirky is correct in saying that social media has enabled the organizers to reach a wider group of people at no cost at all. Compare this to what would have been done had there be no social media: organizers would rely on word of mouth, expensive phone calls and text messages. Even then, there would be no way to gauge the level of interest of the people contacted. Yet, on the day of the demonstration, not even the organizers showed up. This counter-argument to Shirky’s assertion shows that while there is “an enhanced ability to undertake collective action” (Shirky, “The Political Power of Social Media” 2), that collective action merely exists in the virtual space and more has to be done to bring it to the physical space.

While Gladwell’s argument about weak ties and ‘slacktivism’ apply more to Occupy Raffles Place, it still does not fully explain why the latter failed. If Gladwell were to explain why Occupy Raffles Place failed, he would say that the weak ties formed between the supporters of the Facebook group was insufficient impetus for them to undertake high-risk political demonstrations. Though valid, this does not explain why Occupy Wall Street succeeded since its supporters were also garnered through social media. As we see in the next section, there is more to collective action and weak ties that makes of breaks an activist movement such as Occupy Raffles Place.

The Missing Links: Emotion, Culture & Identity

Up to this point in my paper, we have looked into how the inherent qualities of social media make it beneficial (or inimical) to collective action. In my abstract, I note that this is a facile line of reasoning. This section is dedicated to seeing how the current debate may have profited from exploring the concepts of physical and emotional identity in successful political activism, collectively known as a “choreography of assembly” (Gerbaudo 12).

According to Gerbaudo, the importance of physical space is understated. While Twitter and other social media platforms admittedly have a crucial part to play in mobilizing people, activist movements become truly impactful when they move from the virtual cyberspace to a physical space. He cites examples of Tahrir Square in the Egypt protests as well as Zuccotti Park in the Occupy Wall Street protests, both of which serve as a rallying point for supporters. He reasons that the importance of physical space is because “It was as though the indignation which had been geographically dispersed and held together only symbolically on the web was now being physically ‘harvested’, stored in one place and given not only a collective name but also a physical center, an anchoring point in public space” (Gerbaudo 95). To further make his point, Gerbaudo furnishes more proof that throughout history, such public spaces form a collective identity in the masses that turn up – the Storming of the Bastille in 1789 French Revolution and the Winter Palace in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

In light of this, we can see that the choice of Raffles Place in the Occupy Raffles Place protests is a poor one. Unlike Zuccotti Park which had a significant previous name of Liberty Plaza Park, there is little significance to Raffles Place, other than it being a small part of Singapore’s Central Business District. A better choice of venue would be City Hall where Singapore’s independence was announced and where the first government was sworn in. Moreover, the open space of the Padang in front it would allow organizers to manage the crowd better. In sum, the lack of a significant physical space in the local Occupy movement means that supporters are less able to emotionally identify with the movement, leading to its failure. The success of the movement hinges of whether the chosen place is culturally meaningful and significant to the participants.

Secondly, social media obscures the intensity of emotion and significance of identity in successful campaigns. The establishment of such a cultural narrative, which is integral in modern activist movements, “requires the construction of common collective identifications among participants, without which such practical information would fall on deaf ears” (Gerbaudo 41). Indeed, when we take a look at revolutionary movements around the world, each has a slogan which resonates with the participants. For Egypt, it was “One Hand” and for Occupy, it was “The 99%” – a hyperbolic allusion to the majority of people who were affected by the economic crisis. Furthermore, I posit that social media can be used to forge a collective emotional tie between all people. After all, what differentiates a Facebook post from a text message? For the former, we can see the number of people who liked or commented on a post, and to this end, creating an interactive and intimate conversation between like-minded supporters. Contrast this to a passive receipt of a identity-less text message exhorting one to take part in a protest. It is undeniable that in the former case, one would feel more compelled to take part in activist movements.

It is this paucity of emotion that is evident in the Occupy Raffles Place protests and thus, leading to disunity between its participants. As mentioned in passing earlier, the Occupy Wall Street protests had its slogan of “The 99%” which served as an “emotional rallying point” (Gerbaudo 104) for protesters. The Occupy Raffles Place used the same slogan, perhaps without much thought as to its relevance in the Singapore context. Unlike in Singapore, both unemployment and income inequality in America has reached unprecedented levels. At the same time, corporate profits are at a record high. The 99% in this case was not just another convenient number plucked out of thin air, but represent the majority of working class people disenchanted by such problems. Furthermore, there is a distinct poor use of social media in the Singapore context. It is noteworthy to know that Occupy Wall Street was not a success from the get go – out of the 70,000 supporters online, only 300 turned up on September 17, the day of the event. It was only through “after a messy and slow process of ground-level organizing and a redefinition of its identity as a popular (rather than countercultural) movement representing the ‘99%’” (Gerbaudo 102) that the movement soon gained traction and popularity. Indeed, what is lacking in the Singapore context is the absence of the use of social media to “invoke a sense of solidarity between ‘physical occupiers’ and ‘internet occupiers’” (Gerbaudo 103). Both the Facebook page and the proposed occupation at Raffles Place existed independently of each other. In sum, the lack of an emotional identity within the constituencies in the local Occupy movement contributed to its failure.

