WCC Election 2019: The Two-Edged Sword: Social Media

Social Media is set to have a high impact on the upcoming Wellington City Council Elections, but what does that really mean and how can it be exploited to garner more votes for candidates? While social media offers many advantages to a candidate, it is also a double-edged sword that can end a run for the Council Chamber prematurely and permanently.

Note: For the purposes of this article we considered “Social Media” to primarily be Twitter and then Facebook. Other Social Media platforms that are increasingly popular are Instagram and Reddit, though both have traditionally catered for younger audiences.

Social Media has worked well to raise and maintain the profile of some of the current city Councillors over the last triennium. In particular, Simon Woolf, Chris Calvi-Freeman, Sarah Free, and Diane Calvert have been vocal and consistently engaged across Facebook and Twitter with generally positive results.

Social Media as a platform is now generally credited with depressing people the world over and, justifiably, has been the subject of a lot of negative publicity given its ultimately anonymous nature and the content, especially of comments, that it contains. Indeed, it brings out the cretins, lobbyists, vigilantes, and crazies from every walk of life. It is however mandatory in an election setting for any candidate.

For a candidate then certain rules and tactics need to be deliberately engaged to get the most reach while at the same time avoiding the various pitfalls.

The first pitfall to be avoided is one of fake followers (or poor account quality.) While Twitter themselves cleaned up their act in this regard somewhat, it persists as a problem. The number of fake followers a Twitter user has speaks to the quality of the account, amongst other things. It is also considered incredibly poor form to buy followers in order to artificially inflate your importance, because more followers mean you are more important.

We used Spark Toro’s fake follower analysis to look at the number of counterfeit followers some of our existing Councillors have as a percentage. Now, remember, no one is accusing anyone of buying fake followers, and you can visit the site to see the algorithm that is used to determine the quality of the account.

Justin Lester 20.10%
Nicola Young 19.40%
Simon Woolf 16.60%
Diane Calvert 14.90%
Simon Marsh 14.90%
Sarah Free 14.20%
Chris Calvi-Freeman 13.20%
Jill Day 11.20%
Andy Foster 8.50%
David Lee 8.50%

The problem with Social Media is that you want to go viral to increase your visibility but in a good way. We’ve had some cases over the triennium where existing Councillors have gone viral, but for all the wrong reasons.

What is noticeable is the increase in the amount of Social Media posts that the current Councillors are making and potential candidates. This speaks of an early move to start electioneering, on the face of it, and risks breaking one of the other minor rules of Social Media. Don’t overshare.

Twitter, for the most part, is considered a micro-blogging platform, which turns all Twitter users into bloggers by default. Blogging is only relevant if it is original content, so the resharing of a lot of content or continuous vapid posts puts people off. Very much so for those of us that follow Twitter users and have notifications turned on.

Many of the current Councillors inflict oversharing on their readers with some more prolific than others. This tends to dilute the core purpose of having an account, to further their political aspirations. A lot of what is posted is not on point either, which brings us to the rule around content.

The purpose of the Twitter account is to post content that is relevant to their station, that being a locally elected politician. We are not in the business of calling out the bad examples, of which there are several. However, we do note that some Councillors do get this right, Iona Pannett being the notable example. Iona’s content relates to her position for most of the time.

Using social media to defend your position is a losing proposition. It invites conflict and quickly degenerates into a slanging match, which risks the politician taking a misstep into saying something that is going to set loose the hounds of hell.  

Generally, that defensive attitude is born out of a “glass jaw” weakness. There are a handful of current city Councillors that suffer this in quite a spectacular way, which often leads to snide comments and other subtly threatening statements. It is not befitting an elected official or one who wishes to become elected, to be reduced to throwing mud, yet, we see this quite often.

Another current Councillor spends quite a lot of time disagreeing with various press outlets that have “misquoted” them in some way. Again, this is bordering on calling out fake news for anything that they feel may have slighted them, or misrepresented them, in some way.

For those that are planning on running for election, it is a good idea to go back and tidy all your social media posts. You can be assured that the media and political rivals will, in time-honoured tradition, trawl back through previous posts to find anything that can be highlighted as a misdemeanour.

As to whether social media provides any gain to votes, this remains highly debatable. The one thing that social media does is create an imagined intimacy with someone who is running for office. That person feels closer to you as a voter, and if you do get a reaction or reply, assuming it is positive, this can reinforce an alliance.

Of course, the general media love social media because it takes the research out of their work. Trawling candidates’ posts can offer gold to a newspaper, which can be simply quoted and published in near real-time. An intelligent candidate will craft social media posts to take advantage of this process in the same way that in the past we would see official press releases.

Existing candidates must be cautious of anything that looks like bias. A recent city Councillor posted a Facebook message that seemingly encouraged their local constituents to put objections into a liquor sale outlet. That immediately backfired with many commenters posting what they saw as bias.

Also, social media accounts that are associated with the Wellington City Council itself must be seen not to be supporting existing Councillors. The perception that the machinery of Council is being used to endorse specific candidates, even if it is a perception, is very damaging.

It’s a tricky path to walk, using social media as an electioneering tool, but it can pay dividends. We can certainly expect to see it used more this election than before as it has grown over the past triennium.

More: Our Twitter List of potential candidates for this year’s election.