The internet and social media has so much potential when it comes to politics. It could be providing much more political information to voters; facilitating better engagement between politicians and the public; and democratising elections through feedback to the parties. But instead it's become largely about stunts and sanitised PR.
Social media has become a key part of electioneering. And there's been more coverage in the mainstream media of what the politicians are doing on Facebook than ever before. In a sense, this might be seen as a welcome development, providing the campaign with an extra and dynamic dimension.
Unfortunately, so much social media use by politicians simply replicates what they do in other forms of campaigning - using spin-doctors and various professionals to shape our views. That's why most of what we are seeing from the politicians and parties on social media amounts to stunts, which are normally cunningly scripted by professionals keen to sanitise and depoliticise any substantial election content.
Far from "keeping it real"
This lack of authenticity is the subject of an article I wrote in the weekend for the Herald on Sunday - see: LOL! Politicians 'keeping it real' on social media. In my critical assessment of the social media campaigning of politicians, I explain how public hunger for authenticity and engagement is huge in politics at the moment, which partly explains the rise of "mavericks, populists, and even very mild-mannered politicians who seem like a breath of fresh air because they come across as real, and not too far elevated above the public."
But I bemoan that "In 2017 New Zealand politics seems lacking authenticity and genuine public engagement. Nowhere is this clearer than on social media. Here - as with the parties' other attempts to mobilise youth and other disengaged sections of the population - they're failing badly. It's hard to imagine any New Zealand politician tweeting as Trump does. Party leaders here tend to have their accounts controlled by communications staff, who normally allow only the blandest, most uncontroversial statements to go out."
That doesn't mean social media strategies can't be successful, and the Herald on Sunday editorial emphasises that "The coming election will be fought online as well as on radio, television and the printed page", and "The party that develops an effective online presence here in September could also pull off a surprise" - see: The election campaign on social media will count.
Bevan Rapson has also focused on the challenge of authenticity for politicians using social media - see his North & South column: Down with the kids: When politicians try - and fail - to fit in. He likens the various "Hey, dude" attempts by aging politicians to appeal to millennials, as being like David Brent of The Office, with the inevitable "squirm-inducing consequences".
Rapson says "trying to appeal to young people is particularly tricky because of their in-built radar for identifying ageing try-hards." Nonetheless, he suggests Bill English has conquered this online: "Whatever else you might think of him, English is naturally blessed with a high apparent-authenticity factor."
Others are more critical of politicians' focus on stunts and other cringeworthy tweets and posts. Newsroom's Anna Connell argues "Political parties using social media for point-scoring over policy promotion risk alienating undecided voters" - see: Social media dad jokes spoil elections.
Connell suggests that all politicians are guilty of this: "it's the forced attempts at humour, snark, and authenticity that get my goat and distract the most from what I need to know, or, more importantly, what the parties need me to know. Last week, the Labour Party Twitter account responded to a National Party tweet about their 'affordable' housing announcement with "not many, if any" and a link to the Scribe video. Maybe it resonated with a supportive base but it made me cringe. It also distracted from the issue. Therein lies the danger of continuing to regard social media as a pony for doing tricks rather than getting a job done."
The Prime Minister on social media
Bill English has surprised with his rapid conversion to social media since he became prime minister late last year. Previously he had paid very little attention to Facebook or any other online platforms. But now his advisers have him upping his game significantly, with the infamous spaghetti pizza, walk/run videos, pies for Budget Day, and shearing sheep.
The PM's social media presence was examined in Charlie Gates' feature article from the weekend, Socks, pies and pizza: How to turn the Prime Minister into an everyman. Gates outlines the PM's increased usage of Facebook: "In 2015, two videos were posted to English's Facebook page. Last year there were seven. So far this year he has posted 76 videos. English's question on the budget pie attracted over 7000 votes and was commented on 1300 times. His activity on Facebook has grown dramatically since becoming Prime Minister on December 12 and announcing a September election date in February. He has posted on Facebook 1095 times since joining the site in April 2009, which is an average of 0.37 times a day. In the last two months he has averaged 1.5 posts per day."
