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HomesingaporepoliticsPresidential election: How social media and podcasts have helped candidates win hearts...

Presidential election: How social media and podcasts have helped candidates win hearts and minds

SINGAPORE – On National Day, a disc jockey, a pair of recovering drug addicts and other online personalities gathered for lunch with a 75-year-old former chief investment officer.

Later that month, 16 young creatives were given free rein to ask a former senior minister anything at a gin distillery, while two comedians spent more than an hour discussing a wide range of issues with the former chief executive of one of the largest insurance companies here.

Although they came from diverse professional backgrounds, all of them had one thing in common – each helped to beef up the social media footprint of the three candidates running for president.

As Singapore prepares to go to the polls on Friday, observers have highlighted the sizeable role that social media, influencers and podcast shows have played in the campaigns run by Mr Ng Kok Song, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Mr Tan Kin Lian thus far.

Even before the hustings officially began last Tuesday, the three candidates had tapped a variety of online media to spread their message and get personal with voters.

For instance, less than a year ago, Mr Tharman was the only elected MP in Singapore without a presence on Instagram.

However, soon after he resigned from the ruling People’s Action Party and his position in Government as senior minister to run for president, he started to actively post not just on Instagram, where he has more than 40,000 followers, but also on TikTok, where he has more than 14,000 followers.

Dr Carol Soon, principal research fellow and head of the society and culture department at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), said surveys she has conducted show that social media platforms are the main sources of information for Singaporeans.

“In today’s communication milieu, it is unfathomable for any candidate not to use social media extensively in their campaigning,” she added.

Dr Tracy Loh, a senior lecturer at the Singapore Management University (SMU) who specialises in social media campaign strategies, said platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok serve as an equaliser for candidates who may not have the resources to mount a large-scale physical campaign.

The Elections Department had earlier encouraged candidates to use social media and broadcasts to reach out to voters, and discouraged in-person rallies.

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So far, Mr Tharman has held what his team have called an “election meeting with registered guests from the public” at Pasir Panjang Power Station. He gave a speech and answered questions submitted by the guests.

Mr Tan said he wanted to organise a physical rally, but issues with costs and approvals mean he plans to do one online on Wednesday instead.

Dr Loh said: “Every political party or every candidate going forward cannot ignore social media… With a fraction of the budget, you can reach out to a large crowd.”

She said social media allows voters to see a more human side of the candidates, and all three have used the medium effectively to craft their respective personas.

Social media has also allowed the candidates to mobilise support, Dr Loh added, noting how Mr Tan used his online platforms to raise funds for his campaign.

For Mr Ng, part of his reach on Instagram and Facebook, which are both owned by Meta, comes from paid advertisements.

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A check of Meta’s ad library on Saturday showed that Mr Ng has, since July 23, paid for more than 360 ads on Facebook and Instagram through advertising companies ACCSS Digital and ACCSS Asia.

As at last Wednesday, Mr Ng had spent about $49,700 on these ads, according to Meta’s tracker.

Mr Tharman has not run any ads on Meta platforms, while Mr Tan ran one ad on Facebook in July.

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The ad was removed after a day, as it did not include a verified disclaimer showing who had paid for it – a requirement for ads on Meta that are about social issues, elections or politics.

Mr Ng said previously that his strategy hinges on social media, and he has no plans to put up physical posters and banners – a common outreach approach used in past elections.

In Dr Loh’s view, spending money on social media advertising was a good move by Mr Ng.

“His account was started late, and he didn’t have a following, so he needed to build that up,” she said.

Influencers and podcasts

While the 2023 presidential race is not the first time social media has featured heavily in electioneering here, the extensive use of influencers and podcast shows by candidates this time around has added a fresh dimension to the contest.

In interviews earlier in the week, Mr Tan had urged voters to listen to the four podcasts he recorded.

“I think (the podcasts) have done an excellent job to convey honestly without unfair censorship what I say,” Mr Tan said.

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Mr Tharman and Mr Ng have also appeared on their fair share of podcast shows after announcing their bids for the presidency.

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, said the youth vote is a “kingmaker” in the presidential election, so it is not surprising that the candidates have been involved in podcasts hosted by young people for the youth in Singapore.

Podcaster Joel Lim, 30, who has had all three candidates appear on his show Political Prude, said he realised many of his peers were rather clueless about the role of the president and did not know much about the candidates.

