Why political social media is worthy of comment and scrutiny

Recently Bryce Edwards and Geoffrey Miller of Otago University started a weekly column in the Herald on Sunday looking at the happenings on Twitter in the political sphere in the preceding week. In the first column, where it was laid out what would feature, there were a number of comments with a similar theme:



Now we have all seen comments like this before. We all know those people who come out with comments like “oh I don’t understand social media” or “I don’t see the point of Facebook/Twitter/Other social network in the media that day”. The underlying theme being if they don’t understand it/see the point of it, then it must be pointless. The above comments from the Herald on Sunday story are another common view held. However, the same can be said about other means of political communication. I am sure there are people out there who claim that election debates won’t change anyone’s mind on how they are going to vote. Does that mean that a) that is true? or b) that there isn’t a need for informed comment on the debate? Of course not. If the Herald didn’t run a story about the election debate the next day, people would be asking questions. If the local paper in Te Arhoa didn’t run a story about a meet the candidates event in their next issue, people would also be wondering why?  There is a legitimate reason to comment on the going ons on Twitter during a political campaign. The column by Bryce and Geoffrey is going to be focused on political issues and events, but it will take account of the comments of those who are not candidates or party office holders.


After that defence of the reason behind commenting on Twitter and politics, let me be clear, I do not hold the view that so do that social media is the be all and end all of political communication and campaigning. Social media, and its use, is not going to fundamentally change the outcome of the election. No matter how well Labour and the Greens use it, it is not going to the cause of them jumping to 40% and 20% respectively in the polls. Nor is a bad use by National going to be the sole cause of them crashing to 25% in the polls. However, social media is just another tool in the tool box for the various campaigns. It is a method for them to connect with those who are unlikely to be exposed to typical election advertising. How many people these days watch all of their TV online or via downloading, who don’t read news papers or listen to the radio? All of which have been key political communication pathways in the past. There is a need to try and get in touch with them through other means.


Social media, through its key social element, can result in people, who are not normally interested in politics, being exposed to political messages. Their friend on Facebook likes a post and they see the story in the ticker on the sidebar, or their friend shares a photo and they see it in their news feed. Just as on Twitter their friend could retweet something from a candidate or a political party. Thus helping them be exposed to political issues that they wouldn’t otherwise be. This may not result in them changing who they vote for, but it might be enough to get them out to vote. Take the Maui’s dolphins example, I am sure there are a number of people out there who lean Green but don’t plan on currently voting. All it may take is for them to be exposed to one of the Green info graphics about the Maui’s Dolphin and that may be enough for them to get out and vote for the Greens. Another example of that is Labour’s animal testing ban and the apperance of Labour using that as a way to spread their brand, without expecting it to generate any direct votes.


At the same time social media provides a way for voters to potentially gain an understanding of the personalities of those we are voting for. Without social media I doubt we would know that Asenati Lole Taylor doesn’t like to engage in reasoned debate. Nor would we have been as likely to know that Tau Henare is a huge football fan. Nor that Winston Peters, Te Ururoa Flavell or Miriam Pierard have senses of humour.


So social media is not the be all and end all of political campaigning, but just like leaflet drops, hoardings, human hoardings, town hall meetings, leaders debates and all the other elements we see every three years, it is just another tool in the tool box to help spread the party message and reach those who are unlikely to be reached by traditional campaign methods. So I will continue to comment on social media and it’s use as a political tool, just like the Herald will. It isn’t going to be decisive in the election but it is going to play a role and is therefore worthy of attention, even by the mainstream media.