Is Ireland’s political establishment braced for the impact of social media?

3 Jan 20133 Shares

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Late last year, US President Barack Obama tweeted ‘four more years’ on his active Twitter page in what has to be the most retweeted post of all time. By comparison, Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s Twitter profile hasn’t been updated since July 2011. In general, Ireland’s political system just isn’t geared up for social media, warned independent TD Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan.

Yesterday, an international and non-partisan ‘think tank’ on 21st-century governance, the Digital Policy Council (DPC), revealed that three out of four heads of state worldwide now have a presence on microblogging site Twitter.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, Flanagan pointed out that the next general election in Ireland, he believes, will be fought, won and lost on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

In fact, you could argue this has already happened. You could say the recent Irish presidential elections were, in fact, decided on Twitter when a tweet read out aloud on RTÉ made an allegation against then-leading candidate Sean Gallagher cost Gallagher the elections in the infamous Twittergate debacle.

Other notable incidents, such as Simon Coveney’s ‘hangover’ tweet following the previous taoiseach Brian Cowen’s interview on Morning Ireland the morning after a Fianna Fail annual conference in 2010 have no doubt led the political establishment to look on social media as toxic and to be avoided if possible.

There is no doubt that such views will be galvanised in the aftermath of the tragic death of Fine Gael Minister of State Shane McEntee, TD, just before Christmas, which many attribute to negative comments and anonymous cyberbullying on social media sites.

McEntee’s death, as well as the suicides of a number of teenagers in Ireland, have prompted debates on whether social media needs to be regulated. An Oireachtas committee on Transport and Communications will hold a special meeting to discuss the issue in the coming weeks.

The next Irish general election will be fought, won and lost via social media

But can Ireland’s existing and future politicians afford to ignore social media when you consider there are more than 2m Irish people using Facebook and of these some 1.5m return to the social network every day?

Obama’s Twitter and Facebook pages are updated just as zealously now as at the height of the US elections in November. Every day they are used to explain the impact of decisions and issues, such as the fiscal cliff.

By way of contrast, Kenny’s Twitter profile hasn’t been updated since July 2011, four months after his election victory, precisely at a time when the leader of a nation should be communicating and explaining difficult decisions to its people. His Facebook profile is regularly updated, however, with his weekly message.

The reality is that politics – and the overall political process – has become a real-time affair that now extends beyond newspapers, TV and radio into Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The question is this: are the politicians and the apparatus designed to support them also geared up for this real-time age?

In an interview with Flanagan, he said he believes social media has become an important communications mechanism that could decide the next elections. He said politicians need to embrace social media rather than fear it.

Flanagan’s own election in the March 2011 general elections with almost 20pc first preference votes was considered a landslide victory. Flanagan attributed the victory to old-fashioned electioneering with a personal touch but also astute use of social media, Facebook in particular.

The outspoken TD, who has struggled to be taken seriously by the mainstream media, said we now live in the age of real-time politics, but he doubts the political establishment in Ireland has grasped it yet. If they have, they are choosing to ignore it and hope it goes away.

He believes social media offers benefits as well as pitfalls, and that education and training is crucial.

His comments were inspired by his own frustration at existing Oireachtas facilities, whereby he was unable to share out Dáil footage of his Budget 2013 speech where he had outlined how Ireland could reap €3.5bn in savings until three or four days later when it was made available online.

At that stage not only had the moment passed but the footage was nigh impossible to edit – the videos that result three days later are MPEG 4 files that capture specific chunks of meetings – in order to edit the videos, audio and video have to be separated and as a result the precise footage couldn’t be embedded on YouTube, for example.

Flanagan, who has almost 11,000 followers on Twitter and 11,650 on Facebook, said the outdated video and transcripts system will remain in place until members of the Dáil and Senate clamour for it themselves.

But considering the prevailing views on social media following recent events, that may be some time coming.

“When you try to edit it you are met with the problem that the sound and images appear to need to be edited independently of each other. Even a child out there with a smartphone can produce a file that they can put on the internet in seconds and you can work with easier than what they’ve done in the Dáil.

“That’s why technology works so well these days, because it is simple – and that’s why the Dáil system doesn’t work so well, because it is complicated.”

Winning elections digitally

Ming

Independent TD Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, who believes the next elections in Ireland will be fought, won and lost on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. He urges more and more people out there to strive to get elected to office

Already the newspapers are filling with stories about how various parties are mining their councillors for potential candidates for local elections in 2014, but Flanagan’s belief is that any citizen should feel entitled to run for office and that social media will be a decider in the next elections.

Astute election watchers and politicians will be watching how Obama did it again in the US in 2012 through clever social media campaigning and old-fashioned legwork, but the example of Flanagan should be also be noted.

“Each election that comes along, if they hadn’t recognised it in the last election they are going to be even more out of touch in the next election and then they will rue the day.

“In my own case, I recruited 75pc of my canvassers through Facebook (I wasn’t active on Twitter at that stage). I did a tour of my constituency and would spend two to three nights in every town and before I’d arrive I would message friends telling them I’d be in the area and would they come out to help me.

“The most successful one was Carrick-on-Shannon, when I had 28 people turn up at the Landmark Hotel who I’d never met before just waiting and very keen to go out and canvass for me.”

Flanagan also said he would name check local businesses to help them drum up business as he went through each area.

“People kept coming out to canvass for me and in the end they were dubbed the Mingsters and this following would grow the more I put out messages. It was really viral and exciting for me given that as an independent candidate it just wouldn’t have been feasible to do what I did 15 years ago.”

Because of the shape of the Irish economy these have become highly politicised times and Flanagan urges anyone who feels they can do the job to get out there and run for election.

“They elected someone like me. I mean, look at me and listen to my policies! Yet I got elected in a place where they voted against divorce.

“With €1,000 to print leaflets, a computer and a Facebook page you could run a very professional campaign provided you get out there and be prepared to use up a lot of shoe leather,” Flanagan said.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com