Who – if anyone – holds the social media key to the next Irish general election?

“The voter is not without blame in this unhappy saga. Always ready to complain, but unwilling to roll up their own sleeves, the electorate has colluded with the political parties to create a world of Peter Pan politics: where the voter lives in a perpetual childlike state and never grows up.”

— Deborah Mattinson

It may be that dialogue across lines of political difference is a key pre-requisite for sustaining a democracy. As Pablo Barberá notes “how individuals gather political information affects the quality of political representation, the policy-making process, and the stability of the democratic system”.

But social media has thrown a huge pall of confusion over how that dialogue takes place, and given rise to considerable anxiety over whether it can in fact take place within a homophilic discourse of social media that has driven out space for those who hold weak political views.

The Irish Examiner has a big spread on how it thinks social media might influence the next Irish general election.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 11.04.00If we were to rely on social media presence we’d have to give the whole election to Sinn Fein who have by far the slickest and most extensive networks of any political party on the island.

It has a head of social media (where Fianna Fail has only recently appointed a social media officer) heading up a whole team of creators and producers with the party leader Gerry Adams has amassed a huge network of followers online.

Interestingly though the Labour party (which was arguably first mainstream party who got into the social media revolution) comes next in numbers of followers on Twitter, though their time in government has not been kind to them on social networks.

As Mark Brennock notes, it may be the marginal candidates that sweat most equity out of the new social wires:

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.

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.

As Eileen Loughlin also observes in the Examiner politicians generally lagging behind in jumping onto the social media bandwagon. The risk aversion comes down to the apportionment of time and efficiency in gathering in votes. She quotes Allister Hodgett of Wilson Hartnell PR who:

…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.”

We’ve seen a number of campaigns in which social media has been held to be key in influencing high quality outcomes. The first Lisbon referendum in the Republic, Obama’s first 2008 campaign, the Yes campaign in Scotland, and I would argue more the latest UK Labour leadership campaign.

In these cases the political actors had no need to negotiate the differentiated markets of the constituency. Therein lies a key dilemma particularly for the larger parties. How much emphasis on service to the parish electors and how much to scaling your mass ideology within the wider nation?

When Peter Geoghegan and I did a one day road trip through Ireland on election day in February 2011, beyond Cavan we relied heavily on contacts in news organisations and local radio to convene a series of impromptu focus groups. Twitter in particular had weak local reach.

That may well be changing. But it is still not clear to me that any of the political parties have yet develop the means of making an effective trade off sufficient to handle this split attention between the local and more global concerns.

Going into this election from a pure social media point of view, Sinn Fein has a massive advantage. They understand better than anyone what Henry Jenkins calls the spreadable model which…

…emphasizes the activity of consumers — or what Grant McCracken calls “multipliers” — in shaping the circulation of media content, often expanding potential meanings and opening up brands to unanticipated new markets.

Rather than emphasizing the direct replication of “memes,” a spreadable model assumes that the repurposing and transformation of media content adds value, allowing media content to be localized to diverse contexts of use.

In the Presidential campaign a bogus Twitter account (set up on exactly the same day as the official McGuinness account) delivered a coup de grace to the front runner (and political ingenue) Sean Gallagher exposing the weakness of mainstream media (and politicians) in dealing with social media.

In the US the beguilement of the media by social platforms has been a feature since at least 2008. Jon Ronson in a piece for the Guardian today bemoaned the current trajectory:

…there is a toxic relationship between mainstream media and social media, I think. To begin with old media just ignored Twitter; then it tried to emasculate it by doing “the 50 best tweeters” pieces, trying to control it. I remember feeling disappointed about that because the whole point of Twitter was that it was egalitarian, someone with a hundred Twitter followers can be just as entertaining as someone with a hundred thousand. And then what happened was that mainstream media began to bow to Twitter’s agenda setting.

He also notes a shift which may or may not be a question of the scale of these new highly partisan networks

I do miss the old days. Sharing jokes with strangers really helped my mental health. To begin with people would admit little things about themselves and other people would say: “Oh my God, I’m exactly the same.” There was this shared destigmatising thing. That is at risk of going. It’s now often about hunting for people’s transgressions and shameful secrets.

And finally…

The corporations don’t want blandness or complexity. They want spikes of outrage. Journalism was always about speaking truth to power. But increasingly people are wary of trying to speak truth to social media I think.

All of that, I’m pretty sure, is true. The discourse on Twitter can be a brutal, bleed-em-to-death conflict with self selected enforcers of the right way of thinking to the fore. Or as Ronson puts it: “it can seem like that fucker from the 80s is now in charge, and no one is allowed to say anything“.

But how effective can such folk be in converting people to their cause? Damaging others more than selling seems the aim.  Across Europe the large ‘grey’ moderates are getting eaten (or in the case of the French Socialists, throwing themselves under a bus to save France from the FN).

Pollsters too are suffering from a variation of the self selection virus.  Martin Boon, director of ICM research said in June that 20 years ago it took no more than 4,000 calls to produce 2,000 interviews — now that return requires 30,000 calls. Those with weak opinions are getting harder to canvas.

