GE2006 was the “internet elections” for the emergence of political bloggers who provided the general public with empirical evidence of opposition parties working the ground and attracting large crowds at election rallies. GE2011 was the “social media elections” for the personalizing of election candidates through personal updates and broadcasts that used parasocial relations to give impressions of intimacy. GE2015 was the “alternative media” elections for the rise of non-mainstream and non-traditional media outlets and networks of social media estates who allowed for a plurality of political voices to be contested online. From the looks of online political campaigning in the last fortnight, GE2020 is the “influencer” elections.
Influencer amplifications and endorsements
Social media influencers seem to have a bad reputation in Singapore, given an extended history of influencer wars, brand scandals, and faux pas. But beyond these clickbaitable incidents that are given disproportionate attention by the mainstream media and the longtail of online press, influencers are important facilitators of information in the age of misinformation and in social climates where governments hold excessive power over media control. Influencers generally personalize, package, and perform snippets of their everyday lives ‘as lived’ to attract and accumulate followers on social media, then go on to monetize these audiences by embedding and astroturfing commercial messages into their lifestyle content.
While some influencer personas are more open-ended and prone to bandwagoning on various topics and genres, others have specific causes attached to their public persona and may be more prudent in how they allow their brand to be monetized. Regardless, in a climate of information saturation, influencers are experts at soliciting and sustaining viewer attention through creative strategies enabled by a combination of social media platform features, local attention norms, and charisma. Many of them serve as ‘for hire’ loud hailers and amplifiers of information, whether the message is sponsored or not, and whether it involves promoting hair conditioner or human rights issues.
During the GE2020, Singaporean influencers who have long been passionate about and advocates for various social causes have been lending their platforms to politicians. For instance, Preeti Nair (@Preetipls), who has used her platforms to bring attention to issues of racism and xenophobia in Singapore, pivoted her social media content to lend airtime and voice to specific electoral candidates. In an online talk show with PSP candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock in his home, she and her intern Foo Wee San (@preetiplsintern) mobilized their Gen Z star power by guesting on the programme (Figure 1) and using their platforms to publicise the party’s initiatives. Preeti subsequently filmed an interview with SDP candidate Dr Chee Soon Juan at Bukit Batok MRT Station (where the party is contesting in the Bukit Batok SMC).
Preeti also collected queries from her ~34,000 Instagram followers (Figure 2) for an Instagram Live Q&A with SDP candidate Dr Paul Tambyah (Bukit Panjang SMC) and SPP candidate Jose Raymong (Potong Pasir SMC). Each of these initiatives take on the tone of casual chats for Preeti’s wide and diverse network of followers to learn more about each electoral candidate, covering topics from their party manifestos to their personal interests as private individuals.
Comedian and Entertainer Fakkah Fuzz (@fakkahfuzz), who is known for his ‘straight talk’ and risqué commentary on social life in Singapore, has similarly publicized his forthcoming interview with Dr Chee Soon Juan (Figure 3) in his The More Better podcast, featuring a spectrum of queries from followers ranging from the lighthearted personal anecdotes (e.g. “What was his dream job growing up?”) to serious political conversations (e.g. “Is Singapore ready to have a discussion about race without being POFMA?”). It should be noted that many of these collaborations are late notice occasions given the very tight window of merely 9 days for political campaigning.
It is established in post-elections scholarly analysis that social media platforms are especially critical tools for opposition parties who often encounter institutional barriers for “disseminating information and fostering dialogue”, considering the string of regulations and laws imposed by the incumbent government that has curbed free access to information. By creating content to showcase opposition parties, socializing them among young and first-time voters who are more attuned to influencer messaging, and endorsing candidates through their neatly archived digital footprints, such politically active influencers are contributing to levelling the playing field against the incumbent party. This is all the more persuasive when these endorsements and interventions are carried out by influencers with a credible and extended history of using their platforms as sites of resistance to “produce critical commentary about social issues, politics, and the state”, thus appearing to keep ‘on brand’ with their public persona, rather than merely bandwagoning on trending topics to extend their publicity.
This selective participation in social causes as a means to hijack trends to garner publicity for oneself has been studied as “grief hypejacking”, or “the bandwagoning on high-visibility hashtags of public tributes where users wrestle to misappropriate highly public channels of collective grief for self-publicity”, and observed among Singaporean influencers who were quick to partake in the Black Lives Movement in the context of the US but who remain quiet when the (structural) racism occurs at home.
Influencers as noise and distraction
Given the long history of influencer cultures in Singapore since the mid-2000s, the industry and ecology has also fast become oversaturated with contenders and contents. As such, a specific strategy that utilizes shame and scandals for self-publicity has been oft used by many local influencers, in a trope known as the “shamelebrity”. First studied within American pop culture in the 1990s, a shamelebrity is a person who after being involved in an act of shame or scandal, is able to commodify their experience and rebrand themselves as being fully embracing of the shame cringe. Shamelebrity influencers openly court grief, scandal, and disputes, relying on the adage that ‘all publicity is good publicity’. From the early 2010s, such influencers have staged controversies, and artificially augmented the importance and impact of such squabbles by fishing for hating, trolling, and flaming comments.
In the GE2020, two Facebook posts from WP candidate Raeesah Khan were reported to the police under Singapore’s Penal Code 298A which criminalizes “an offence of promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race”. While Khan subsequently apologized, the incumbent PAP’s call for WP to “state its stand” on the posts wrongly claimed that she had “admitted to making highly derogatory statements about Chinese and Christians”. Many citizens who disagreed with the government’s continued oppression of minority voices took to social media to express solidarity with Khan through viral hashtags (e.g. #IStandWithRaeesah, #InSolidarityWithRaeesah).
