Social media are a mixed blessing for election coverage. This is the text of a talk at the Bali Media Forum 2013, held at Nusa Dua on 6 November 2013.

In countries such as my own, Singapore, where traditional journalism has been handicapped by government restrictions, the relative freedom of the internet has been a huge blessing. It has allowed opposition parties to bypass media controls to reach out directly to the voting public; and made it easier for voters to share news and opinion horizontally among themselves.

But even as social media help to open up closed regimes, democracy continues to be poorly served. Let me expand on this point by looking at first principles, focusing on the roles that electoral democracy expects media to play. There are at least three.

First, and most obviously, we need media to inform us about our choices. At first glance, this looks like the brightest spot. Media space is now saturated with information on candidates and their parties. Ruling parties in less democratic regimes are not able to block the flow of information as easily as they once did. However, whether the information being pumped out is reliable is another matter. After all, it is normal for contenders and their supporters to craft campaign messages that are designed not to enlighten the electorate but to win by any means, which includes purveying disinformation and inciting hatred against opponents.

I suspect that we underestimate the damage caused by attack messages in negative campaigning. We comfort ourselves with the faith that, in the long term, good speech will conquer bad speech, and that free and diverse media is the best answer to partisan propaganda. However, the long term is too long to wait if an election is around the corner. In the short term, we see reasonable, moderate individuals being driven out of politics by media-facilitated hostility; and – in Indonesia and India, for example – candidates suspected of human rights abuses using the new and traditional media to whitewash their reputations and position themselves as credible contenders.

Second, media should serve as a platform for negotiation, compromise and conciliation. Democracy isn’t just about picking winners; it is supposed to be a means of peaceful consensus building. However, thanks in part to social media, individuals now have the freedom to choose the communities they communicate with – and most find it less taxing cognitively to surround themselves with people who share their own preferences and values.

This kind of inward-looking communication is not a totally bad thing, since it is a necessary part of identity formation. Such safe spaces are especially valuable for minorities that were previously marginalised or suppressed. However, taken to an extreme, it can result in an unhealthy polarisation, with insufficient opportunity for people to find common ground. Of course, many authoritarian regimes overstate the need for harmony and consensus, using this to justify repression of dissent and diversity. In a democracy, people should not be forced onto common ground. But, the media should encourage people to deliberate across divides of ideology and identity, and this is not happening enough.

Third, long before the elections, media should help to shape the agenda. They should make some independent assessment of the important issues facing their society and then ensure that, long before polling day, they systematically plan their output of news and features to educate the public on these matters. Instead, most election coverage is reactive, reporting on the issues raised by the parties. This is not adequate, because there are usually topics that some political parties, or even all of them, may prefer to sweep under the rug. Combating climate change is one of them, because the tough action that is required probably won’t be popular. Similarly, the rights of small minorities is rarely an election issue, because none of the parties believe it would be vote winner. As part of its watchdog role, the media should be proactively pressing candidates to reveal detailed policy positions on these matters.

Unfortunately, most news organisations – even quality ones – tend to shy away from this sort of agenda setting. They may see this as too radical a departure from the disinterested, objective role that they are comfortable with. Furthermore, it is more entertaining to cover an election like a horse race, than to educate voters on issues. So the solution may come from social media more than from traditional journalism. Universities, think tanks and NGOs can use social media to keep important issues on the agenda, thus puncturing what sometimes comes across as a conspiracy of silence between big media and big parties.

Finally, let me say that there is nothing automatic or inevitable about any social media trend. Internet technologies are just tools, and their impact ultimately depends on who uses them and for what purpose. Professional journalism, more than most institutions, has the skills, capacities and mindsets to nudge the new media environment in a direction that serves the needs of electoral democracy. Whether journalists rise to the challenge is, I think, largely a matter of vision and values.