Social media has been used to build up support, in addition to traditional campaigning. How have the candidates fared?

IN the early days of the presidential race, Pat Kenny held an illuminating interview on the value of social media in an election campaign.

On September 5, he interviewed Ewan McIntosh, a social media strategist who co-directed a “digital election arms race” that helped the Scottish National Party (SNP) sweep to an historic majority in May. The strategy involved a “daily cycle of news, enthused volunteers and allow people to feel ownership of the party”. Party members co-ordinated their efforts on Twitter and Facebook to spread party messages. Crucially, the campaign was timed to build a crescendo of support on polling day.

Sean Gallagher is the only candidate in the presidential field remotely emulating the SNP’s success. Of all seven online campaigns, Gallagher’s is the best organised and has attracted the greatest level of interest by far in recent weeks.

Gallagher too is building to a crescendo in these final days: He added 4,000 Facebook fans last week, bringing his total to over 36,500 on Monday morning. Michael D Higgins has 4,500 Facebook fans in total.

Gallagher attracted 4,000 Twitter followers in October, compared with 1,200 for David Norris.

A revealing insight is the “talking about this” statistic on Facebook — it gives a snapshot of the people engaging with a page, sharing it and personally recommending the page. On Sunday, 977 people were “talking about” Michael D’s page on Facebook; the equivalent for Sean Gallagher was 11,000, four times more than Martin McGuiness (at 2,430) and seven times more than David Norris (1,561).

However, what exactly is being “talked about” is a mystery. While each of the candidates has a presence on Twitter and Facebook, none has truly engaged with people online.

Gallagher is no different to the other candidates in using the tool primarily as a “push” mechanism to market their campaign. Very few have used social media to glean an insight from the electorate. All candidates respond to online messages of support, but in researching this article I did not encounter one candidate actually asking followers a question.

Part of the problem is that most of the messages are sent by campaign teams. Rarely do messages feel personal, or give an insight to the candidate, with the exception of David Norris who on Sunday tweeted: “I’m by my fire to watch @StephenFry & I discuss the words of Joyce on #PlanetWord 9pm BBC2.”

Such is the prevalence of Gay Mitchell’s whereabouts on his Twitter stream, one could be forgiven for thinking he is fitted with an electronic tracking device that tweets on the hour. Other candidates are equally guilty of this and opportunistic photos. However, some personable photos do appear among the hundreds of photos on Sean Gallagher’s Facebook page.

The creation of accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube coincided with Mary Davis’s declaration of intent in April. This presented an opportunity to test her message online and to grow an online “grass roots” as she campaigned. However, her social media following languishes, mirroring her rating in opinion polls.

A feature of this campaign is the abject failure of the political parties to support their nominated candidate online in a co-ordinated way. Each has availed of the party press office to send press releases via email. However, the social media presence of party colleagues has not been harnessed. Labour TDs occasionally tweet when campaigning with Michael D. Gay Mitchell mentions colleagues on Twitter, some of whom are close to dormant. Various Sinn Féin accounts have been adept at supporting Martin McGuinness, something reflected in his YouTube viewership.

Facebook sets itself apart from other mediums in translating to actual votes. A study by Dr Ciarán McMahon of Candidate.ie noted that Facebook following in Ireland’s general election directly correlated with a candidate’s first preference votes. As Dr McMahon noted, people are likely to follow just one Facebook page but to follow several candidates on Twitter.

In other words, Facebook is more of a pledge of allegiance.

Gallagher’s success in this regard is credited to his campaign team and the online marketing company Simply Zesty, who Gallagher contracted in mid-August to help his online presence. Part of this strategy has been to use Facebook ads to build momentum. He intends to continue this in the final week, just as the SNP did in the dying days of the Scottish election.

In the closing days of the Scottish election, the SNP aggressively advertised the line “Both Votes, SNP”. It was fresh in voters’ minds as they ticked the ballot. Perhaps it is too late for Michael D Higgins to close the gap on Sean Gallagher now.

One possible approach is to get sympathetic candidates to aggressively campaign their followers to “Vote 2, Michael D”.

* Malachy Browne works with Storyful.com and is the editor of Politico.ie

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