As the countdown to the local government elections accelerates, the Twitter wars are heating up. Political parties are turning to social media to reach voters. Janine Stephen catches up with the politicians who have embraced electioneering, social network style.
It’s 11.14 am, Friday 6 May, and the ANC’s second live Q&A on Twitter <http://twitter.com/#!/search?q=%23ANCLive> is not exactly burning up the wires. Fourteen minutes in, and we have one reply, courtesy of spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, who is fielding the barrage (It began with a pithy plea: ‘Why should I vote for you? Honestly, in one sentence – tell me why?’). It could be sluggish networks and hash tag issues, but 20 minutes in, a frustrated user tweets, ‘at least answer questions faster than you deliver services’.
To be fair, things sped up. Questions about open loos, campaign posters, corrupt civil servants, municipal infrastructure budgets and more were answered (if not always to the tweeter’s satisfaction, and often broken up to deal with the 140-character limit). The session trended in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, and by the end of the two-hour period, some thanks was offered alongside the inevitable heckling.
Questions that had dealt with local government elections and their answers were later posted to Facebook (some 1,038 people like the Facebook page MyANC <http://www.facebook.com/pages/MyANC/190104684357654> ; twitter account @MyANC_ <http://twitter.com/#!/MyANC_> has 5 100 followers).
From door-to-door to Twitter
Speaking to TheMediaOnline this week, Mthembu sounded won over by the medium. The Q&A sessions had been a learning curve, but a good experience. More researchers and PCs had been pulled in to cope with the volume of questions, and he had high hopes for the next three-hour session with Gwede Mantashe. Twitter Q&As were another form of ‘direct contact with our people’ in the spirit of door-to-door campaigning, and a great way for individuals to ‘ask ANC leaders anything’.
Anticipating the cynics, he said such Q&As wouldn’t only be confined to election time. ‘Apart from the regular press briefings that are done by GCIS [The Government and Communication Information System], I think it would possibly add innovation for our ministers, our MECs and even our mayors to use this medium – just answering questions for our people.’
A day later – and eight days before the elections – the Presidency announced President Zuma’s new Twitter account: http://twitter.com/#!/SAPresident. As of today, he has 6 253 followers and follows only one account, http://twitter.com/#!/PresidencyZA)
The ANC and government are not completely new to social media. In the State of the Nation address in February, Zuma answered questions raised on the Presidency’s Facebook page (the Presidency also tweets). Jackson Mthembu himself has over 3 000 Facebook friends (he’s now tempted to ‘join the tweeting community myself’).
Public Enterprises minister Malusi Gigaba is an avid Tweeter, keeping the nation updated on football, parliamentary meetings and events. ‘Twitter allows politicians who use it to engage with a ‘younger audience using a medium they understand,’ Gigaba told the Media Online. ‘Inputs and feedback are instant, and it provides a good platform for debate and engagement.’
But that it’s an unknown medium to many was made embarrassingly clear when ANCYL leader Julius Malema threatened to close Twitter down after someone created a spoof account in his name.
Mother’s Day and Zulu spelling
There is no question that the party with the firmest grip on the social media reins right now is the DA. Their most recent Twitter Town Hall Q&A, under the hash tag #DAQA <http://twitter.com/#!/search/%23DAQA> , provided a blaze of answers from both strategist Ryan Coetzee and a number of other representatives – and they weren’t preaching only to the converted; there were some tough questions.
Helen Zille (who claims the first Twitter account in SA), Patricia de Lille, Mmusi Maimane and Lindiwe Mazibuko have been tweeting regularly on the campaign trail (@HelenZille alone has around 28 400 followers), and their use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube is deft – they’re often confident enough to use humour. About 20 DA MPS have Twitter accounts.
‘We became aware of the need to maximise our online presence in the 2009 [elections] and this has become all the more pertinent as the number of South Africans accessing the internet on their mobile phones has increased,’ says Mazibuko. Twitter profiles ‘keep followers, supporters and other members of the public informed about the day-to-day goings on of the DA’s election campaign’ but also add that elusive human touch seldom seen in print.
‘Helen Zille… tweets about Mother’s Day lunch with her family; her son’s new puppy; and off-the-cuff conversations she has had with President Jacob Zuma at state functions,’ Mazibuko says, as well as answers individual queries. While out campaigning, a voter tweeted that the DA posters in Soweto had a spelling mistake in the Zulu text. The reply was instant and direct: ‘Send the right version then.’
Happily for politicians, Twitter also allows for the right of reply – instantly. So when deputy minister of science and technology Derek Henekom tweeted to challenge the numbers Zille claimed had attended a DA rally, Zille could shoot back: ‘Yeka umona, Derek. There were 100s of ppl at our march and rally … Sorry ’bout your experience yesterday.’
