Irish Politicians – Networking Or Not Working?

Open the papers, turn on the TV or check out your favourite blog, and the message is the same – this is Ireland’s first social media election, and commentators are queueing up to tell us how important Twitter and Facebook are going to be. But will the iPhone and the Android make a big difference at the ballot box? WIll the independents tweet their way into the Dáil? Will Enda’s ridiculous e-valentine force the electorate to fall out of love with him?

The answer is – probably not. Social media is becoming more and more important, but except in very limited circumstances it’s not going to make a difference.

The reason is simple -it’s a medium, not a message. Enda’s beloved five-point plan is still a five-point plan wheter it’s the subject of a Facebook group, a blog, a tweet  or one of those appalling campaign videos that are fast becoming the trademark of Fine Gael.

No matter where Gerry and Pearse go, they will still have to deal with questions about Sinn Féin’s bona fides on the economy.

And whether it’s a webcast or News at One, a viral video or a LinkedIn group message, Mícheál Martin still ruined the country (it appears that even he has been destroyed by the HSE, as setting it up seems to have given him amnesia). No amount of tweeting (even as gaeilge) will change that.

Social media is only useful in terms of spreading ideas – it does not create them, and as yet there is still a marked absence of big ideas in the campaign to date. The parties are still skirting each other like teenagers at a disco under the watchful eye of the ECB chaperones, but Twitter will not come up with an answer to the bank bailout disaster by itself, no more than it can ask the pretty socialist by the far wall up to dance for you.

But what social media will do is level the playing field. A Twitter account, a blog and a website cost next to nothing, and a PR person recently told me that a Facebook page is actually more valuable than a bespoke website these days. These simple tools combined with the few hours of donkey work involved in reaching out to various networks can help candidates at the lower end of the campaign financing ladder to even out the discrepancies.

I’ve been impressed so far by the likes of Kate Bopp and Michael Loftus, and less so by the main parties, for one simple reason – the independents are managing to come across as much more human than the auto-generated, knee-jerk trash being spouted via the communications departments of the major parties.

Whilst Kate is linking to audio recordings of debates and Michael is using Twitter to build a network, it is frankly embarrassing to see the strategies being used by some of the people at HQs who really should know better – canvassers breathlessly retweeting “great reaction on the doorsteps tonight, voters srsly concerned about quality of silage in West Cavan” when in fact no-one mentioned it at all.

The debates are even worse. It wouldn’t surprise me if FG had people lined up to tweet “thought Kenny did well there”, even for the TV3 debate that he didn’t show up for. The affirmation of the leader and the manifesto in 140 characters or less has become the new “we are where we are”.

Social media users see through this formulaic rubbish, and the Fianna Fáil canvasser who has the guts to tweet “got handed my arse by a single parent about USC tonight, and rightly so” will most likely win their candidate a damn sight more votes than our silage-loving canvasser mentioned above. Despite the possibility of anonymity, honesty is paramount in the not-so-brave new world of Twitter and Facebook – everything else is just anti-social media.

Those involved in the media in general are never slow to overestimate their own importance, but the truth is that very few commentators have any actual sway at all. The likes of Constantine Gurgdiev, David McWilliams and Miriam O’Callaghan have the capacity to reach a vast number of people, but for most tweeters the reach is limited and the effect equally so.

And yet one of the few growth industries in Ireland during this election has been that of social media commentator; but whilst it is interesting to hear what others are saying, it’s far from scientific and definitely not representative. Vincent Browne starts every show by mentioning the blog, the text line, the hash tag and the e-mail address, but the only thing that ever gets mentioned are a couple of tweets by Colm Tobin (not the novellist) before he looks at the headlines in tomorrow’s papers (Vincent, not Colm).

This election will not be decided by social media, no more than it will be decided in Brussels or Frankfurt. This election will be decided in the think tanks at the HQs of the major political parties – the party that comes up with the creative solutions to solve this country’s problems and the cojones to implement them will win the day. Those that don’t risk being wiped out, their places taken by independent candidates providing a fresh voice, if nothing else.

So far, we still haven’t seen any big ideas, on Twitter or anywhere else. And time is running out.

Note: Non-Twitter users can follow the Twitter activity of many candidates in #ge11 on http://www.politweets.ie

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