Politics online: Life is tweet as politicians grapple with the new era of social media

The next election will show how Facebook and Twitter can be as important as weekly clinics and canvassing on the doorsteps, writes Elaine Loughlin
Politics online: Life is tweet as politicians grapple with the new era of social media

HE marriage referendum was a historic moment for Ireland. Not only did the country gain international attention for voting in favour of marriage equality, for the first time in Ireland, social media galvanised political interaction.

Viral videos encouraged young people to vote, online campaigns brought thousands home to cast their ballot, and those on Twitter ensured Ireland was trending around the world.

Although social media existed in 2011, the upcoming general election will be the first time where we may see online platforms having an impact on what happens in the polling booths.

With an election on the horizon, political parties and independent candidates will be thinking of much more than just tying posters to electricity poles and are already devising social media strategies.

However, while some have embraced this new form of communication, others have steered well clear of it and it appears to be up to individual politicians on how much or little they interact with the world of social media.

With more than 22,000 followers, Sinn Féin is by far the most popular party on Twitter, as is leader Gerry Adams, who has amassed more than 92,000 followers by sending out messages on everything from topical issues to his rubber ducky. However, although many in Sinn Féin share Mr Adams’ enthusiasm, party colleague Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has stayed away from the Twittersphere.

Likewise, former education minister Ruairí Quinn has yet to tweet, but his Labour Party leader Joan Burton has a healthy online following of 13,500.

Views within Leinster House differ, from Labour’s Willie Penrose, who has “no interest” in social media, to his party colleague Kevin Humphreys, who said he now has more contact with constituents through social media than through his constituency clinics.

However, in the ever-evolving online world, Twitter is only one of many ways to push out a political message, engage with voters, and attack the opposition.

Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton used the medium of Twitter and her own website to launch her US presidential campaign. Her team also make use of Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat, and have even created a Spotify playlist from Clinton that voters can listen to.

She has live-streamed a rally via social video service Periscope and uses more established sites like YouTube and Facebook.

Politicians are also getting into election mode on this side of the Atlantic, and all of the major parties now have social media strategies.

Labour, for example, uses the main social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Flickr, as well as sites and platforms such as Audioboom, Vimeo, Vine, and Periscope.

Some 94% of Labour’s election candidates are using Twitter, and 89% use Facebook.

Labour’s head of online, Shauneen Armstong, said: “The party has been a frontrunner in terms of online video advertising through Facebook. In summer 2015, we pioneered a series of three 30-second video ads exclusively on Facebook and YouTube, reaching a wide audience. A second series ran in autumn 2015 and Labour will be advertising online extensively during #GE16.

“We have also previously targeted specific groups of people, such as women on International Women’s Day and will continue to do that online.”

Sinn Féin is also a leader when it comes to promoting the party online.

Michael Nolan, Sinn Féin’s head of social media, said: “It’s going to feature heavily during the campaign; we feel we have been to the fore with social media up until this point of time.”

As well as pushing their message and engaging with the public through the internet, Mr Nolan said Sinn Féin is now using its web-based platforms to encourage people to sign up to become online supporters, which he said tens of thousands have already done.

Fine Gael sees engagement on social media as crucial.

A party spokesman said: “It is a key opportunity to connect with the electorate and for public representatives to knock on virtual doors to get feedback and connect with the public.”

Like its coalition partner, Fine Gael also has a busy digital media team.

“The team assist public representatives in their engagement with the public and provide TDs and senators with ongoing support and training to help them engage with their constituents on social media,” the spokesman said.

Fianna Fáil say its main focus has been on Twitter and Facebook, although they are experimenting with a number of other platforms and they recruited a full-time social media officer last year.

A Fianna Fáil spokesperson said: “Fianna Fáil sees social media as being a very important part of the media mix and we expect it to play a significant role in the run up to the general election.

“This is going to be especially important in an election context where different media outlets maybe have different agendas and it becomes harder for voters to access views and policies directly.

“As well as promotion of the Fianna Fáil agenda, we also see social media as an important tool in combatting the spin and frequent mistruths of other parties. For the actual campaign, we will have a team of party social media activists based in election HQ full time.”

However, observers believe smaller parties and Independents are the ones that can really harness the power of social media and gain publicity and support through this relatively cheap platform.

Social Democrat TD Stephen Donnelly said the online world provides some level of equality in the battle with larger parties.

“We are fighting an asymmetric fight with the parties,” said Mr Donnelly. “We are new we have no money they have literally millions and millions and millions. Fine Gael every year gets €5.5m, as well as having the entire apparatus of the State at their disposal.

“But one of the areas where we see the playing fields are less unfair is digitally.”

