Face to Face(book): Social Media, Political Campaigning and the Unbearable Lightness of Being There

Karen Ross

Karen Ross is a Professor of Media in the Department of Media and Communication Design at Northumbria University

Tobias Burger

Tobias Burger is a PhD Student at Northumbria University at the Department of Media and Communication Design.

Over the last few years, proponents of social media have insisted that they are transforming the ways in which politicians campaign and engage with (digital) publics. At the same time, such developments have allowed for new interpretations about the meaning of political participation and deliberation within the broader concept of democracy. But despite the fact that politicians play a vital role in this equation, relatively little attention has been given to exploring the personal views which politicians themselves hold about using social media. However, understanding their motivations and attitudes towards the effectiveness of platforms such as Facebook is important in developing more comprehensive theories of social media’s role in the democratic landscape. As part of a larger project on political uses of Facebook, the aspect reported here comprised interviews with a number of New Zealand MPs contesting the 2011 general election in order to understand what they considered to be the opportunities for and obstacles to effective campaigning through their use of Facebook.

While most of the MPs we interviewed had been using Facebook since at least 2008, a number noted that their perception of social media as tools for political communi­cation had changed over the years, often leading them to be more mindful of what they posted and shared because of potential (mis)use of their comments for negative campaigning by other politicians or journalists. On the other hand, they greatly valued the opportunity to directly engage with the public, including their own constituents, as Facebook was seen as being able to facilitate an initial first contact via private messaging as well as serve as a platform for discussion. Besides facilitating the beginning of a relationship between the citizen and the politician, our interviewees also suggested that Facebook acted as a signpost to other sites and places such as their personal website or party blogs such as Labour’s Red Alert. Facebook was therefore viewed ‘like a bit of a teaser’ (Nicky Wagner, National Party) and had become another element in a politician’s personal media strategy. MPs also used different social media for different purposes, with Twitter being more ‘snappy because of the 140 characters’ (Aaron Gilmore, National Party) and useful in creating public visibility, although our interviewees also recognised the expectation by their followers, that they should respond quickly to questions or comments.

The use of social media also highlighted differences, both in style and content, between a politician’s personal campaign approach and those of the party to whom she or he belonged.  Facebook is mostly regarded as being another tool in the political campaigning toolbox as politicians strive to develop a personal touch as well as promote party messages, supplementing other communication activities and forms. While MPs acknowledged the advantages of social media in reaching out to a potentially bigger, and likely younger, audience than other activities might generate, they also argued that they were complementary to, rather than a replacement for, more traditional campaign strategies such as door-knocking, leafleting, street corner and town hall meetings, and newsletters.

Although the majority of the MPs we interviewed regarded Facebook as useful, they also recognised that it is time-consuming to cultivate an effective online strategy and a number reported negative experiences in relation to trolling and abuse, especially women interviewees. For example, Darien Fenton (Labour) reported receiving comments which included ‘some really nasty stuff’, making clear the dangers of politicians putting themselves ‘out there’.  There was therefore considerable support for maintaining some of the ‘old’ ways of doing politics, describing the very positive effects of meeting constituents face-to-face and what Rahui Katene (Maori Party) described as the ‘razzamatazz of being on the street corner and talking to people.’ 

The extent to which politicians are likely to more fully integrate social media into their day-to-day communication strategies was related to a number of different personal and technological factors which could affect a politician’s individual motivation and behaviour. These include confidence in using social media which was often linked to their experiences of using these platforms outside the political realm. But while Facebook seems to have secured a place in the political campaigning toolbox, the perception of its real effectiveness was rather mixed and Grant Robertson (Labour) exemplifies the caution which many politicians expressed: ‘Face­book can’t give you any certainty. I can get certainty when I look someone in the eye and say: ‘Have I got your vote?’ Facebook can’t do that. I don’t think Facebook is capable of personal-level discussion, it’s a proxy for that, but it’s not a replacement.’


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