What if social influencers start promoting politics?

By Calida Soh


Most who follow the blogger Ms Wendy Cheng (Xiaxue) on social media will know she is a hardcore People’s Action Party (PAP) supporter. She openly expresses support for the ruling party and has pictures of herself attending its rallies. Even though she has disagreed with some of its decisions, she remains a “staunch” supporter.

She is not paid to sing the PAP’s praises, it seems, but is genuinely a fan. Curiously enough, instead of joining the party, she wanted to become a Nominated Member of Parliament — an apolitical role.

In 2018, she called upon her contingent of over 600,000 followers for their support and nomination. She took to Facebook and Instagram and shared photoshopped images of herself in the Parliament house sitting among other MPs, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the rostrum. “I think I really look like I belong,” she had written, and closed the post with the hashtag #xiaxueforNMP.

Nothing came out of her venture, but it was an oddity. Social influencers are known for promoting goods and services, and their messages rarely take a political turn.

After the Resilience Budget was announced last week, Ms Cheng expressed her gratitude for the Government on Instagram. “Can’t believe our (Government) churned this out in a matter of weeks for us… I know it’s taxpayers’ money, but thank you for taking care of us.”

Other influencers chimed in. “I’m so proud to call Singapore my home," fellow influencer Mongchin Yeoh (@mongabong) wrote when she shared Ms Cheng’s post.

Ms Mongchin Yeoh’s repost of Ms Wendy Cheng’s Instagram Story on the Resilience Budget. SCREENSHOT: INSTAGRAM

Would the words of a social influencer carry weight with their audiences?

Commercial companies seem to think so. User-generated content (UGC) is the billboard of the social media age, revered among marketeers for its “authenticity” — a determining factor for 90 per cent of millennials in choosing brands to support, says a 2017 study. The less contrived UGC is apparently more popular than polished posters, according to a 2018 study that found 73 per cent more positive comments on UGC than traditional advertisements.

Celebrities who take centre stage in traditional advertisements are losing out to influencers too. Musefind, a marketing platform, claimed 92 per cent of consumers trust influencers over advertisements or traditional celebrity endorsements. Social campaigns that incorporate influencer-generated content have shown a 50 per cent lift in engagement.

Even officialdom has caught on and started pulling social influencers into publicity campaigns for policies.

In one of its earlier experiments in 2018, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) hired over 50 micro-influencers to raise awareness about the upcoming Budget. Posts of smiling influencers coupled with hashtags like #sgbudget2018 and #mofsg quickly drew attention, but for the wrong reasons.

The campaign was widely derided for using public funds on what was deemed as irrelevant and cringe-worthy social media posts.

The MOF spokesman would only say that the spending was in accordance with market rates. This could be anywhere between $75 and $500 for influencers with 1,000 to 35,000 followers, if approximations by social marketing agency Get Kobe are accurate. For about 50 influencers that the MOF hired, this amounts to about $12,500.

Most influencers are followed for their personality or expertise on particular subjects like beauty, food or lifestyle. A weighty topic like the Budget was off-brand for some and may have failed to sound authentic.

“The audience doesn’t buy it, since it’s not the message they expect from a content creator, or from the Ministry of Finance. So they … are outraged that they are assumed to be so stupid,” Mr Andrew Taylor, head of public relations at the media and advertising giant Ogilvy Asia-Pacific, told the South China Morning Post.

This year, tactics were altered.

Night Owl Cinematics (NOC), a local production company with a young audience, was hired by the National Youth Council (NYC) to promote Budget 2020. In a YouTube video with MP Janil Puthucheary, Ms Sylvia Chan — a media personality — shared fun facts about hot-button issues like living and housing, and asked Dr Puthucheary questions crowdsourced from her Instagram, such as “Why is the National Budget important?”, “Why should I care?’’

