Vox populi and the vocal online community

You can't handle the truthThis is a strange one from Mr Leslie Koh of The Straits Times (Online voices = vox populi?). But, you know, stranger things have been written in this newspaper. Perhaps it was a slow news day in the holiday season.

The only part that I do agree with Mr Koh is that social media does not represent the voice of the majority, nor do I believe it claims to be. As he rightly pointed out, the number of Singaporeans who are active on political and social forums is very, very small. I doubt even 10% of Singaporeans regularly visit websites such as The Online Citizen, TR Emeritus and other popular socio-political blogs. It may spike up on certain events, such as elections or a controversial issue, but at other times the majority are too busy with their lives or simply prefer to be reading something else online, such as entertainment or football news.

Therefore it is strange to assert that a small vocal group on social media is shaping public opinion. It may feel this way if you spend a lot of time reading these online stuff; you start sensing as if the whole country is talking about a particular topic. But the truth is that for most issues debated in cyberspace the majority of Singaporeans either don’t care or remain blissfully unaware, so their opinion can’t be shaped by what they haven’t read. When it comes to local socio-political issues, the influence of the online community is vastly overstated. This is a problem that active participants acknowledge, because if only more Singaporeans start to pay greater attention, they will begin to realise all the unpleasant troubles brewing beneath the glossy skyscraper surface.

As some have already pointed out, it is also a mistake to view netizens — a diverse community by nature — as one collective voice. The fact that those who clamoured for Amy Cheong to be sacked came under fire from other netizens for overreacting showed this diversity of opinion. It is, after all, not a political party where every member has to toe the line. Anyone who takes in these sentiments should be mature enough to realise that and form his own judgement. Even in newspapers, except perhaps the one Mr Koh works for, it is not uncommon for one columnist to take an entirely different position from another. And such differences in opinion, whether extreme, biased, conservative, pro-establishment or anti-establishment, enriches the quality of the debate. More importantly, there are no issues that can be kept silent on and no editors to censure the letters from the public. Thus I’m not sure how Mr Koh could use this as an example that social media cannot be taken seriously.

Most ironically, Mr Koh is calling for the silent majority to speak out, lest the influence of this vocal minority gets too big. Does he not realise that this vocal minority was precisely a part of the silent majority who has decided to speak out? And the very reason they are doing this is because the government-appointed voice of the nation that is The Straits Times has done a terrible job as vox populi. Now the battlegrounds have shifted over the past fifteen years and the Internet has empowered ordinary Singaporeans to speak up to address the asymmetry.

One can easily see this Straits Times piece as a self-serving attempt to discredit social media commentators and defend its own relevance. Be careful what you wish for. If more of our silent majority do indeed start to speak up, it may not be what our government wants to hear or what Straits Times dares to report. The question then is, can you handle it?