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Elections And The Threat of Foreign Interference

Ahmad Munawar, Claudia Ang

Dec 16, 2020

As former US Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill would attest in his book, all politics are local. However, with the rapid rise of technology and intertwining relations of multilateralism, O’Neill’s adage is becoming harder to prove as the international sphere of influence becomes wider and more complex.

Foreign interference is a valid and subliminal threat in politics, especially in the realms of electioneering and realpolitik. Instances have been witnessed in the political arenas of the United States and Britain. Social media campaigns in those elections were plagued by Russian operatives who carried out large-scale attacks of disinformation, capitalising on issues such as race and equality, gun ownership, and abortion rights. Using fake accounts and bots, these operatives attacked deep-seated issues within the society, seeking to further divide the voting public.

With social media being intrinsically linked in election campaigns, every notion of carrying out a democratic process is threatened. Every nation is vulnerable to such an attack, including countries such as Singapore. Meltwater delves deeper into this to extrapolate narratives within the media and whether foreign actors are making psychological inroads into the politicisation of domestic issues.

A remote Singapore election

On 10 July, Singapore held its General Elections (GE2020) and voters turned out in droves. GE2020, dubbed as Singapore's "first truly Internet election", materialised as restrictions on campaigning were put in place due to COVID-19. The sphere of rallies and meet-and-greets transcended from the physical space into the digital realm. On both sides of partisan lines, devising strategies based on online discourses and measuring audience reach became intrinsically part of their campaigns. 

Meltwater data revealed that social media volume in the run up to GE2020 increased four times, compared to the previous elections held in 2015. Singapore’s leading newspaper The Straits Times in July shared our findings which revealed that even though the incumbent People's Action Party (PAP) received the majority of social media mentions, the main opposition Workers’ Party’s audience engagement generated more sustained numbers of conversation.

Graphic on Meltwater's findings

Fig. 1 - ST Graphic on Meltwater’s findings.

Following the publication of this report in The Straits Times, policy makers and strategists in the public service have consulted Meltwater on whether conversations on social justice and inequality had affected voters. We also received queries on whether Singapore had experienced foreign interference in its election process – a legitimate worry after witnessing incidents in the 2016 Presidential Elections held in the United States and Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom.

According to William Evanina, Director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center, Russia, Iran, and China have been identified as the top three countries carrying out active foreign interference operations. However, in the recently-concluded  US presidential election, only China came 21st in the chart of the top 30 countries discussing the political process. Sophisticated encryption and bogus IPs are part of these operatives’ modus operandi and detection becomes an arduous task.

top 30 foreign countries where users discuss USPE on social media

Fig. 2 - The Top 30 foreign countries discussing 2020 USPE from 20 July to 18 October.

Social media against foreign interference

The giants of social media recognised this threat, tweaking policy changes to ensure the integrity of public discourse on their platforms. Facebook introduced steps to combat foreign interference and to make elections fair and safe. The company has also worked extensively with governments and law enforcement agencies to detect and nip emerging threats.

In June, Channel News Asia reported that Facebook had established dedicated teams in Singapore to keep a lookout for malignant activity on the platform, such as identity falsification and sentiment amplification. Such preparatory work had been put in place since July 2019, and since then, accounts that showed signs of engaging in interference tactics have been removed.

Twitter also introduced its Civic Integrity Policy in May 2020, which states that the Twitter platform is not to be used to manipulate or disrupt civic processes, such as elections. Accounts in violation of its regulations will have to take down their tweets or face permanent suspension if related offences are repeated.

Knowing that measures have been put in place to curb the spread of disinformation and sentiment amplification in bid to maintain the integrity of elections is reassuring, and perhaps even comforting. Bots can be programmed to swiftly spread disinformation, and a particularly negative, intentionally-amplified sentiment could gain traction that endures long after its deletion.

Narratives in the Singapore election

How can we use our social media monitoring tools to identify instances of foreign interference, if any? There will be digital trails that can be picked up, and critically, prominent narratives that have to be identified to thwart amplification.

Using the recent Singapore elections, we assessed the data for these narratives which may have traces of foreign interference based on Meltwater’s geo-location technology. Based on what we discovered, while foreign-based accounts actively participated in discourse about GE2020, the accounts were predominantly owned by real users who expressed a genuine interest in Singapore politics and social issues. 

#1: Medium article, "The Dangerous Influence Of 'Chinese Privilege' In Singapore" by Donovan Choy

On 20 June, Donovan Choy had written an article on Chinese privilege in Singapore and published it on social journalism platform Medium. Choy's article had led to the emergence of other narratives, with netizens recounting their own experiences with racism in Singapore. Notably, one netizen had brought up that she had been rejected for a job opportunity at a clinic located in Paragon on Orchard Road because she did not agree to remove the hijab.