Of course social media success is often in the eye of the beholder and there are polarised views on how well English is doing online. The biggest critic turns out to be Duncan Garner, who says: Stick to plain English: We're all cringing at PM's social media silliness.
Here's his main point: "The attempt to re-cast the prime minister as a fun-loving, hard-exercising, sheep-shearing, pizza-making family man - clumsily advised and poorly executed - is truly cringeworthy to watch. English has clearly been told to dig around for a personality - and promote it on social media. The result is a mawkish, awkward attempt to re-package him as something he's not: John Key."
Again, it's the authenticity problem for Garner: "He's a likeable bloke. But he's out of his depth on social media. It feels forced." And here's his advice: "Voters smell bullshit a mile away. We know when something is forced and not real. Authenticity is king. It's why Key was so popular - he was that lightweight social media guy. Any attempt to mimic his style is doomed to failure. So be yourself Bill - and leave the social media silliness to the young ones."
Not surprisingly, those who are already critical of Bill English least appreciate his social media escapades. Comedian Alice Snedden says that his "public persona is disingenuous and it lacks authenticity" - see: Keep up the good work, Bill English, Labour thanks you.
She continues the critique: "I assume the point of his social media presence is to make him seem like he's just an ordinary guy, one you could get a beer with after work. He's the Pinocchio of politics; always trying to prove to the public that he's a real boy. But the harder he tries to seem normal, the more he seems like the New Zealand's new stepdad who keeps trying too hard to win us over and just doesn't get that we need space. He's awkward and hard to watch."
Others see the point of English's online makeover: The NBR's Chris Keall explains: "Most New Zealanders aren't ideological. If National loses in September, it will be because a portion of middle New Zealand doesn't quite click with Mr English and decides it's time the other lot had a turn. John Key's doofusy humour made me cringe, personally, but it was a key part of the everyman persona that helped to three straight election wins. Delivering a surplus and dangling tax cuts are important, sure. But it will count for nothing if Mr English doesn't tell better dad jokes and become friends with Mike Hosking. On that front, the spaghetti pizza was probably a good start. Somewhere, a team from Crosby Textor and English advisers are in a huddle, trying to figure out the PM's next Key-esque Facebook post" - see: If you don't understand spaghetti on pizza, you don't understand politics.
Professionals behind the politicians' social media
The professional side of political social media is explored in depth by Charlie Gates in Socks, pies and pizza: How to turn the Prime Minister into an everyman, and various social media experts give their verdict on Bill English's recent social media usage.
Gates points out that although many of Bill English's social media posts such as the spaghetti pizza and the walk-run video might appear amateur, this is contrived but actually skilfully developed: "The walk/run video may appear home made, but it has been engineered to perform well on Facebook. The video is vertical in shape, has been subtitled so people can watch without sound and has been carefully edited to make it pithy and humorous. All things that make video popular on Facebook."
According to social media expert Philippa Crick, the professionals in charge of Bill English's social media are doing a good job. She is quoted by Gates as saying: "On Facebook, people like to see you are authentic, human and honest, so him posting about walk/runs shows his human side... It looks to me like a deliberate strategy in place to keep it real. He's trying to say he is the real everyday man. He is not putting feta and spinach on his pizza... That is a clear strategy."
Another expert, Daniel Rolph reveals to Gates that English's social media staff will be hard at work but keeping a low-profile: "He would have a team behind him who are experts in social media who would be curating and brainstorming those ideas... But it is all quite hush hush. They wouldn't advertise that. You will struggle to find anyone that says they did it. It is all quite secretive". He says "the team behind the strategy would want to remain anonymous. It breaks the illusion if his posts are revealed to be the work of a communications adviser."
However, one of National's social media spin-doctors is talking. Gwynn Compton, has just left the Beehive, and now blogs about digital election strategy as part of his professional business, Libertas Digital. He has worked on social media campaigning in the PM's Office under both John Key and Bill English, and draws attention to the major problem that he and his social media colleagues had in terms of Key's departure leaving the office high-and-dry on Facebook: "In an instant the National-led Government went from having the largest political Facebook page for the country's most popular Prime Minister in living memory, to not having it" - see: Election 2017 Facebook stocktake - or how Labour abandoned Brand Little.