“Recognising that gap, I felt that the podcast would be able to provide a convenient and accessible platform for all of us to learn more about the election,” he said.

“Having in-depth discussions with each one of the presidential hopefuls allows us young voters to get to know them better, whether it is their leadership philosophies, key areas of focus, credentials, or even just their personal outlooks.

“I joke with my friends and say that it is similar to speed dating; you hear each one out and see who best aligns with your values and criteria,” he added.

Observers also noted how candidates such as Mr Tharman and Mr Ng have been actively engaging influencers to boost their relatability, especially among the younger crowd.

As part of his appearance on Political Prude, Mr Tharman shared a Spotify playlist that included songs from crowd-pleasing artists such as Bon Jovi, P. Ramlee and Jay Chou. It showcased his culturally attuned side and gave a nod to his student activist past, with a tune from the late Chilean singer-songwriter and political activist Victor Jara.

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SMU’s Dr Loh said engaging with influencers allows the candidates to tap into a wider base that they may not have been able to access otherwise.

She gave the example of how Mr Tharman had appeared at several physical events with content creators and creative agencies such as SGAG.

“The influencers at these events would definitely share it on their pages, and that translates to what is more or less free publicity,” Dr Loh added.

Posting content on their own social media pages also gives candidates a certain amount of control over how they are portrayed online.

However, Dr Soon of IPS warned candidates that it would be a mistake for them to discount the influence of their social media campaigning on older people.

“People who are in their middle age and senior years are also increasingly turning to Instagram and TikTok for entertainment and news,” she said.

“It would be a faux pas on the part of any candidate to craft messages that tailor only to the young.”

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Different strokes for different folks

While all three candidates have tried to be as active on social media as possible, observers noted that they each have their own unique strategies.

Dr Soon said Mr Tharman has always been seen as a policy wonk, and his recent social media posts have been a “softer sell” of himself.

She said his campaign so far has highlighted a more personal side, particularly his unconventional path growing up and his close partnership with his wife, Ms Jane Ittogi.

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Dr Soon said Mr Ng has tried to use social media influencers to convey his relatability and likeability among young people.

“By dispensing advice on various topics, ranging from staying healthy to making sound investments, he is also conveying the message that he understands topics of pressing concerns to different profiles of voters,” she added.

Dr Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said Mr Ng has also been trying to grow his grassroots appeal.

SMU law don Eugene Tan said: “As Mr Ng is relatively unknown, his online reach appears to be successful, judging by the statistics.”

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However, Associate Professor Tan also noted that appeal on social media takes more than just high page views and likes.

For Mr Tan, Dr Chong said the 75-year-old has been trying to highlight his differences with the sitting administration and his willingness to be vocal on these differing positions.

Dr Loh said Mr Tan’s approach seems to be more maverick and shooting from the hip.

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“If you look at his posts compared with the other two, it is more as if he is talking directly to the audience,” she added, noting that Mr Tan is the only candidate who live-streams on Facebook.

On the other hand, some voters may think this approach is unprofessional and lacks polish, she said.

For example, she pointed to times during Mr Tan’s live streams when the camera angle was not so flattering, and moments when Mr Tan left the room and his audience had to watch an empty chair for several minutes.

Dr Loh also noted that while Mr Tan’s social media posts can be text-heavy, Mr Tharman and Mr Ng have mainly used videos, especially shorter clips that work well for TikTok and Instagram.

She added that Mr Tharman and Mr Ng’s approaches are more professionally crafted, but the downside is that their posts may appear to be too curated.

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Traditional campaign strategies still key

Despite the outsized role that social media has played in the presidential campaign as it reaches its halfway mark, observers said there is still a place for more conventional outreach methods.

Mr Tharman, for instance, is still relying on traditional methods of campaigning, even as he tries to enhance his online presence, said SMU’s Prof Tan.

“A seasoned campaigner, he may well be persuaded that the best outreach is walking the ground… and to have voters campaign for him through persuading their friends and families to vote for him,” he added.

Dr Mustafa pointed out that the limited campaigning period of nine days means that the tried-and-tested methods of hanging banners and posters, as well as walkabouts, continue to be effective.

“Without downplaying the influence of social media, the presidential election will not be won on the Internet, but rather on the ground,” he said.

He added: “Strategically engaging different segments of the population out of the public eye and away from the media spotlight is also an effective method of garnering the support of the electorate.”

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