Subsequently, social media chatter on Choy's article garnered more than 12,000 posts. Most of it was backlash from netizens who alleged that Choy was denying the existence of Chinese privilege in Singapore. Chatter on the original article and subsequent narratives borne from it held largely negative sentiments. The chatter came from at least nine countries, with the bulk on it circulating on Twitter.

Social Media Chatter by Country pie chart Singapore elections

Interestingly, out of the nine identifiable countries, most of the posts originated from Malaysia. There were seven per cent more social media posts from Malaysia than Singapore. Twitter users that were engaged in the conversations on the topic appear to be genuine accounts and with no suggestion of bot-like activities.

Based on our assessment of the tweets as well as a sampling of these accounts, it seems that Malaysian users were genuinely interested in Singapore's race dynamics and actively partook in conversations about Chinese privilege in Singapore. Most of the discussions centred on the issue of race itself. While the issue emerged in the midst of GE2020 campaigning, there was no evidence that indicates that the discussions - in Malaysia or otherwise -  took on a political slant.

IG Post

Examples of chatter from Malaysian accounts.

#2: Investigations into WP Candidate Raeesah Khan’s social media posts on racial inequalities in Singapore

On 5 July, 5 days before polling day, SPF released a statement noting that WP Candidate Raeesah Khan was being investigated after two reports were lodged against her for her comments on social media. In one of her Facebook posts, Ms Raeesah had written that law enforcement in Singapore seems to discriminate against people - citizens and migrants alike - based on their race and class.

Like Choy’s article, this incident spurred dialogue on race and inequality in Singapore. There were a total of more than 6,000 posts. Twitter posts on the issue surfaced with many netizens expressing their support for Ms Raeesah, sharing the hashtag "#istandwithraeesah".

On the other hand, some netizens had also called for Ms Raeesah to resign from the WP team contesting for Sengkang GRC, so as to not damage the team's chances at getting elected into Parliament. Overall, the chatter came from at least 17 countries, with the bulk of the conversations happening on Twitter.

social media chatter by country elections in Singapore

Of the 17 identifiable countries, 20.5 per cent of the chatter originated from Singapore, 7.6 per cent came from Malaysia,  5.5 per cent came from the United States, and 1.1 per cent each from the United Kingdom and Switzerland. On Twitter, 50 per cent of the posts were retweets and 47 per cent were quoted tweets. Only one per cent of the tweets were original ones.

Naturally, given that the context of the incident is a political one, many of the social media posts took on a political slant. The phrase "Chinese privilege" came up often, as netizens compared the alleged unequal treatment between regular Chinese and Malay or Indian folk in Singapore, as well as the difference in attitudes towards political candidates of the various races.

IG post

Examples of original posts from foreign accounts.

#3: Support for WP's manifesto on lowering age eligibility for single BTO applications

On 28 June, The Straits Times reported on 10 proposals from WP's manifesto. WP suggested that singles should be able to apply for a BTO flat at the age of 28, instead of the current 35. The manifesto noted that young, single Singaporeans should not be denied an opportunity to own a home of their own.

Support for the policy change was expressed on social media. The news garnered a total of 1,099 posts on social media. Again, the posts largely originated from Twitter and discussions on the manifesto also took place on the subreddit, r/singapore.

social media chart

Users from at least six countries partook in the discussions. While the location is unknown for a good majority of these posts, close to 30 per cent of chatter emerged in Singapore. Even then, 81 per cent of the total tweets were quoted ones, and 18 per cent were retweets.

No bot-like activities were detected. The conversations were mainly neutral, as netizens expressed their desires to own a home at a young age. The posts also did not carry any notable political slant.

In another aspect of our analysis, a series of "VN" Twitter accounts stood out. These account names had the same country prefix, VN, followed by a random string of numbers behind. There were at least seven such accounts, created only in June and July 2020. Six of these accounts are currently suspended.

The tweets posted by this series of accounts were extremely critical of some political office holders, with a few tweets devoted to calling for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's arrest, and alleging that the Singapore Government publishes fake news. While these accounts exhibited questionable behaviour, its influence was negligible in GE2020.

Protecting democracy online

These three topics serve as examples of the approach we took towards other social media chatter surrounding GE2020. Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) also reiterated this recently. However, the Ministry added a caveat that social media and online gaming may be utilised to spread disinformation and sway voters' opinions, noting that "the risk of foreign interference will only increase moving forward".

While social media platforms are taking a proactive stance against foreign interference campaigns, social media users must remain on guard against deliberate falsehoods and influence operations. As a society, we cannot afford to be complacent or risk the integrity of our politics.