In resigning, Key took away his 248,890 "likes" on his Facebook page, leaving the office with Bill English's page that had a mere 13,361 likes. In his post, Compton explains the challenge of building up English's Facebook strategy. The result, he says, was "a pretty incredible turnaround in little more than six months". English now has about 98,000 "likes" - an increase of 85,691. But not much is given away about how this was achieved: "As to how Bill English did so well? That's a trade secret. Becoming Prime Minister obviously helps."
Newstalk ZB's Gia Garrick, also believes Key's backroom pros did a good job and says: "Yes, his social media pages had the usual PR spiel, but what made him likeable and relatable was that he was actually doing it, or at least that's what his spindoctors would have us believe. But that social media team now has a (sorry Bill) slightly less social-media savvy Prime Minister, who needs a bit, or perhaps a lot, of help being relatable in this online world. And it's very obvious" - see: National's too-obvious take to social media.
Other politicians and other social media platforms
Bill English isn't the only politician making waves on social media. Winston Peters continues to prove that's it's not just a young person's game - see his latest online hijinks in Newshub's Winston Peters takes a cheeky dig at Nick Smith on Facebook. And, on Facebook, it seems that Peters is getting a lot of traction - see the Herald's Bill who? Winston Peters the king of Facebook.
Barry Soper also explains that "Winston Peters has been more aggressively taking to Twitter lately", and points to Andrew Little's use of social media as being below par - see: Social media says a lot about politicians.
Soper argues that Little "should leave social media to his deputy if her latest one of surprising her sister at her wedding in the UK is anything to go by, it was pure gold and said much more about her personality than a pizza or an iron". And you can watch Ardern's Facebook posted video here: Jacinda Ardern's emotional wedding surprise.
Gia Garrick has coined the phrase: the "like me" election to describe this year's campaign, and she draws attention to National's use of advertising on Instagram, in a good reminder that it's not just Facebook that the politicians are using for social media campaigning.
But Instagram isn't being used so much. According to Newshub's Emma Hurley, "A glance at other world leaders reveals Instagram is increasingly becoming a major platform for publicity", but in New Zealand there are "surprisingly few politicians" using it - see: Newshub reviews New Zealand politicians on Instagram.
Hurley provides a very good overview of how well New Zealand politicians are using the platform, with particular attention to Jacinda Ardern, Nikki Kaye, Julie Anne Genter, Chloe Swarbrick, and Labour's Kiri Allan. But all their follower numbers seem relatively low.
And that raises some big questions about how truly interactive this new form of campaigning is. Chris Trotter takes the change very seriously: "State subsidisation of party-political communications will continue, but now it's to be applied across all platforms. New Zealanders should, therefore, prepare themselves for an onslaught of algorithmic politics. Messages pitched with unnerving precision at our entire demographic profile: gender and ethnicity; marital status and family composition; level of educational attainment; occupation and work history; income-bracket - all the stuff Facebook and Google know already - will arrive, unbidden, in vast numbers. Will they work? You bet your life. You'll be blown away by their sky-high production values and will thrill to the uncanny resonance of their messages" - see: Prepare for an online onslaught from politicians.
Ultimately, however, Trotter suggests there are questions about what impact such individualised communication will have on the body politic: "Can citizens truly be together - alone?"
If you want to follow what the politicians are saying in this brave new world, you can find all the candidates in some useful new online directories - see Matthew Beveridge's Online media details for NZ parties and candidates contesting the 2017 general election, and Frank Dowling Candidates standing in New Zealand's 2017 general election.
Finally, for humour on Bill English's use of social media, see The Civilian's Opinion: I, too, am a human. Look at my failure. It is like your failure, and Andrew Gunn's When PM RelateableBill went rogue on Twitter, and Revealed: Silly old Bill English's humble hero social media strategy.