The article below was published in today’s News Letter ‘Political Review 2010’. Check out the print version – it’s amid an eight-page supplement with contributions from Liam Clarke, Graham Gudgin, Alex Kane and Malachi O’Doherty.
Online has superseded mainstream media as the place where politics happens. The liveliest, most insightful exchanges of views and information on politics are taking place online and within social media platforms. (Yes, I know this is print media but keep reading anyway.)
I’m obsessed with social media. Increasingly, political parties here are becoming obsessed by it too.
May’s UK general election was hyped as the first online election. But it didn’t work out that way. Nothing has emerged which can yet emulate the influence of change.org in the States. Nevertheless, online communications has evolved steadily here. Lots of our reps are getting pretty good at it.
The election in Northern Ireland dragged lots of candidates online. Yes, seasoned bloggers like David Vance and old media veteran Mike Nesbitt really knew how to exploit the medium. But there were some accomplished newbies. For example, this was the election that saw the emergence of william-ross.com and his twitterstream.
William Ross does not fit the identikit of new media communicator. But with a little help, he did a good job. And that is the point. Social media platforms have an aura of complexity when in fact clever techies have built them for amateurs like you and me.
Even so, some people just don’t get it.
Take Labour candidate Stuart MacLennan. He’s an idiot. He got sacked during the general election for twitter activity which included calling the elderly ‘coffin dodgers’. Twitter is littered with the virtual corpses of aspirant political careers. Candidates for the Assembly elections need to think carefully about this.
Overall, the digital shadow cast by our political representatives can be problematic. For example, the Tom Elliott / GAA story first emerged on a blog. But lack of foresight can cause issues. Consider one Policing Spokesperson who played a dumb online game called ‘Mobster Wars’ which was linked to his twitter account and updated his feed with progress. Hundreds of followers were treated to updates along the lines of (Policing Spokesperson) ‘X has just committed a drug deal’ and (Policing Spokesperson) ‘X has just committed an act of house burglary’. That lasted for over half an hour. The moral of that story is think very carefully before allowing any app access to your account.
The last general election also saw a few fake twitter accounts emerge. During all the bru-ha about unionist unity in South Belfast, someone created the @splitterspratt twitterfeed. North Belfast independent candidate Martin McAuley was also subject to online personation. In the main, these are irritating but some are amusing. Take the @sammywilsonmp fake twitter account. The best put-down of the whole general election came when @sammywilsonmp tweeted: ‘Having a good laugh at Jim Allister. He’s like a fat Neil Kinnock.’ Still tickles me.
There are pitfalls, so why are reps taking the risk by going online? Who are they trying to talk to? Simple – those hard-to-reach folks whose media consumption places them outside traditional media.
Going into the general election, David Cameron did live webchats with mumsnet on three occasions. (Of course, the hapless Gordon Brown followed suit and ended up embroiled in ‘Biscuitgate’.) Floating female voters are to be found on facebook which is becoming the tool of choice for public representatives and candidates. I’d worry that facebook will become saturated with over-friendly facebookers seeking votes. That’s when tolerance runs dry. A social media campaign shouldn’t rely solely on facebook – it won’t be enough.
So what should a candidate do? I’d say you need to think hard about the value and authenticity you’re bringing. My humble advice is this:
• Be giving: give information, send links to stories (not always about you) but about the stuff that interests you and defines your values.
• Be social: at its most basic level, social media is just a way of having a conversation. No one enjoys a conversation where someone talks only about themselves. Engage, listen and respond. If you’re in vanity publishing mode, then you’re inviting communications fail.
• Be three-dimensional: are all your status updates about politics? Fail. Adjust your tone of voice and talk about the stuff people came onto facebook to talk about in the first place.
• Be polite: a local sci-fi author went on facebook recently to campaign for his book to get promoted on an online poll. He was too pushy and salesy. His book failed to move. He reacted by telling facebook that it wasn’t patriotic enough. Fail. Be polite and respectful.
• Be authentic: spin doesn’t work. Being a party hack makes you predictable and uninteresting. And don’t tweet ‘great reaction on the doorsteps this evening’. Please.
• Be responsible: don’t delegate communications to an aide. You are ultimately responsible for what goes out under your name.
• Be committed: a blog with one post on it looks like you don’t care. If you’re going down this route, be prepared to commit time on it.
• Be consistent: the internet has a memory. Everything is cached and archived. Whatever you say online stays in the public domain. There is an ever-present potential for embarrassment.
• Be vigilant: if a story is inaccurate, correct it quickly. The rate at which information is exchanged means a good online reputation (which takes months to build establish) can be lost terrifyingly quickly.
In the summer, I contributed to this newspaper’s ‘Union 2021’ series of articles. In that I said that political parties should move away from relying on traditional media as the main outlet for their message. Parties should opt to self-publish via multi-media, build networks and converse directly with the people who would vote for them.
That remains, but I would always urge caution. Good journalists are lurkers. They trawl online media looking for newsworthy content. So come election time, make sure to play nice. Don’t be a Stuart MacLennan.