Ms Sylvia Chan sits with MP Janil Puthucheary to talk about the Budget. SCREENSHOT: YOUTUBE

The video only had about 81,000 views over the past two months, but had an encouraging engagement rate of over 1,700 thumbs up. Its 294 comments were largely positive.

Besides the Budget, the Government has included social influencers in a few other prominent partnerships:

Green issues

In 2018, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) engaged 28 micro-influencers to boost awareness and engagement surrounding climate change issues. Influencers posted pictures of themselves participating in a #ClimateActionSG Instagram photo contest and practicing eco-friendly habits. The ministry said each influencer was paid up to $35 per post.

Healthy lifestyle

The Health Promotion Board (HPB) in 2018 called in niche influencers for their “Team More Team Less” campaign to promote healthier food choices and an active lifestyle. It included food blogger Brad Lau and fitness influencers like Jamie Pang.

Skills training

To promote upskilling among working adults, SkillsFuture Singapore in 2019 partnered with mrbrown, a popular blogger known for making socio-political commentary in colloquial Singlish. He was lambasted by the Government in 2006 for his column on Singapore’s high cost of living, but that seems like water under the bridge now. Fashion influencer Andrea Chong was also involved, and shared a video of herself and her colleagues learning new skills to keep themselves relevant.

Covid-19 measures

The Covid-19 health crisis saw the return of government-sponsored messages on social media. Influencers like Jianhao Tan produced a series of comedic posts promoting safe distancing, in partnership with the NYC.

Influencer, Mr Tan Jian Hao, practises social distancing with his friend in an Instagram post for Covid-19. SCREENSHOT: INSTAGRAM

Even high-flying politicians have come onboard. To address common questions on the new laws against online falsehoods (Pofma), TV and YouTube personality, Ms Michelle Chong had a video interview with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam. She adopted one of her alter-egos, Ah Lian, known for her brash speech peppered with colloquial slangs. The video racked up over a million views with positive comments from citizens who found it informative and entertaining.

Ms Michelle Chong sits with Minister K Shanmugam to talk about Pofma. SCREENSHOT: YOUTUBE

Media companies have also featured ministers and MPs, namely Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung on Mothership, and MP Baey Yam Keng on SGAG. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu played kopi pong, a spin on a common drinking game beer pong, on a YouTube channel, the Millennials of Singapore. Ping pong balls are bounced across the table into cups of coffee as the minister is asked personal questions like what kind of student she was, if she would join politics in her next life and her thoughts on negative comments directed at her online.

More 4G ministers will be featured with their ministerial hat off, it seems. “Election is coming, but who the heck are these 4G ministers,” says the video description. The video is the first in a series of “Doing Things with Ministers”.

Minister Grace Fu talks about negative online comments over a game of kopi pong with Mr Jon Chua. SCREENSHOT: FACEBOOK

Laws governing political campaigning online have undergone multiple changes. Once forbidden, electoral advertisements were allowed on social media platforms when the Film Act was amended in 2009. In 2011, political photos and videos started circulating online. By the 2015 General Election (GE), almost all political parties and politicians had their Facebook and Instagram accounts up, ready to engage voters online. Videos of their rallies were also posted on Facebook and Youtube.

The PAP dominated the Facebook space, with about 200 to 450 posts per month in the two years leading up to the GE, said the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in its post-election conference. Grassroots members levied on their social networks and shared political messages with WhatsApp chat groups, according to a study on the GE2015. Some candidates — six sitting PAP MPs, three of them are office-holders — had even hired digital consultants to help with their online campaigning.

The PAP had paid a public relations consultant about $1,500 for “influencer engagement”, said Mr Alex Yam, MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC. The consultant helped to generate “ad hoc content” for the GE2015.

The Opposition made headways online too. A day before the 2015 Nomination Day, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) released a short film on YouTube about its chief Chee Soon Juan and his family — it got about 300,000 views in its first week. SDP also announced its candidates in a live stream.

Socio-political sites like the Mothership benefited from the increased online bustle, gaining traction during the GE2015 as more citizens went online for information.

