Governance of a City-State
How Singapore political parties can better tap instant messaging for campaigning

Since 2011, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) has conducted research on media use during Singapore’s General Elections (GE). This year, findings from our survey of GE2020 showed instant messaging (IM) through platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram playing a critical role in two ways.

First, it was the only generation-neutral media platform used for seeking information relating to the election. Boomers — those aged 56 years old and above — used IM just as much as their younger counterparts to find information on the election.

Secondly and more surprisingly, boomers used IM more than other age groups for political engagement — to learn about and interact with political parties and candidates.

IM can influence people’s perceptions towards issues.

Research conducted by Pennsylvania State University Media Studies Professor Shyam Sundar found that in today’s mixed media ecology, where information is delivered typically through a chain comprising multiple sources — the news media, politicians, social media platform and friends — friends and family often exert the greatest influence in terms of credibility assessment.

This applies to the context of elections as well.

The IPS survey found that personal communication with family members via IM was the second most trusted source of information during GE 2020, after Singapore television stations, their websites and social media pages.

However, despite the growing dominance and influence of IM, its full potential remained untapped during the recent election in Singapore.

Parties can better leverage the medium to engage with the electorate, while staying clear of pitfalls.


Political parties have already been using IM in their outreach efforts.

When Meet-the-People sessions (MPS) moved online in April this year due to social distancing measures, Members of Parliament (MPs) turned to WhatsApp, amongst other platforms, to address residents’ enquiries.

Most constituencies rely on a single WhatsApp account to handle resident queries during MPS, but some constituencies, such as Pasir Ris-Punggol Group Representation Constituency, set up individual WhatsApp accounts for all the MPs.

When users send a message outside of the sessions, they receive an automated reply with additional information on enquiry procedures.

However, IM’s full potential lies not just in its reach, but in its intimacy.

It allows political parties to reach voters in the same way their family and friends contact them – privately.

During GE 2020, IM was largely relegated to a broadcasting role, which was not effective for relationship building.

Politicians in other parts of the world have been leveraging the platform to mobilise their voters, rally their support and tap the network effects of the platform.

Texting has played a bigger role in the United States presidential elections this year.

Voters received an unprecedented volume of text messages that called on people to donate, volunteer and attend rallies.

Parties here could also tap the interactive features of WhatsApp and Telegram to better engage voters.

The Progress Singapore Party and Workers’ Party conducted polls on Telegram asking subscribers about their work situation and well-being, going beyond continuously pushing out a stream of information to their subscribers.

But moving forward, political parties can do more to personalise messages.

They could consider using the discussion group feature in Telegram channels, which allows subscribers to respond to their broadcasts directly.

Current messages are usually formal and impersonal, a contrast to the general intimate tone of IM messages shared among friends and family.

Party messages tend to focus on current party initiatives rather than addressing what citizens are interested to know.

Furthermore, recipients are expected to “listen”. Having a “conversation” with citizens would allow political parties to better understand how citizens wish to be spoken to.


Political parties could also design messages for virality.

People tend to share content that is visual, simple to understand and humorous. As informative as political speeches are, it is the memes and infographics that leave a lasting impression on voters.

Voters, especially fans of the Marvel comics universe, would remember the depiction of Mr Pritam Singh as Thor, the hammer-wielding god of thunder in Norse mythology.

The illustration was accompanied with a witty Mandarin translation of his name — bie dan xin (别担心), which means “do not worry”.

In another meme, his name was translated phonetically into bi dan xin (必担心), which meant “you must worry”.

Memes are usually created by citizens. But political parties can certainly step up.

Political campaigning via IM should also consider the preferences of older voters.

With citizen-generated content mostly generated by younger citizens for their peers, boomers can be neglected.

One good example of senior engagement was soap brand Lifebuoy’s campaign in April which received an overwhelmingly positive response on Facebook.

Its “boomer-friendly” hygiene advertisements took the form of “morning greeting” messages that resemble those sent by older relatives in a family chat group.


Even as politicians increase their use of IM, they must prepare themselves for the dark side of the medium, one of which is the spread of false information.

We see the dangers of misinformation best in the elections of Brazil and India, where WhatsApp proved to be both a boon and a bane.

During the Brazilian presidential elections in 2018, fact-checkers found that 42 per cent of right-wing messages on WhatsApp were false.

In India, political parties used IMs to stoke religious tensions in a bid to win support from specific factions, aggravating existing polarisation among citizens.

As citizens spread messages from the party of their choice, they may unwittingly spread false information as well. Political parties can do their part in debunking false information by broadcasting corrective information on IM quickly and efficiently.

However, for accurate information to reach the public swiftly, it must be designed for virality.

The other pitfall is trolling and anti-social behaviour such as name calling and bullying.

While chat groups on IM have the potential to build close-knit communities of interest and support, they can also devolve into fractious mobs.

To prevent this, party members or volunteers can be roped in to manage IM groups. They could pin or embed general discussion rules on their WhatsApp profiles and Telegram channels and step in when discussions spiral beyond civility.

Besides ensuring that the chat group remains a safe space for all, protecting the IM community also conveys strong leadership.

IM platforms are currently underutilised by parties and politicians.

As they become more pervasive in people’s lives and as technology companies make product improvements, it would be a loss not to embrace IM boldly as a political campaigning tool.

The sooner this is done, the better it is, since relationships take time to build.


Carol Soon is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Society and Culture department at the Institute of Policy Studies. She led the IPS study on Internet and media use during GE 2020. Neo Yee Win is Research Assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies.

This piece was first published in TODAY on 9 Nov 2020.

Top photo from Freepik.

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