Twitter 2014: Hashtag electioneering wields clout

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Judith Collins' Twitter use has landed her in hot water. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Judith Collins' Twitter use has landed her in hot water. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Every week, Prime TV's Backbenchers brings together politicians, journalists and voters for a pub-style chat about New Zealand politics. Every second, Twitter does much the same thing.

Just four years ago, the Economist was still explaining to its informed readership what Twitter was all about. Today, its definition of tweets as "public telegrams" seems quaint. Twitter has moved beyond being a passing craze. In 2011, fewer than half of New Zealand MPs had Twitter accounts. Now, with 100 MPs tweeting, it is easier to ask who is not on Twitter than who is.

In user numbers (266,000, or 7.5 per cent of New Zealanders), Twitter trails far behind Facebook (2.2m, or 61 per cent of the population).

But although Facebook is great for connecting with friends, Twitter connects MPs and candidates with influencers - the journalists, bloggers, academics and others who will help shape the campaign agenda until September 20.

Why are we fans of using Twitter in politics?

Twitter levels the playing field. Whether you are John Key or Joe Bloggs, the 140-character length and enormous viral potential of a tweet is the same. In March, Sarah Wilson (@writehandedgirl) tweeted a blog post she had written about her life on a sickness benefit. Her story was retweeted 200 times and soon was picked up by media outlets asking Social Development Minister Paula Bennett to respond. Much political tweeting is about sharing content - new articles, blog posts, pictures and YouTube clips. The best content is quickly retweeted - and is often followed up by journalists.

Twitter is where scandals begin

Parties happily spend thousands of dollars and hire ad agencies to carefully craft campaign messages for billboards and mail-drops, but on Twitter MPs are more often than not just themselves. That has led to an ever-growing list of "Twitter scandals". Judith Collins, David Cunliffe and Green MP Jan Logie are just some whose Twitter use has landed them in hot water. Fortunately for voters, MPs' addiction to tweeting their unvarnished opinions still seems to outweigh their spin doctors' desire to turn Twitter accounts into updated fax machines.

If the 2011 election was about the "teapot tapes", we should prepare for a "Twitterstorm" this election campaign.

Twitter may help predict the outcome

In 2012, research company Topsy created the "Twitter Political Index" to find out if it could predict the US presidential election result. Although the results should be taken with a large degree of caution, it is clear the "Twindex" did show a widening lead to Barack Obama in the days before the election. In New Zealand, this ability to create "buzz" and set the news agenda is why political parties and pundits are taking what seems a frivolous platform very seriously. Twitter will play a key role throughout the 2014 New Zealand election campaign.

Each Sunday until election day, Otago University political experts Bryce Edwards (@bryce_edwards) and Geoffrey Miller (@GeoffMillerNZ) will follow the impact of Twitter on the campaign.

- Herald on Sunday

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