“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...

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