The habit of Irish pollsters to round don’t knows into party ratings means that we have massive fluctuations via algorithmic reassignment. Sunday’s poll for instance had don’t knows at 27% and independents and small parties at 16%, enhancing the effect of voter volatility.

At the end of the day, for all the effectiveness of voter generated content, the real genius of the Obama 08 campaign was twofold: clear and resonant messaging and a highly effective (if transient) party governance structure to ensure that the online campaign had concrete local effect.

It remains to be seen who (if anyone) can pull those magic ingredients out of their Irish political rattlebag come February or March.

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  • Back in 2011, the SNP used social media to collect 50,000 email addresses in 90 days, then reminded them to vote SNP. They had a team following the NationBuilder dashboard, starting online conversations with anyone who reacted positively to them (e.g. follows, retweets, likes, shares), eventually getting them to sign a petition that collected all their contact details.

  • mickfealty

    Quite so Dave. That’s a proper governance platform and it paid dividends: http://goo.gl/61qhhi.

  • TruthToPower

    Are people so sheep like that they will vote for a party because it emailed them saying they should?
    And people wonder why I’m against universal franchise? If we are to have voting then an IQ and political knowledge test should be passed before entitlement to vote

  • Nordie Northsider

    The bad news for Fianna Fáil is that Fine Gael have donned the mantle of ‘party of Government’ and have become the home of middle of the road voters. Very hard to regain that territory once you’ve lost it. Hard for a clientelist party to function when they’ve nothing to give their clients.

  • chrisjones2

    They are all clientist!!! Though some only work after they have had their brown envelopes

  • Granni Trixie

    I’m so with you on this one TTP. And I’m against lowering the age for voting too.

  • mickfealty

    The system constrains most parties to clientelist politics of one form or another. There’s no politics in Ireland without some class of pork.

    They’ve a huge amount of bad Karma to pay off too. That sort of massive loss of confidence is unlikely *ever* to be wholly restored. Unfortunately for them FG’s post crash boom is getting boomier.

    Mount Pergatorio won’t be over them in a month of Reek Sundays unless they can find a way of speeding up their own virtuous circle.

  • mickfealty

    Seriously? It’s called ‘engagement’!

  • Anglo-Irish

    First of all, people didn’t ” vote for a party because it emailed them “.

    They voted for it because it showed an interest in them and interacted with them.

    Secondly, IQ tests are a load of garbage which tend to reinforce the prejudices of the organization that set them.


    Thirdly, are you saying that the greatest Dictators, murderers and evil mass murderers in history couldn’t achieve a reasonable score in an IQ test?

    In fact many of them were highly intelligent, and therefore, by your view, perfectly able to decide upon who should be in control.

    You appear to be against democracy, in fact you appear to be advocating something which closely resembles eugenics .

    It always amuses me how those who profess to be religious turn out to be complete hypocrites on such a regular basis.

    James 2:9 ” But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors “.

    Leviticus 19:15 ” You shall do no injustice in judgement, you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbour fairly “.

    Romans 2:11 ” for there is no partiality with God “.

    Acts 10:34 Opening his mouth Peter said , ” I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality. ”

    And yet, you presume to show partiality, you appear to be under the impression that your opinion on who should be able to vote and choose leaders is more important than that of other people, who will be ruled by them, as will you.

    You claimed to me a week ago that you had a ‘ simple meek faith ‘ in God, looks more like an arrogant belief in your own opinion to me.

  • TruthToPower

    I don’t see it as any more ‘engaging’ than an impersonal ‘thank you for visiting’ road sign when driving away from a village or town. I’m not so easily taken in or seduced by such inanity

  • TruthToPower

    At last, a fellow brain cell who can think for himself. So much lefty groupthink online.

  • mickfealty

    Herself. Please read the commenting rules under about Slugger? Ball not man.

  • mickfealty

    Play the ball Mister?

  • mickfealty

    I’ve no idea how much you know about what politicians and political parties do to snag votes and the loyalty of voters. Very little by the sounds of it.

    They ALL try to identify likely voters and seek to engage with them. And over the years parties have spent an awful lot of money on it. It’s one reason why new entrants struggle.

    The Tories launched MERLIN in 2008 (https://goo.gl/4RUj0O) as a voter management system built on reforms which unified and centralised the party in the early 2000s.

    Labour use Contact Creator (https://goo.gl/dvlaQY) as a core system which operates alongside a couple of other tools that they brought in subsequently to do more specific jobs.

    Lib Dems have bought in an American system (https://goo.gl/nBYluY). All are classes of customer management systems.

    The Tories first showed theirs publicly at the 2006 Conference in Bournemouth. They made a particular point of only showing it to party delegates because bottom up buy in was crucial.

    They used it in the ill fated UCU-NF 2010 campaign but it failed to deal with the complex political market in NI and could not compensate for the lack of historical data from the UUP.

    For me the SNP model is worth highlighting (follow the link above) because NationBuilder is/was a direct steal from Obama’s open governance model.

    This open approach worked much more effectively for them in the 2014 IndyRef than the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections for reasons I have outlined above.