Finally, I take a look at how deeply entrenched attitudes in Singaporeans lead to the failure of the Occupy Raffles Place movement. Reiterating the two points I made earlier, the populace is generally contented with the effectiveness of the government, as the latter has provided a high standard of living, low corruption and low unemployment rates. Thus, the typical Singaporean is politically apathetic and are hence highly unlikely to feel compelled to take part in the Occupy protest movement. Next, the existence of draconian statutes such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) serves as an effective deterrent against would-be protesters. Since the supporters of said movement is formed by weak ties, as Gladwell would attest to, they would not risk incarceration at the expense of proving a point. Contrast this to the American political sphere, which is far more active and vibrant than Singapore’s. It is not surprising, then, to see the failure of Occupy Raffles Place.

To sum up, this section presented three points that add value to the current conversation – the lack of a physical manifestation of a public space, the lack of emotional connection within the participants, as well as the politically apathetic Singapore psyche. Together with the techno-dystopian views Gladwell and Morozov that is clearly applicable in the Singapore context, they have contributed to the understanding on why the Occupy movement in Singapore has failed.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the current conversation about the impact of social media on the political narrative that is most prominently argued for and against by Shirky and Gladwell respectively does not fully explain why Occupy Raffles Place failed where Occupy Wall Street failed. In this paper, we have seen that there are more factors that determine its success – the importance of a physical location to which organizers can translate the virtual space into, the role of an emotional and cultural identity in the protest, as well as the psyche of the supporters taking part in the protest. Moving forward, it is evident that social media has an emancipatory potential in the political narrative. However, organizers will be well advised to take heed of the aforementioned points to ensure the success of their political activist campaigns.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Gerbaudo, Paolo. Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London: Pluto Press, 2012.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 4 October 2010. Web. 23 March 2012.

Mason, Paul. Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. London: Verso, 2013. Print.

Morozov, Evgeny. “The Internet: A Room of Our Own?” Dissent 56.3 (2009): 80-85. Web. 21 June 2013.

Morozov, Evgeny. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York: Public Affairs, 2012. Print.

Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin Press, 2008. Print.

Shirky, Clay. “The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change.” Foreign Affairs. The Council on Foreign Relations. Jan/Feb. 2011. Web. 6 Aug. 2011.

 

 


Acknowledgments

The author wants to express his sincerest thanks to Professor Ferris for the excellent assistance rendered in the proof-reading of this paper. Additionally, I am grateful to Grace Lynch and Mariana Robelo for providing comments on the initial draft of this paper.

Feedback Report

 

  1. What feedback did you receive from your peer that you feel most helped you improve your paper? Why was it helpful? Did the feedback suggest the need for local changes or global ones?

My peers were mainly quite impressed with the paper and the presentation because of the unique Singaporean perspective it offers. Most of the feedback I received were about clarifications about the topic. The feedback necessitated local and stylistic changes.

  1. Describe the changes you made in response to this feedback.

Ignoring the section of my draft where I applied the current class readings to the Singapore paradigm case, I mainly made local changes such as misplaced periods, and minor re-organization.

  1. What feedback did you receive from your instructor that you thought it was most important that you address? Did the feedback indicate the need for local changes or global ones?

I think the most important feedback I received was the length of my paper. It was “too long” for this class. Also, some of the words used were hyperbolic and thus affected my credibility as a writer. This necessitated global changes as I sought to shorten the length of my paper.

  1. Describe the changes you made in response to this feedback.

I chopped off the first and last sections of the paper, wrote an incisive introduction, applied the course readings to the Singapore paradigm case and ended the paper with a gap for future inquiry. I also considered the comments I garnered during the peer presentation to see how I could rephrase certain aspects properly during this revision.

  1. What feedback did you receive (from your peer or your instructor) that you decided not to incorporate into your revision? Why did you use the feedback?

I incorporated most of the feedback I received for this Contribution paper. Also, while I did ponder over feedback regarding the flow and structure of my essay, I made few revisions to my writing unless its lexical structure makes understanding confusing or awkward. Furthermore, this allows me to maintain my ‘voice’ and style of writing. To this end, I hope I have done a decent job.

  1. For each academic source that you used, explain how you found it and how you made decisions about whether or not it was a credible source.

I looked up the keywords “social media Arab Spring” on the CMU Libraries search engine and reserved two interesting books about my area of interest. Both books were located in other universities, so I had to wait for the books to be transferred here. In the meantime, I also looked up Google and Google Scholar to see if there are any interesting articles. Many of the articles I wanted were not accessible as CMU does not have access to the Media, Culture & Society academic journal.

To determine if it is a credible source, I analyze its type (academic journal vs. blog), how recent it was published, the author’s background, number of citations and objectivity of the writing. Even then, I only include the source if it adds value to the paper I am writing.

 

  1. As per the rubric item, how do you think that you demonstrated intellectual risk-taking in your paper?

For my Contribution paper, I wanted to be adventurous and try something different, but I reckon it failed spectacularly. I wanted to challenge myself to write a paper that can hold its own weight among published papers, in terms of its editorial quality as well as the value it adds to the current pool of literature.

I also wanted to write a paper that is closer to home that is Singapore. Having heard about the failure of the Occupy Raffles Place movement two years ago, I sought to find out why that movement failed. However, there is a dearth of such literature, with the only ones written from satirical political bloggers with questionable partisanship. Thus, I wanted to lend an analytical perspective on its failure.