In response to this back-and-forth between both parties, influencer Wendy Cheng (@xiaxue) posted a series of Instagram Stories calling upon WP candidate Raeesah Khan to “stop trying to divide the nation with your race politics”, and for parties to “stop fielding radical feminists/leftists as candidates ffs we don’t need their poison infecting our politics” [sic]. In turn, a citizen filed a police report against Cheng for her past tweets that were “trying to stir up anti-Indian sentiments”. Many young citizens took to Twitter and Instagram to condemn Cheng, including several viral threads “exposing” her for “racism and transphobia”.
Evidently, networks of socially and politically conscious young people have taken to networked activism on social media, mostly notably on Twitter and Instagram Stories, to perform call-out justice, take sides, and share their opinion whenever such shamelebrity incidents occur. Some recent initiatives have resulted in an online petition for an influencer to be met with legal repercussions for her “seditious content” (which has garnered over 14,000 signatures at the time of writing), and templates for followers to plead with brands and sponsors who work with such influencers to “demonetize” them and be accountable to the public.
Yet, despite their well meaning efforts, these actions only serve to fuel more online chatter and extend the shame cycle, especially when they result in trending hashtags or keywords on the likes of Twitter. As a substitute, media studies scholars have observed a series of circumvention techniques that allow conversation to flourish and be documented without needlessly amplifying a source text, including “Voldemorting” (avoiding the mention of keywords to reduce searchability and break connections to the source) and “screenshotting” (reproducing content through pictures to avoid increase traffic to the source). But perhaps the most effective strategy is simply to starve these shame cycles of attention, by unfollowing them.
It should be underscored that online media outlets who milk influencers’ petty incidents for viewership are also complicit in encouraging this culture. Besides magnifying publicity for such influencers through dedicated articles (that are often mere compilations of social media screengrabs with light commentary surmising the posts), such outlets extend the shelflife of public interest in these petty incidents. This also detracts online attention from other worthy causes, whose messages are often overshadowed by tabloidesque distractions.
Politicians adopting influencer strategies
Finally, many established influencer strategies have also been taken up by politicians who are turning to social media to campaign and canvas votes. PAP candidate Baey Yam Keng (@baeyyamkeng) has long established his social media presence, especially on Instagram, through his charismatic engagement with young people. Utilizing strategic selfies, hashtag challenges, social media conversations, and revelations into the ‘backstage’ of his job as a politician, he demonstrates a “human touch” and softens citizen impressions that the incumbent government is authoritarian and paternal.
In the GE2020, Baey has also taken to TikTok to share snippets of his campaign progress (Figure 4), and accumulated warm responses from users in the comment sections.
WP candidate Nicole Seah (@nicoleseah.sg) has also been strategic with posting ‘regrammable’ posters bearing her face and soundbites from her speeches for easy circulation among interested citizens, as well as making the effort to respond to Insta-DMs (Figure 5) and reposting posts and selfies whenever tagged by citizens.
SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan (@cheesoonjuan) has also engaged in spontaneous and light hearted Instagram Questions, posting short video responses on Instagram Stories interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage of his on-foot campaigning. Fun Gen Y & Gen Z queries have included his opinions on bubble tea, whether he likes K-pop group BTS, and whether he will oblige followers in doing a TikTok (Figure 6).
But perhaps the most outstanding forerunner who has conscientiously adopted influencer strategies for social media campaigning is PSP’s Dr Tan Cheng Bock (@tanchengbock). The 80-year-old political veteran has been taking to Instagram to connect with his younger voters, displaying extremely high reciprocity and spontaneous feedback through hundreds of replies, shoutouts, @mentions, and even personalized thank you notes and videos sent via Instagram DMs. In one Instagram video, he thanks supporters by their Instagram handle, spelling out and vocalizing complicated l33tspeak, much to the delight of followers whose support and endearment towards him only seem to escalate.
Dr Tan’s week-old debut on Instagram Highlights alone demonstrates the variety of influencer norms that he has replicated on Instagram: “Memes”, where he archives the meme macros that users have made of him; “Heartshape”, where he reposts images of citizens showing him finger hearts, and responding to his Instagram template calling for users to complete his one-handed half heart (Figure 7); “Flower”, where he displays the flowers in his garden in true blue ‘Facebook auntie’ style; and a series of other themed highlights documenting young people’s social media-based comments and feedback in support of him and his campaign.
Dr Tan’s earnest learning journey and interactions on social media commodify a geriatric cuteness that romanticize elderly users’ steep learning curves with technology. His missteps with youth lingo (e.g. “hypebeast”, “woke”, “shoutout”) are perceived as sincere attempts at relating to young people, and seem to appeal to their maternal instincts; one common sentiment is as such:
“… reminds me of my grandma… Can’t help but feel protective in that sense”.
Thousands of comments from young people on social media acknowledge Dr Tan’s efforts with technology, which they take to be indicative of his desire to strive for the country as a political candidate as well. He has been described as “cute”, “endearing”, “friendly”, and “nice”, alongside testimonials that acknowledge his efforts towards “life-long learning”:
“I think it’s so inspirational for an 80 year old grandpa to embrace new technology and relate to millennials… He’s not even a boomer, he belongs to the WW2 era!”
“Can’t believe he’s learning how to use social media to connect with the voters despite his age”
“I find it so endearing for him to be learning the ropes of social media at his age.”
Perhaps the one nickname that best encapsulates the successful strategizing by some politicians with influencer techniques in this: “Influencer ahgong”.
Cover image: Google image search result for ‘Singaporean influencers”.