    But the root of their approach was sown then. Unlike Corbyn’s (foolish IMHO) direct democracy model, NationBuilder engagement stayed firmly within the control of the party.

    In the IndyRef it outsourced its voice to a senior non party figure who then popularised the core mission of the SNP denuding Scottish Labour of the empathy of its core vote.

    Brilliant strategic in line planning and execution. And a master class in digital voter engagement in the process.

    Anyone who thinks it was just to do with emails alone is frankly channelling a one celled idiot. Not that I am looking in any one’s direction right now. 😉

  • Granni Trixie

    Don’t let it go to your head.

  • Kevin Breslin

    There is a very simple way voters can get around any “system” in a democracy. They can one day decide just to vote for someone they choose for a personal reason. People can also decide to judge a party on their latest ideas not their history.

    It might seem rather amazing but these people called voters may have the same capacity for free will, (if such a thing exists of course), as you or me!

    I know, hard to believe … Easier to rely on zeitgeist and systems to enslave people’s minds than think they can change their opinion just while sitting on a toilets.

    That would be a big ask, it would mean in reality systems, political parties and journalists actually have no real power over them.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Just me?

  • TruthToPower

    Who did I insult Mr Fealty? I actually praised Ms Trixie. Hmm

  • TruthToPower

    Oh Mr Fealty, Look who’s playing the man now. Oh hypocrisy. I seem to have struck a nerve Mick. I fully understand how these systems operate but they don’t work as people like you think they or hope they do.

    People see ‘engagement’ as you call it as nothing more then telemarketing and insults to our intelligence. Then again perhaps people like you are indeed influenced by such. Jolly good if party emails help you make your mind up. Others like me make up our minds in the round.

  • Anglo-Irish

    And attempted to insult every other forum user that doesn’t agree with your views Hmmmmm

  • TruthToPower

    Please point to any post where I insult people. Disagree with them yes but never insult.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Well let me see.

    In your response to Granni Triixie you appeared to be saying that as she agreed with you she was a fellow brain cell, and anyone who didn’t agree was incapable of thinking for themselves.

    You then went on to say that in your opinion there is too much ‘ lefty groupthink online ‘ the inference being that only you, and those who agree with you, are able to come to a conclusion without being brainwashed by some ‘lefty’ organization.

    Seems a fairly comprehensive insult to me given that quite a few disagree with you, but perhaps I am mistaken in my interpretation?

    On an individual level, I merely pointed out what I considered to be a bit of inconsistency to Mick Fealty you accused him of being a hypocrite, displaying spleen and belonging to the chattering classes.

    Perhaps we differ in what we regard as an insult?

  • Robin Keogh

    You must bare in mind that quite often in the run up to an election a very large proportion of voters are undecided. targeting these individuals with direct policy or manifesto can and sometimes does win them over. They are not sheep, they are simply looking for a political home more in tune with their own views or personal circumstances. Also, some parties lose support whilst in government – think Irish Labour at the minute. Those voters are most likely to respond positively to approaches from other left leaning groups who can demonstrate capability and formulate ideas in line with the voters natural ideology.

  • mickfealty


  • Anglo-Irish

    Good, glad to hear we’re all playing by the same rules.

    Can’t help noticing though that a post of mine pointing out a certain inconsistency in the application of the ‘Play the ball ‘ rule has been removed.

  • mickfealty

    Yes. And if you get into another pointless off topic and utterly personal argument with another commenter, you are gone. And your feet will not touch the ground.

    You think I research and think and write stuff just so you can then pick a fight with someone who’s tone you don’t and in the process completely ignore the topic?

    I’d rather we had no comments than facilitate that sort of idiocy. Twitter is a vast digital estate where to pick fights to your hearts content. If you don’t have a cogent opinion on any of the material here, then be guest and take it to Twitter?

  • Anglo-Irish

    My reply to Truth to Power was in response to his comment that he didn’t agree with a universal franchise and would like to see IQ testing before anyone was allowed an entitlement to vote.

    I was somewhat irritated by that view and replied accordingly.

    You deemed that to be unacceptable and ‘playing the man’.

    Fair enough, you are a Mod and entitled to your opinion which I accepted.

    However, you then replied to Truth to Power and said that he appeared to know ‘ Very Little ‘ about the subject that he posted about and concluded with the comment that ” Anyone who thinks it is just to do with emails is frankly channeling a one celled idiot “.

    Does that not constitute ‘ playing the man ‘ ?

    You have also taken it upon yourself to refer to my post as ” that sort of idiocy “. Playing the man?

    Is that a true summation of what happened?

    If so, in what way was I ‘ playing the man ‘ more than you?

    We don’t have a problem here Michael, it’s your forum and if you wish it I’m gone.

    Incidentally, I don’t do Twitter.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I also think it is disgraceful you put up an English based political article that blames bad politics on work shy voters. If British and Irish voters were workshy, we wouldn’t have societies where journalists could escape from the demands of procurement and production so they can exchange their thoughts expression for goods and services without living off the land or being self-sufficient.

    Journalists have been living the best example of the Peter Pan lifestyle.