Something's in the water (or, more likely, the coffee) in the office of the National Party's social media boffins. Anyone monitoring National Party-aligned social media accounts through an analytical lens will have noticed something changing in the past several months. While anonymous attack accounts run by National super-fans have always fostered an environment of nastiness, the party itself seems to be manoeuvring closer to that audience. Gone are the days of "when they go low, we go high". In the wild west of the digital town square, it's no longer just the gathered masses who are hurling rotten tomatoes.
In the space of a month, the party and its leader have taken to calling the Prime Minister and other public figures names on social media ("Fleecer-in-Chief" and "sweary bear" for example), a National Party MP conducted a seemingly unprovoked attack upon a member of the public, National Party candidate William Wood deleted a picture online posing with a man making a white supremacist hand gesture, and a former-campaign chair for MP Agnes Loheni posted a meme that featured Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugging a first responder to the Whakaari eruption, captioned "have a hug, it's all I do". The poster further captioned the meme with laughing emojis, and the words "pretty much".
The party has also taken to publishing graphs in which the visual representations of data points (bars on a bar graph, for example) don't match the data points they describe. One such graph featured a bar representing the value $400 that was 2.4cm long. Another bar in the same graph representing the value $465 was 3.3cm long. If you do the maths, the bar representing $465 should have been about half a centimetre shorter than it was. While that 0.5cm or so might seem trivial, it's part of a broader strategy.
And of course, you'd have to be living under a rock to have missed the furore over National's disingenuously edited attack video ads, and the subsequent ban issued by the Speaker. Those ads too were strategic, and the strategy paid greater dividends than its creators likely dreamed of when the Speaker censored them. Now the media attention around the ban meant that more people watched them than ever before, and National was able to indignantly scream "free speech!", inflaming the disenfranchised "anti-PC brigade", and earning the party brownie points with those who believe they have the right to say whatever horrifically offensive thing they like on the internet without consequence.
When Jo Hayes' attack tweet attracted questions from the media, Simon Bridges merely offered this: "She's admitted it, she regrets it, she's apologised, it's one tweet, so I'm moving on." When pushed further, he dug his heels in. "She's a Member of Parliament - a backbench Member of Parliament - in the Opposition, not even the Government. It's one tweet."
"It's no big deal," the subtext read. He may as well have called those who objected to Hayes' tweet "snowflakes" for good measure. A similar subtext could be read into his deflection of the criticism he received for calling the Prime Minister a "part-time PM", a phrase with sexist overtones that has subsequently become a hashtag that acts as a rallying point for National Party attack accounts. I don't believe any of this is accidental. Rather, National's recent social media approach reads as a rather crafty dog whistle to me.
Social media has many positives, and many negatives. There are people who are quick to blame social media for all of modern society's woes, and I don't count myself among them. I do, however, find myself awed by the power social media has to influence people. And the power it hands to those who are willing to pay to target different groups of people with information that will likely influence their thinking in very specific ways.
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The internet has often been hailed as one of humanity's greatest inventions, bringing to life the lofty ideal of the democratisation of information. Let's be clear, though. The internet is not a democracy. At best, it can be compared with the contrived, skewed and class-ridden "democracy" that currently infects the American political landscape. In the United States, money buys political power. On the internet, the same rings true.
For many, the internet is a harmless pastime and a helpful tool. Who hasn't mindlessly scrolled through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds in a moment of boredom? Who hasn't consulted Google to access information quickly and easily? What is easy to forget, however, is that the pictures, posts and websites we're being presented with online are uniquely tailored to us, our online habits and our worldviews. More often than not, the internet reinforces what we already think, over and over again.
• National Leader Simon Bridges has accused the Government of 'screwing up the economy'
• Simon Bridges' office 'defaced' in Extinction Rebellion protest
• Awkward conversation: Simon Bridges' charity dinner with Luxon backer
• Winston Peters' lawyer threatens to sue Simon Bridges, Nick Smith
Which is fine, when you're asking an algorithm to spew out more cute puppy videos for you to watch. Things start to go wrong, however, when you suspect that the Christchurch shooting was a hoax, or you feel deeply frustrated about your lack of luck attracting a girlfriend. As the old saying goes, you get out what you put in. With the internet tracking your every "like", link click, the time you spend on each page, and keywords in comments you make and messages you send, however, and selling that data to advertisers, the further down the rabbit hole you go, the fewer opportunities for you to be exposed to alternative views.
The National Party strategists know this, and they've adapted their strategy to attempt to influence voters in specific ways. The name-calling, the belittling of the Prime Minister, the misleading graphs, the turn towards sharper, nastier posts is likely all intentional. It's an imported approach that's worked well for political figures like Scott Morrison, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.
Time will tell whether the strategy will work here. I suspect, to a degree, it will. We've finally caught the ugly political virus infecting the rest of the world – just in time for 2020.