The quick cut and thrust of social media, where wit and speed do matter, mean the medium has disadvantages too. ‘It is … very public, and the format of websites such as Twitter, with its 140 character limit, lend themselves to regular misunderstandings,’ Mazibuko says. Still, this is outweighed by ‘the opportunity to communicate with the electorate in a manner that is quick, fun, and unusually personal.’
While ‘it can be difficult to concentrate on what is being said in meetings and at rallies enough to condense it into 140 characters and tweet,’ links to webpages with more detail can be provided for more clarity.
Mazibuko thinks that currently, while the number of South Africans using Twitter is still relatively small, tweeting about national issues is more effective than localised concerns. But Twitter gives local politicians direct access to ‘influential “Tweeple”, such as print and broadcast media editors, NGOs, experts, and other members of civil society’. Journalists and editors like Mandy De Waal, Adriaan Basson and Ferial Haffejee attended the DA Twitter Town Hall session; ANCLive attracted Gareth Cliff.
COPE spokesperson Roscoe Palm points out that social media can instantly bring pertinent issues to the attention of both leaders and press. Notices on Facebook, for example, alerted COPE to illegal shack demolitions in KZN. ‘It’s really shortened the distance between the leadership and the community,’ Palm says. ‘Everything just moves faster; [residents] could go to the very top, and we could issue a statement in a very short period of time.’
But COPE’s social media presence can be as confusing as its fractured leadership: Multiple pages and accounts exist, with various names, in various stages of abandonment. Palm, who like Phillip Dexter supports the Lekota faction, says social media saved them after the party’s ‘communications machinery was hijacked by Shilowa’. Currently, their site <http://cope.za.org/> links to Facebook, blog and Twitter pages, although friends are few – 873 people like the FB page, while they have 320 twitter followers. Their most ‘prolific tweeter’ is Dexter – and his total tweets number no more than 32. Still, he has a head start on Jacob Zuma.
Palm notes that it’s not just young urban professionals using social media. ‘SA has the highest usage of cellphones to access the internet in the world,’ he says, and people are savvy about switching networks, often using, say, MTN for cheap calls between certain hours, then switching to Vodacom to surf the net and access Facebook. And they are not all city professionals. ‘People who live in places like KwaMashu, or in the rural areas are among our most active FB users.’
Cheap and democratic
Facebook and Twitter are also a huge help to smaller, cash-strapped parties. Messages can be sent instantly, at next to no cost, and will be forwarded by the public themselves – perfect for alerting people to rallies, says Palm.
The ACDP also uses Facebook <http://www.facebook.com/pages/ACDP/379138726819> (the national page only has 627 ‘likes’), and finds it is a cost-effective tool that aids communication. Election manager Marlene Briel says they ‘put press releases and happenings in the news’ on Facebook, and answer questions from the public. They also put would-be supporters in touch with local branches using Facebook, and launched their campaign slogan, ‘Let’s Fix This’, through social media.
For all its democratic reach and instant access, what counts in social media is the quality and immediacy of responses. And that takes time. Mazibulo says that Zille’s spokesperson, Priya Reddy, occasionally posts updates – but ‘on balance, about 80% of the tweets from the @HelenZille account are Helen’s own’. Mazibuko manages her own account. ‘I find it impossible to keep up with the number of questions and mentions I receive on a daily basis, so I try rather to respond to the most important ones,’ she says.
Andile Biyela, spokesperson for the young National Freedom Party, says that leader Zanele Magwaza-Msibi also updates her own Facebook page <http://www.facebook.com/pages/Zanele-Magwaza-Msibi/112459990166> (1 507 ‘likes’) when she has time, but ‘not on an hourly basis; it’s a question of time and resources’. But, he says, having leaders always accessible on social media would in itself be questionable. ‘At that level, would you want your leader to spend hours on Facebook?’
SONGBIRDS: Politicians on Twitter
ANC: @SAPresident; @Derek_Hanekom <http://twitter.com/#%21/Derek_Hanekom> ; @ mgigaba <http://twitter.com/#%21/mgigaba> ; http://twitter.com/#!/MyANC
DA: @HelenZille, @PatriciadeLille, @MaimaneAM (Mmusi Maimane), @RyanCoetzee, @Wilmot_James_MP, @LindiMazibuko; @IanOllis; @JSteenhuisen; @AlanWinde; @IanNeilson; @TimHarris, @SizweMchunu, @DavidMaynier; @Gareth_Morgan
Cope: @phillipdexter <http://twitter.com/#%21/phillipdexter>
ACDP: Jo Anne Downs