Richard MacManus: Social media likes won’t translate into votes

Jacinda Ardern live streaming before her address at the Labour Party congress at Te Papa.
Maarten Holl

Jacinda Ardern live streaming before her address at the Labour Party congress at Te Papa.

OPINION: Say what you will about Donald Trump, but at least he isn't your typical bland politician on social media. He says what's on his mind, damn the consequences.

In contrast, most other politicians use social media just like the rest of us – to cautiously collect 'likes' and to present their best selves online.

It's election season in New Zealand and, sure enough, our leading politicians are busy pandering to you and collecting your likes. But will it sway your vote?

Prime Minister Bill English has been making an effort on Facebook.
ROSS GIBLIN\STUFF

Prime Minister Bill English has been making an effort on Facebook.

When Bill English became Prime Minister last December, he got a social media makeover. His advisers clearly told him to post more on Facebook, in order to generate more likes. The resulting torrent of posts have ranged from the obligatory flag-waving (wearing red socks during the America's Cup, posing with Richie McCaw), to your typical politician fare (visiting schools, catching up with "a few of the locals").

But what most stands out on Bill English's Facebook page are the corny Kiwiana posts. "Looks like I've got a few pies to try over the next few weeks," he wrote last week, next to a news story entitled "Taupo bakery wins supreme pie award". More infamously, there was his "tinned spaghetti on pizza" post in April. That one was pure catnip for TV comedian John Oliver, who has a special fondness for satirising our government.

Despite the laughs from overseas, for us at home, Bill English's Facebook page is fairly uninspiring. I get it: it's supposed to present Bill English as a gold old Kiwi bloke, who loves his rugby and tinned spaghetti pizza. But there's a sheen of fakeness to it, although you can't fault his effort.

Helen Clark is active on Twitter.
KEVIN STENT/STUFF

Helen Clark is active on Twitter.

As to be expected, the younger generation of Kiwi politicians do a better job of promoting themselves on social media. Labour's new leader, Jacinda Ardern, had her own pizza moment earlier this year. In March, she posted a photo of then-Labour leader Andrew Little staring grumpily at the last piece of pizza on a sharing board. "When someone offers you pineapple on pizza," wrote Ardern on her Facebook page (and on Twitter and Instagram). It was the kind of off-the-cuff witticism that most millennials post on social media every day. It was meme-worthy, as the kids say.

Since assuming the Labour leadership last week, Ardern has claimed to be "USELESS at the ol' updates," but in fact she's been both informative and fun on social media in that short time. In addition to running a Facebook Q&A, she tweeted at Taika Waititi‏ and asked him to make a promotional ad for her. "Only if we get to use an Eminem track," Waititi tweeted back.

Younger politicians, younger even than Ardern, take the humour a step further. Chlöe Swarbrick, the 23-year old Greens candidate, is a natural at Instagram. A recent post showed her kneeling next to an avocado plant, which she explained was "a symbol of systemic intergenerational injustice with regard to housing affordability and the related condescension to the point of pop culture post irony, or something." To complete her millennial social media cred, she even posts a "candidate diary" on the popular blog The Spinoff.

It's debatable whether Swarbrick's post-ironical (or something) internet activity will generate votes. But it's refreshing to see politicians like Swarbrick and Ardern injecting some humour into the otherwise staid world of New Zealand election social media.

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Of course you don't have to be young to create a social media presence that is fun, informative and has the kind of candour lacking in Bill English's posts. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark has been a force on social media ever since she moved overseas. She was particularly active when she worked for the United Nations. Last April she was sending out an average of 25 tweets per day, many of them updates on her activities as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. These weren't canned PR tweets either, they were personal comments on her job and important issues.

Even post-UN, Clark continues to engage people on topical issues using Twitter. "Ridiculous in 21stC that #women in leadership positions are subjected to gender-based attacks," she tweeted after some of the sexist remarks made about Jacinda Ardern last week.

The other thing I like about Helen Clark is that she's a fast follower of social media trends – such as the hashtag in the quote above. The latest trend she's taken to is inserting little emoji into her Facebook posts, like a tiny picture of kiwifruit if she mentions Kiwis. In short, Helen Clark has fun on social media, while also coming across as authentic and conversational.

But for all this activity on social media, will any of it will really matter come election day? After all, most of us live in filter bubbles. We tend to only follow people on our side of the political spectrum. While the social justice warriors on the left talk amongst themselves on Twitter, National supporters happily press the like button on Bill English's Facebook page.

At best, like Donald Trump in the US and Gareth Morgan here, you can provoke reactions on social media. But as Kim Dotcom and his Internet Party found out in the last election, you won't sway many voters that way. The reality is, social media isn't a place to change anyone's mind.

Richard MacManus (@ricmac) founded tech blog ReadWriteWeb in 2003 and has since become an internationally recognised commentator on what's next in technology and what it means for society.

 - Stuff

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