“All the time, journalists were missing out on what was actually happening.”

Post the 2016 Irish General Election, RTÉ’s Science & Technology Correspondent, Will Goodbody, was quick off the mark to assess whether, as billed, #ge16 really was “the first truly social media election in Ireland”.

In the coming weeks, when the dust has settled, the candidates and parties will be reflecting on what went right, and in many cases wrong, with their campaigns.

As part of that post mortem they will no doubt ponder what role was played by social media, who used it to maximum value and what could or should have been done differently online.

Prior to the campaign starting, #ge16 was billed as being the first truly social media election in Ireland.

And it was – at least to the extent to which it was used by candidates and parties to sell their messages, and by voters to converse about the issues.

The level to which social media impacted on voters’ views and willingness to vote is a question for the political and social scientists.

Indeed, hopefully it is forming the bones of an academic study already underway in some Irish university.

But what is clear now is that engagement levels on social media were very high.

Well, perhaps…  What denizens of self-reinforcing bubbles on twitter, et al, should beware of – be they political activists, politicians, journalists or bloggers – is the delusion that, as a self-promoting Mark Little, vice-president of media for Europe and Africa with Twitter, would have it, social media is “where people live”.  The reality is that it’s not the reality of most voters.

To be fair to Will Goodbody, he does point out that

The level to which social media impacted on voters’ views and willingness to vote is a question for the political and social scientists.

And, with that in mind, this shortish Irish Times report on “a conference on the media’s online coverage of the election”, Election Aftermath: Insights and Analysis, is worth reading.

Dr Derek Greene, a lecturer at the School of Computer Science at UCD, said 70 per cent of candidates had a Twitter account, but that many of these had been “dormant” before the campaign swung into action.

“Building a brand on Twitter takes time,” he said, and Twitter engagement was “not predictive” of election wins.

“The Social Democrats did well in terms of a proportional increase in Twitter followers, which may have been down to Stephen Donnelly’s performances in the second debate,” he said.

In terms of whether this was a “social media election”, Dr Greene said: “It would be great to say it had a significant effect, but the reality is a lot more complex than that. “There was not a strong correlation between Twitter popularity and activity and the actual outcome.”

Content that trended on Twitter was “not a serious discussion of issues” and tended to involve “jibes at other parties”. [added emphasis]

[How serious can you be with 140 characters? – Ed]  Indeed.

Skipping over the self-promotion of Twitter’s Mark Little, UTV Ireland’s political editor, Mary Regan, made some interesting points.

UTV Ireland political editor Mary Regan was critical of the media’s performance during the election. “Most of the coverage was about the horse race element of the campaign and less focused on the issues,” she said.

“Journalists talking about how boring the election was didn’t just engage in an act of self-indulgence, but also missed the point of what their job was, which was to explain the significance of events to the public.

“Journalists were blinded by the shiny objects that spin-doctors would throw them. All the time, journalists were missing out on what was actually happening.

“If you take water charges, people were becoming active on the streets and on social media, and the media missed that.”

She said the result of the election showed not just “a lack of trust in the political establishment, but also shows a lack of trust in the media”. [added emphasis throughout]

Being “blinded by the shiny objects that spin-doctors would throw them” is a long-standing problem of the political lobby correspondent [and bloggers! – Ed].  A social media bubble is just a replacement of that lobby, and holds the same risks.

Looking ahead to the Northern Ireland Assembly election, will we see something more than a relentless focus on the horse race element of the campaign party political soap opera?

The initial signs are not good...

, , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Makhno

    The media failed to cover the water charges protests adequately/fairly long before they were having ‘shiny objects’ thrown in their faces by spin doctors prior to the election. I think it’s a bit more structural than that.

  • Hold forth.

    Expand on what you think the “structural” problem is.

    But try, if you can, to tie it in to the actual topic.

    Which is the influence of social media activity – where as I noted water charges featured heavily – on election results.

    It could be argued that the social media activity had an impact on the Irish General Election result to an extent.

    But, if it did, it was at the fringes, and more a reflection of the distrust of the political establishment and the media than an actual driving force.

  • Makhno

    The stuctural problem lies in the nature of the media, starting with the Indy circle and widening out to Donnybrook et al. You can see it every night on RTE news and Prime Time etc. somewhere between the emollient approach to people imposing savage cuts on the country, and the lazy stereotyping of popular protests or any candidates who question the staus quo. There’s plenty of it North of the border too. It is not a temporary blindness, but in many cases a wilful, permanent one. I mean, if it happens a few times, there has to be an element of collusion, surely.

    Forgive me, I thought that a large portion of the actual topic was what the media saw, or missed, perhaps I was fooled by your headline. In any case, I was directly referring to the last quote from M Regan, and taking issue with the ‘temporary’ description of media myopia.

    So, I would agree that there is a mistrust of the media, perhaps growing in recent years, and would believe that social media offers a chance to modify the discourse, perhaps away from the horse race element, and not just through Twitter. But we are really only beginning to understand the nature and impact of social media, (we have a good example in NI 21 of social media quantity v quality) though I would say that anything which enables dialogue to occur, unmediated by those who have missed the issues for some time, has to be a good thing.

