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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty