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ICA 2012: Natalie Pang, Debbie Goh

Blogs and the rhetorical publics in Singapore

The Internet has been heralded as one of the greatest tools for democracy (Pitroda, 1993) and promoting the public sphere, in enabling equal and open access to political discourse. Tools such as mobile devices, blogs and social media are seen to magnify its potential. In Singapore, the Internet’s promise as a mechanism for democracy may appear to have realized its potential in the 2006 general election. Back then, the republic’s attempt to establish control over political participation online was met with outright rebellion, as bloggers ignore the sanctions and legal regulations made on them (Tan and Mahizhnan, 2008). As a result, the normative mode of political participation changed in 2010, with amendments made to the Parliamentary Election Regulations to allow online participation in political discourse.

With Singapore ranked as one of the top users of participatory media such as blogs, and an Internet penetration rate of 82%, all eyes were on the 2011 General Election. Academics, politicians, and thought leaders alike held great expectations for the Internet to wield its influence and realize its capacity as a public sphere for political discourse and for common concerns to emerge that would represent the voice of the general electorate.

Yet it may have fallen short of expectations, with outcomes of the election still similar to the results of past elections in the nation state. Several factors may account for this. Participation in ‘online democracy’ remains segmented, with certain groups of people more active than others. These active groups paid more attention to selected issues online, which may differ from those of common interest shared by the general electorate. These characteristics defer from Habermas’ ideation of the public sphere (Habermas, 1989), questioning the viability of the bourgeois public sphere in the republic. In this paper, we discuss the viability of blogs as multiple publics, first by juxtaposing them using key assumptions of the public sphere as originally conceptualized by Habermas. We argue that Hauser’s (1999) model of rhetorical publics offer a suitable framework to help understand blogs as rhetorical publics by the emphasis on them as discursive spaces in which discourse and narratives are generated on issues of concern.

Natalie Pang is an Assistant Professor with the Division of Information Studies, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.  Her research interests are: information processing and collective action in new media, heritage informatics, pragmatist information system sciences and sustainable HCI. She teaches in social informatics, advanced qualitative methods, organizational records management and information behaviour.

Debbie Pei Chin Goh is an assistant professor in the Division of Journalism and Publishing at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. She received her Ph.D. in Mass Communication from Indiana University’s School of Journalism. Her research focuses on the digital divide, ICTs and social inequalities, and media framing.