Is there a role for social influencers, paid or unpaid, in the coming general election here?

Before he dropped out of this year’s race for the United States’ presidency, Mr Michael Bloomberg paid micro-influencers US$150 to say why they thought he was the ideal candidate. He had a meme campaign, which paid around 30 popular meme accounts like @f*ckjerry and @kalesalad, to post satirical content supporting his candidacy.

Based on Forbes’ calculation, Mr Bloomberg had paid between US$1 million and US$1.5 million for 30 Instagram advertisements, which reached 60 million people. According to Facebook's Ad Library, his spending on political advertisement reached US$3.16 million in a month, between Jan 31 and Feb 29.

Some influencers have made content for political activism on their own accord. American YouTuber, Mr Tyler Oakley, made political videos, including one with 2016 presidential candidate, Mrs Hillary Clinton. The video, tagged with a disclaimer that he “wasn't paid to endorse her, I just want a good president”, was viewed over 730,000 times.

Mr Oakley has not shied away from campaigning for presidential candidates. He reminded his 5.8 million followers on Instagram to register and vote early for this year’s election and endorsed Bernie Sanders on Twitter: “For many reasons, my hope today is that he wins the nomination. Eager to keep supporting progressive agendas in 2020!!”

Bloomberg’s influencer campaign, where sponsored content was masked as organic ones, exposed gaps in the advertisement guidelines of some social media platforms. Platforms like Facebook were forced to relook at their policies, which did not have clear disclosure rules for branded content — content posted by ordinary users that was paid for by companies or organisation.

Facebook announced on Feb 14 that political groups were allowed to run branded content in the U.S, after authorisation by Facebook and if the content creators disclose the paid partnerships through their branded content tools. This comes after previously barring political campaigns from using the tools designed to help run branded posts worldwide.

Twitter’s ban on paid political content started since November last year. The ban includes content referring to candidates, political parties, government officials, elections, legislation and judicial outcomes.

“Paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle,” said its chief executive Jack Dorsey. Political message reach should be earned, not bought, he added.

Even Google has placed global restrictions on election ads. From Jan 6, political advertisers can no longer target voters based on their political affiliation and public voters records. They can only target based on specific categories like age, gender and location.

For Singapore’s upcoming election, Google will not accept any political advertisement.

It cited Singapore’s Political Advertisement Code, which states that certain ads, including election-related ones, must disclose the advertisers’ name or organization in a clear and accessible way. A record of these political advertisements such as their expenditure and reach must be readily available too.

Although ads are allowed if they meet the above criteria, Google has chosen not to open its space at all. One can surmise that it finds the code too onerous to comply with.

Facebook, faced with the same code, has decided to allow political advertisers to run political advertisements, after they have completed Facebook’s authorisation process. The advertisements will be tagged with a disclaimer: “Paid for by...”

RELATED STORY: Political Advertising on Facebook in Singapore: Who spent what?

With a disclaimer or not, some people will always regard influencers with suspicion. When Nas Daily, a Facebook content producer with 15 million followers, called Singapore an “almost perfect country” in a video, he was quickly met with scepticism. The video, wherein he marvelled at Singapore and its Government, was lambasted as government-sponsored propaganda, despite Nas’ insistence that it was ad-free.

Should the coming general election coincide with the Covid-19 health crisis, the battle over parliamentary seats will likely take place on the Internet, to minimise social contact. It seems like a good time for social influencers to break into this new market, given that their reach comprises mainly young people who might be first-time voters. Or maybe they will give this area a wide berth, despite being paid a million bucks, because of the fractious nature of promoting politics and politicians in an election.

One thing for sure, you need skin as thick as Ms Cheng, or Xiaxue, for she faced a lot of flak for supporting the PAP.

She told Yahoo News Singapore in 2012: “I’ve blogged for 10 years and I’ve covered the most controversial topics but nothing, and I mean nothing, have gotten me more hate as me supporting the PAP.”

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