Allister Hodgett, head of public affairs at Wilson Hartnell PR, said: “I think particularly if you are an Independent, if you are a challenger candidate, then social media gives you a platform where you can air your views make yourself known to voters that otherwise isn’t available to you.

“What I would expect to see is challenger candidates who have to attract attention, who have to try to challenge incumbents are going to make more use of social media than the incumbents in general.

“It’s going to mimic the change that we have seen across general consumer behaviours, but with a time lag because politicians want to see how it has worked out in the rest of the economy and for journalists and then they will take the bits that are relevant to them.”

Mark Brennock, director of public affairs at Murray Consultants, says social media is changing how political candidates are able get their message across, especially during an election campaign where the fight for airtime and column inches intensifies.

He said these new platforms have also benefited marginal candidates who would not have gained the same level of publicity from traditional media in the past.

“Now any candidate can seek to infiltrate the debate and if what they say is interesting enough, then it gets shared on social media and ultimately reported in traditional media,” said Mr Brennock.

“Traditional media retains a credibility and authority that social media doesn’t always have. But social media is challenging and influencing its agenda more and more.”

While the more static websites such as Twitter and Facebook pages are now well established, Mr Hodgett said video platforms will come to the fore in the upcoming campaign.

“I think video is going to be very interesting,” said Mr Hodgett. “What social media allows you to do is take advantage of the fantastic power of video and we have already seen Fine Gael using vines, which allow you to grab remarks — be they historical or recent — from an opposition figure and endlessly replay them. I think we are going to see more and more of that.

“The sheer speed at which you can push that out and the impact that video has, I think that is going to be the bigger story in this election campaign rather than more static text-based communication.

“I do think that all of the campaigns will need to give more weight — not just to using social media as a means of pushing out messages but also as a means of listening to voter sentiment. I think the party that gets that right will have afforded social media the respect it deserves as part of that set of tools that you use to win elections,” he said.

The importance of good interaction with constituents was highlighted by Labour minister Kevin Humphreys, who said social media and especially Facebook can be a powerful tool of communication.

“I find I get more queries now from Facebook and Twitter than I do though my clinics,” he said.

Mr Humphreys said that the recent referendum had shown how important a part social media can play in a political campaign and it would also be evident in the upcoming election.

However, Mr Hodgett warned that TDs and election candidates should be careful about what online outlets they use and how they utilise them.

“It’s about whether social media can actually help drive the engine of getting elected,” he said. “At the end of the day, it has to help deliver votes for it to be useful to politicians.

“But politicians also have to ask the question of how is social media useful to voters when they are making up their minds.”

This was echoed by Adrian Kavanagh of NUI Maynooth. He said a lot of Irish politicians are not comfortable with using Twitter and other social media outlets.

“You do get the sense that sometimes it’s not politicians themselves, it’s not the person themselves, a lot of the time it might be pushed by party PR,” said Dr Kavanagh.

He warned that the public quickly realise this and this can go against a politician and damage their credibility if it is clear their Twitter accounts or other online platforms are being managed by their background team.

“You have to be very careful with how you use it,” he said.

This was also echoed by Mr Brennock: “Candidates should only be on Twitter if they have time to manage their account personally, writing their own contributions to debate and responding to genuine comments.”

Ignoring the torrent of abuse that most politicians receive is also part of the brief.

Paul Allen, a PR consultant who has worked on many campaigns, said that in many cases politicians don’t fully use social media or get their background staff to manage it for them.

“There are people like [senator] Ivana Bacik who are campaigners rather than politicians; they know how to use social media,” said Mr Allen.

“Politicians need to be embracing social media but some are still using the ‘Google machine’, as they call it.

“I think it’s all to play for. Parties like Sinn Féin have undoubtedly got it right, others are floundering.”

Independent senator Gerald Craughwell has almost 6,000 Twitter followers and takes the view: Embrace it or die.

“In today’s world, you have to do it,” said Mr Craughwell. “You have to be able to connect with the public.

“I think Twitter has what I would call ‘grounding’. People on Twitter will very quickly tell you what they think of you.”

As well as asking the public for their opinion, he also shares some of his private life with his online followers, having posted everything from details of his summer barbecues to pictures of the food served to him in hospital.

Mr Craughwell said online media will become an even more important tool in the future. He says people under the age of 40 don’t want knocks on their door.

“We have to starting meeting them where they are and where they are is at the end of their iPhone or on their PC or tablet,” said Mr Craughwell.

Whether individuals accept it or not, social media will feature in the upcoming election race.

“I do think that all of the campaigns will need to give more weight – not just to using social media as a means of pushing out messages but also as a means of listening to voter sentiment,” Mr Hodgett said.

“The party that gets that right will have afforded social media the respect it deserves as part of that set of tools that you use to win elections.”

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