Social media monitoring and freedom of speech in S’pore

Asian Correspondent

Earlier this week FutureGov revealed that the Singapore government will use IBM software to ‘trawl’ the internet for sentiment from Singaporeans.

From the article:

The Singapore government is looking at using social media Business Analytics tools to get a better understanding of how Singaporeans feel about its policies.

The tools will enable public services to be better tailored to individuals by “listening” to views expressed in social media, explained Professor Neo Boon Siong of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

The software, developed by IBM, trawls social media for key words or phrases, which can be defined as positive or negative, to identify current and emerging trends in public sentiment.

“The government has collected information on citizen sentiment in the past, but citizens tend to respond in an artificial way through traditional channels,” said Neo.

The system could mark a shift in how the Singapore government deals with citizen feedback, from computing quantitative customer satisfaction scores to use citizen views and ideas to customise design and delivery, he noted.

“The government has tended to be rational and pragmatic – to listen to reason, but ignore feelings. Now there are tools that can go beyond seeking feedback to get citizens involved in initiating reviews and redesigning policies.”

It is worth bearing in mind that the government is tapping into a huge national communication resource, such is the popularity of user-generated content and social networks in Singapore.

Social networks generate more traffic amongst the country’s internet users than search engines (as blogged here and here) so there is clearly a lot of relevant content relating to everyday life in the city-state. Additionally Singapore enjoys a high rate of online engagement as one of the world’s most wired countries with an internet penetration rate of 33 percent and the world’s highest rate of Apple iOS devices (iPhones, iPads, Wi-Fi iPods running iOS) per population, giving further reason to plug into online sentiment.

Back to the FutureGov news, I’ve yet to see any discussion around the how the social media monitoring focus might affect freedom of speech online in the country.

Singapore is notably intolerant of dissenting voices, take for example British author Alan Shadrake whose recent prison sentence “confirms that there is no freedom of expression in the city-state island” according to Guardian pundit Roy Greenslade.

Then there is the example of the arrest of a man for Facebook comments relating to the Youth Olympic Games held in the country this year?

A man in Singapore is facing charges of incitement of violence due to comments made on Facebook about the Government’s preparations for last month’s Summer Youth Olympic Games.

Abdul Malik, a 27-year-old project officer in a construction company, was a a member of the Facebook page “I hate the Youth Olympics Games’ Organising Committee”, an on-line dedicated to criticising the Government’s preparations for the Games and the cost of them. On the Facebook site, Abdul called for “us to burn Vivian Balakrishnan”, Singapore’s Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports the head of the organising committee.

Malik claimed meant the statement as a metaphor – to vote out the ruling People’s Action Party, of which Balakrishnan is a member.

Clearly Mailk’s wording was ill-advised, but his treatment shows one way the government has dealt with negative, critical comments online before. With the government’s new emphasis on social media monitoring, will Singaporeans need to adopt a  more cautious approach to communicating online?

There is certainly just cause for concern that the country’s freedom of speech online may be affected.

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