  • “…I would say that anything which enables dialogue to occur, unmediated by those who have missed the issues for some time, has to be a good thing.”

    Well, that was the point made by the self-promoting Mark Little, vice-president of media for Europe and Africa with Twitter.

    It isn’t, necessarily, true.

    As for the “‘temporary’ description of media myopia”. Eh? Where did that come from?

    The actual quote from Mary Regan begins with “a lack of trust in the political establishment”.

    That’s not being ‘fixed’ by a social media conversation that consists of an echo chamber of like-minded individuals.

    As the election result demonstrated. With the exception of the rise of the marginal independents. Certainly a sign of a lack of trust in the political establishment… But not a surprise.

  • Makhno

    I don’t think M Little was making the same point that I was making, and I think you are missing several other points. M Regan is quoted by you, or quoted by someone else by you, discussing the election, which being a short time period, can be described as temporary. My point (again) is that this is not a temporary failing in the media, but part of its function. I think you seriously underestimate the potential impact of social media and you seem to see it as just Twitter. Have you a bee in your bonnet about them, or just Mark Little?

  • mickfealty

    Personally I’ve huge respect for Mark Little as a journalist and an entrepreneur but I do think the effect of Twitter is pervasive both on the journalistic side and on the political side.

    It’s a superb marketing/networking tool, but in my experience I don’t think it is quite where all the real people are. They aren’t even on FB half the time either.

    I’m probably coming back to this in my own post soon, but just listen to Niamh Hourigan talk on a recent PT Extra discusion about the transactional nature of the Irish voting system: https://goo.gl/lcY2Yq.

    As it stands, there’s little scope for Twitter to have the depth or the human memory to spark or sustain such a transactional relationship…

  • Makhno

    The discussion on Prime Time highlights the problem of clientism, as brilliantly satirised in 14 seconds by David McSavage in a sketch called ” he fixed the road”. It comes down to what we want out of our legislators.

    While I can see them as a source of support as a last resort in a critical case, I think it’s a waste of their time for them to be supersized welfare rights workers etc. We end up with the rather ghastly vision of Healy Raes demanding roads etc for their area (and you could say that it’s the only way their area will get infrastructure, so fair play, but I would rather have the Tony Gregory approach, to be honest) or the questionable tendering of statements to courts advising that the accused is known to the MP and has done community work.

    However while community support systems continue to atrophy through cuts, Councillors MPs, MLAs or TDs end up as the main source of recourse. They must surely be aware of this, and many of them relish the concentration of power running through their hands. This is evidenced in the ambivalence of politicians towards funding community development approaches which they do not control. So perhaps the only antidote to this is the development of community based responses, à la water meters or stronger advocacy organisations, which of course will cost money.

    Mick, I take your point about the limitations of Twitter, but I still say that with greater numbers not engaging to the extent of casting a vote, if parliamentary democracy wants to save its ass, it must seek out whatever percentage of people especially young people, who might be persuaded that politics matters in their lives. This will mean using social media better, but it comes down to what parties or politicians are offering at election time. A few years ago there was a discussion about allowing voting by text, as if that alone would be a remedy, but it is emblematic of the paucity of response by the poitical class.

  • Greenflag 2

    ‘ I would rather have the Tony Gregory approach, to be honest’

    One Tony Gregory can work particularly in the context of a CJ Haughey style politician determined to grab power by hook or by gravy . Twenty one Tony Gregory’s and the fallacy of composition clicks in and coalitions fall out .

    Belgium managed for a year without a government . Politicians in Dublin probably would’nt risk that length of a ‘negotiation ‘ period -People might get used to not having them and asking direct questions such as why are they still being paid for not governing !

  • And back to the actual topic…

  • Greenflag 2

    Which is ? I’m not a fan of established politicians or social media and while twitter has it’s uses I don’t see it as being a game changer for any party. I’m sure social media can have a major impact on Irish politics but it has’nt happened yet . But at least RTE’s on line coverage of GE 16 has been a major improvement on past efforts .

  • Greenflag 2

    As long as you have the current voting system PR with multi member often of the same party constituencies elected then the phenomenon of the ghastly Healy Raes will contiinue -all the more so in a society where the established parties ‘failed ‘ in their oversight of the economy .In addition the outsourcing of much legislation which affects people’s daily lives to Brussels then TD’s of all parties are between a rock and a hard place . Purely nationally focused politicians have to be re-elected if they want to make an impact and most have to ‘perform ‘ at constituency level if they aspire to re-election . Some one third of sitting TD’s were not returned to this Dail .

    In this context (the political structure of PR in the Republic ) it’s hard to see social media having more than a peripheral impact .And yes parliamentary democracies not just in Ireland better start wanting save their rear ends . Some have become so remote from ordinary people’s lives and concerns and appear to be able to do so little that a large section of the population have given up on them as basically Me Feiners rather than Sinn Feiners . While there was/is always an element of that in every nations politics -I believe it’s going beyond the beyonds as my old man used to say -in today’s social media obsessed world where the fourth estate is seemingly embedded with the disconnected political elites and media moguls of society.