The Dotcom factor's heavy toll

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 10:33 29/03/2014

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OPINION: Ask a politician about the looming election campaign and they will tell you they expect it to be frantic, chaotic and very possibly dirty.

The entry of the big German wrecking ball Kim Dotcom adds a fourth factor - unpredictability.

But he is not the only player who will seek to reinvent the way we do election campaigns.

There are a raft of factors likely to make this election different from any we have seen before.

THE 24/7 NEWS CYCLE

It is voracious and it draws its stories from an ever-increasing pool of sources whether that is social media or elsewhere.

By the time the 6 o'clock news comes round, it is likely the main political stories of the day have already been examined from every possible angle. That makes it unpredictable for politicians and a challenge both for managing scheduled and unscheduled events. A scheduled event is a policy launch that will be quickly overtaken unless it is big enough to cut through all the other noise that day. An unscheduled event is a scandal or gaffe that has the power to snowball through the day. Once such stories gain momentum, they are almost impossible to stop.

THE SMEAR CAMPAIGN

Do smear campaigns work?

Short answer - of course.

If they didn't, they would not be a time-honoured political tool.

But the trick is maintaining the appearance of keeping your hands clean. In 2008, when Labour was caught out trying to gather material to drop an "H-bomb" on John Key it backfired spectacularly. But that was in the days when smartphones were still new, and it was not so easy to plant an internet meme and see it spread like wildfire before it had been proved or disproved.

Would that story have played out differently in 2014?

When a senior adviser to Mr Key was caught out earlier this year supplying photographs to shock-jock blogger Cameron Slater, it was confirmation that the major parties see blogs as an important outlet for stories they prefer to keep at arm's length or don't want their fingerprints on.

The fact that Jason Ede supplied Whaleoil with photos of rubbish from a press gallery party was less of a revelation than the fact that feeding the blogs is officially part of his job description. Mr Key used to give a passable impression of someone who had just noticed a bad smell under his nose whenever he was questioned about National's links to Slater. Not so now.

Mr Key even admits to having a direct line to the blogger.

Links between the Left-wing blog The Standard and Labour are just as scrutinised; the blog has not always been a friend to Labour, and was pivotal in destabilising David Shearer's leadership. But the fact that a confidante of David Cunliffe's is a chief contributor to The Standard aligns it much more closely to the current regime.

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SOCIAL MEDIA

Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram.

If you're not there, you're merely an observer.

Barack Obama famously won the 2008 presidential election campaign by turning out the non- vote through social media platforms. What makes that even more remarkable is that the iPhone was only a year old and Twitter had been around only a couple of years.

The Dotcom factor must, therefore, weigh heavily on politicians' minds - numbers win elections after all and here are some the strategists should have at their fingertips. Mr Obama has 42 million Twitter followers, Mr Key has 106,000, Mr Cunliffe 8000 and Russel Norman 10,000.

Dotcom's number is 355,000.

Admittedly most are probably from overseas but, still, couple that with his known resources, his mastery of social media and ability to use traditional media platforms to his advantage, and - tempting as it may be - he cannot be easily written off.

His Internet Party directly targets the young and politically disenfranchised who are disproportionately represented among the non-voting population, which means it will have to work twice as hard to turn out their vote. But social media makes that possible, if unlikely. The Internet Party's biggest hurdle remains the fact Dotcom himself cannot stand for Parliament as he is not a citizen, making it less attractive to its target audience.

Of course, even the mainstream parties are switched on to the power of social media. If you ever wondered why Mr Key is never too busy to do a weekly slot on a radio show that draws only a few thousand listeners, it is because those listeners are more valuable to him than the tens of thousands more who keep their opinion to themselves. The talkback crowd are not afraid to voice strong opinions, whether at a bar or at a barbecue, and are therefore more likely to influence or change how those around them view events.

Social media is talkback radio magnified 10,000-fold, which is why it holds such a powerful attraction to political strategists. The race in 2014 will be to find and manage "opinion leaders" on the internet who through tweeting or retweeting, via Facebook posts or Instagram, will selectively share news and memes that will help shape the views of their peers.

The double edge to that sword is that social media and its infinite potential for turning good days into a train wreck lurks behind every bush or in every crowd; a gaffe is merely a tweet or Instagram away from going viral.

THE MINOR PARTIES

It seems churlish for National to worry that the big lead it currently has in the polls could have a downside. But there is a genuine fear among its strategists that if the polls hold up, the lack of a real race will give more oxygen to political sideshows and the minor parties. We saw this in 2011 when the teapot tapes became a bigger story than the race itself, thanks to Labour's support dropping off the radar. NZ First leader Winston Peters' nose for political timing allowed him to ride the teapot tapes back into Parliament.

Dotcom has form for causing carnage in the political sphere and consistently claims to have evidence that will destabilise National's election campaign.

The Key camp seems to be supremely confident no such thing exists, suggesting it has a direct pipeline to the same disaffected former Dotcom staffers feeding Whaleoil. But with the ability of the likes of Colin Craig and ACT to create mayhem, National's war room strategists won't be short of scenarios to worry about.

- The Dominion Post

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