The man who stares at goats: How Gerry Adams conquered Twitter

Gerry Adams is one of Ireland’s most controversial figures, yet is utterly endearing and idiosyncratic on Twitter. What’s his secret, asks Carl Miller

Gerry Adams has just published a book. Within those covers, he offers his lucky readers a selection of his favourite tweets, sent by himself, over the last few years. Called My Little Book of Tweets, it is generating quite a bit of excitement.

The Sinn Féin bookshop, where it is available for purchase, sums up what’s included: The tweets range from the ‘political to the personal’, but also include ‘rubber ducks and teddy bears’.

Anyone who has glanced at Mr Adams’ Twitter feed will know that, at times, the content looks dramatically, almost madly different from any other politician: A picture of his loofah, a selfie with a goat, and, over the weekend, fried eggs.

All of this raises a very awkward question for those of us interested in the personalities of Irish politics: How on earth do you make sense of the very, very strange things Mr Adams posts on Twitter?

Mr Adams, the president of Sinn Féin, has escaped assassination attempts and weathered internment, and is accused by many, from Enda Kenny downwards, to having been a major force in the IRA — a claim he has always rejected.

It is easy to feel strongly one way or another about Mr Adams’ role in the rise of modern republicanism, but impossible to see it as anything but an important and consequential one. Why is he posting a selfie with a goat? His tweets might appear random, even mad, but they aren’t. It is all much cleverer, and probably more deliberate than that.

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I think Mr Adams has realised something very important. The public is sick of airbrushed, professional politicians. They are sick of empty soundbites and catchphrases, of media training, cliches and focus groups. They don’t want to be studied by politicians like rats in a cage, and don’t want to be told only what politicians think they want to hear.

Carefully controlled photocalls and centrally mandated slogans look and feel sterile on social media, and they have never got people excited or galvanised by the people who make them.

People want humans, not PR. Across the world, the pendulum of political charisma has swung away from the Tony Blairs and Enda Kennys, and towards the Boris Johnsons, Donald Trumps, even the Gerry Adams.

Being seen to be a living, breathing human, even a silly or buffoonish one, is the next smart brand for politicians. Mr Adams also knows that a large digital following is an important asset.

Followers and friends, likes and retweets are the new currency in politics; they give you a louder voice, a more vocal and galvanised body of supporters, even people — as Barack Obama has showed — that are willing to take their digital support offline, as volunteers and voters.

All the silliness of Mr Adams’ tweets has given him a very serious, precious asset in the busy, noisy wilds of social media: Visibility. He is, hands-down, Ireland’s most powerful politician on Twitter. He has 99,308 followers, the most in Ireland, and over twice as many followers as his closest rival, Enda Kenny (42,335). It’s also more followers than that of every Fianna Fáil candidate put together (93,670), more than all the Social Democrats, and more than all the Greens. A large following means oxygen on Twitter and, last week, Mr Adams, was mentioned more than anyone else. At more than 4,800 times, this surpassed every candidate for Fianna Fáil combined (4,695).

All of this visibility translates into impact. Most politicians in Ireland barely garner a following, and barely tweet anyway. But for impact, one politician, as shown in the accompanying graph, is soaring above their peers: Yes, you’ve guessed it, Gerry Adams.

It’s not only about visibility. Not all the engagement with Mr Adams on Twitter is positive, as you’d expect from a man with his background. But it’s a lot warmer than you’d think. This is exactly because all the pictures of rubber ducks, loofahs, and goats give people what they are often desperate to see in politicians: His human side.

His Twitter feed is a window into his life; what he eats, the music he listens to, his pets, his hobbies. Few politicians have been able to show their human side, and still fewer are able to use social media — so successfully — to do so.

That human warmth is vital to break through the mixture of cynicism and indifference that most voters, generally, have. People respond to Mr Adams on a personal level; wishing him a good day, or goodnight, asking after his health, or inviting him to the pub.

This starkly compares to Mr Adams’ closest rival on Twitter, Mr Kenny. His output is much more careful, more airbrushed, and professional, and provokes a much angrier, exasperated response from many Twitter-using members of the Irish public.

None of this means, of course, that Sinn Féin will romp to power, or that Mr Adams will be the next person to sit in the taoiseach’s chair. Tweets about ducks and cakes are not, in themselves, the key to high political office.

But platforms such as Twitter will increasingly matter in elections. They will be an increasingly important way for parties to rally their troops, and an increasingly significant influence on how politicians are understood, and engaged with, by the wider public.

Using Twitter in the right way will matter more and more, and Mr Adams’ loofahs and selfies are hitting the bullseye. Twitter, for many politicians in the general election campaign, will be an embarrassing necessity. For Mr Adams, it will be a powerful weapon in the run-up to election day.

Carl Miller is research director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media @carljackmiller

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