Will Ireland’s General Election 2016 be fought and won on Facebook?

19 Jan 2016

First they fought for their votes on the hustings, now they will fight for them on social media.

First, they fought for them on the hustings, on the doorsteps and on the main streets, but for Ireland’s parish-pump politicians winning votes in General Election 2016 will involve gaining hearts and minds on Facebook by starting the right conversations.

According to Facebook itself, there has been a huge shift in how people are likely to decide how to vote in the upcoming General Election – the gladiatorial combat beloved of generations of Irish people with time on their hands.

The social networking site, which employs more than 1,000 people in Dublin, expects to be a key battleground in the upcoming election.

For one thing, there are 2.5m people in the Republic of Ireland who are on Facebook every month, more than the 2.2m of whom voted in the 2011 General Election, or 70pc of eligible voters who exercised their democratic right.

For this reason, the leading political thought leaders at Facebook were in Dublin today (19 January) to brief media about how impactful they believe Facebook will be and how they see it as a key factor in deciding the outcome of General Election 2016.


‘Will this be Ireland’s first digital election? I don’t think so. It will be Ireland’s first conversational election because only now we have the kind of technology that enables conversations to take place at a scale that is relevant’

Echoing a similar initiative it rolled out for the UK ahead of its elections last year, Facebook will tomorrow launch a ‘Check the Register’ notice that will go out to every adult in Ireland of a voting age.

Politicians: you can no longer fool the public

Facebook’s politics and government specialist for EMEA Elizabeth Linder said the social network offers politicians of the 21st century the kind of tools and platform to debate that politicians of previous generations could only dream of. She cited Thomas Jefferson: “Public judgement will correct false reasonings and opinions.”

She said: “If you really want to be understood and get your voice heard, turn to public judgement. Appeal directly to public opinion.”

Linder said that voters in the UK elections and voters in the upcoming Irish elections will base their decisions on what their friends will be saying. “In today’s world, people don’t trust campaigns, people trust in their friends. People trust people they know.”

Linder said voting was among the most talked about topics on Facebook during 2015. “Last year, the same-sex marriage referendum was the most talked about topic in Ireland in 2014.”

She continued: “Here in Ireland more people are using Facebook than voted in the last election. This will have real impact. People who use Facebook every day are two-and-a-half times more likely to attend a political meeting.”

Linder said that in the US some 300,000 people voted in the US congressional election after seeing a friend share on Facebook that they had gone out and voted.

‘Decisions are better when they are informed by the people affected by them’

In advising Irish politicians who intend to use Facebook in their campaign, Linder advised them to take a personal approach. “Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, is also an artist and updates his cover photo with photos of his work. This approach also helps people see politicians as people as well; where they spend their time, what their interests are outside of politics. Facebook allows the successful politician to present that full 360º view of who they are.

“Politicians think they have to stick to policies but they build trust when they take part in conversations and reveal what they care about in a fuller, richer context.”

Across the world, Linder said politicians in countries like Egypt and Moldova are using Facebook to have more open conversations with the public and, in the UK, city councils like that of Coventry are allowing the public to use Facebook to vote on matters such as commemorating World War II.

“Decisions are better when they are informed by the people affected by them,” Linder pointed out.

Commenting on whether politicians should write short or long posts, she said the longer is the better. “Generally speaking, a longer post will outperform the shorter post because it allows the politician to explain more deeply what they believe, why they believe it and where they see it impacting the citizens being affected by the vote.

“It can be the beginning of a real conversation and not just a message. We understand so much more about what is going through the minds of politicians when we understand what they are going through.”

Social media can also be a useful barometer for understanding voter sentiment.

In America’s 2012 elections, all the media commentators decided that what people really wanted to talk about was the economy, whereas on US president Barack Obama’s Facebook, there were four times as many posts on immigration as on the economy.

“Will this be Ireland’s first digital election? I don’t think so. It will be Ireland’s first conversational election because only now we have the kind of technology that enables conversations to take place at a scale that is relevant.

“Ireland’s politicians need to realise they can talk to in the range of 2.5m people who share experiences. They need to start conversations that are real, that matter and that influence people,” Linder said.

Voting image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years