Can IPS pull it off online?

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Cartoon of old Wild West sheriff

By Abhijit Nag
Cartoon of old Wild West sheriffEmeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong wants the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) to “carve out a credible place for itself online” to “engage online media practitioners”, reported the Straits Times. Is that like asking concert pianists to perform for an audience full of headbangers?

The IPS is a respected think tank known for its serious research, thoughtful studies and working with the government. The online media is a quick-on-the-draw, hyperactive bunch which loves memes, sticky posts and viral content. The readers, when they post comments, tend to shoot from the hip. If the mainstream media is a well-regulated community with law and order, the digital alternative is the Wild West.

The IPS has its online outpost, too, maintaining a lonely vigil on the bloggers and commenters sniping away in cyberspace.

Among its reports, which you can download, is one called “Corrosive Speech: What Can Be Done”.  The report on anti-foreigner and racist speech in Singapore is worth reading, not least because it quotes Kumaran Pillai, managing editor of The Independent Singapore. It looks at how the same news gets different treatment in the mainstream and the alternative media – and points out the differences even between alternative websites.

However, the eight-page PDF report takes some time to read. And time is tight, at least in the online world. Netizens don’t read; they scan, say the experts.

“In the digital age, short writing is king,” proclaims media pundit Roy Peter Clark in his latest book, How To Write Short.

Think-tankers like the IPS folks, no doubt, can write both long and short.  Tan Tarn How, who produced the “Corrosive Speech” report with Carol Soon, for example, is a former journalist who also happens to be a playwright.  Write is what they do.

So should they be more active in social media, as Mr Goh suggested?

The think tanks are not exactly follower-less online. Their reports are picked up by the mainstream as well as the alternative media.

But the IPS can do more to keep the government informed and avoid being “blindsided”, according to Mr Goh.  “I urge IPS to continue innovating in the social media space, to expand its reach and promote informed discussion on issues of common, national interest, and to distil ideas so that they can be readily accessible to policymakers and interested members of the public,” he said.

In other words, he wants the think tank to be the eyes and ears of the government as well as of the public.

To inform and educate, one thought, was the job of the media, but there are influential think tanks, too, producing reports and active in the social media. Think of Brookings Institute, Heritage Foundation, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, Pew Research Center. See the University of Pennsylvania’s 2012 Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme report. “Think tanks have become more active players in domestic and foreign policy,” it says while also noting the challenge posed by the internet.

The internet presents a challenge also in Mr Goh’s considered view. He is not prepared to ignore either the ranters or the more thoughtful commentators online, so he is calling in support from a think tank.

It shows how important social media has become to the government. The ministers and MPs are already on Facebook – and now reinforcements are sought from a think tank.

It’s interesting that IPS is also launching Social Lab, a polling and research unit. That means more feedback for the government.  Reports say the lab will track a representative group of Singaporeans over many years. Such a long-term study will help the government make better policy, said Mr Goh.

Ah yes, you have to keep an ear to the ground. So get into social media, commission the pollsters. What next? Government with an eye on approval ratings? That’s more like the USA and the UK.