Last week’s poll was billed as South Africa’s first social media elections. After witnessing the power of US president Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, politicians and political parties had to implement digital strategies ahead of the fifth general elections. Did the use of digital media live up to the hype?
Not really, says Rhodes University’s Jude Mathurine, lecturer/co-ordinator of new media at the School of Journalism and Media Studies. “South Africans did embrace social media for sharing political statuses, tweets and social media, particularly online video (The DA’s ANC Ayisafani had over 700 000 YouTube views) from political parties and political leaders,” he says.
“South Africans also shared their own political viewpoints on their personal social networks or news and political websites. However, social media remains extensively used as a broadcast platform by political parties and leaders and there is no data either way to argue that this had a definite influence on voter patterns as it did during the US presidential elections of 2008 where there was clear integration of social media into the processes of presidential campaigning.”
CEO of Apurimac Media, Will Green, says South Africa has just experienced its first digital election and that research “points to some very valuable lessons to be learnt by the parties and similarly for brands that are competing for the consumer vote”.
Of course, the size of the digital audience is small compared to the US with around five million Twitter users and nine million Facebook users. Nevertheless, their influence should “not be discounted”.
“What you know and share with whom you know that works,” Green said in a statement. The 2014 election was about the ‘Power of the Photo’ and the ‘selfie’. Citizen photography ruled the day.
Mathurine agreed, saying South Africans “tweeted and shared the uhuru of voting through thumb-nail selfies as a way of celebrating their democratic right, while politicians took to Facebook and Twitter en masse”.
Green said the DA had the highest and most consistent level of engagement within Facebook, but that could do better next time by “”growing their audience outside of the smaller existing, loyal and engaged audience. The DA also delivered the best integrated media campaign with #Ayisafani TV and Youtube campaign being a big hit, and the initial barring [by the SABC] of its flighting worked in the DA’s favour as the public went online to view it.
But the ANC took top honours when it came to political rallies. Green says the synergy between political rallies and digital media was best observed during the ANC’s #Siyanqoba rally when they made free Wifi available inside FNB Stadium. “The impact on the party’s online support base was clear, with a 3.79% Facebook and 1.79% Twitter growth. The ANC saw the biggest growth over the weekend before voting as a result of this event. Social media platforms were awash with images of a packed stadium and a sea of ANC t-shirts,” he says.
Mathurine was impressed by the Economic Freedom Fighters’ growth in the space of just one year. “EFF’s and Julius Malema’s official social media audience was built from scratch over a period of a year and showed exponential growth. How this translates into votes is anyone’s guess. One would still have to look at data around the elections to see which political party’s names or hashtags were most mentioned or used, or whose content was most often retweeted to determine who performed best,” he says.
Green said it wasn’t clear “whether it was by accident or a strategic decision, but the EFF’s use of the red beret as their party’s colour and symbol (both online and off-line) was a stroke of genius”.
The Apurimac research shows the fittest Twitter fingers belonged to the DA and leader, Helen Zille. The party registered 734 tweets and Zille a total of 634 tweets, in the third week of April. Or if broken down further, that means that Zille sent 7.5 tweets an hour or one tweet every 8 minutes, per day, for a 12 hour day in this week. Green said lack of resources to look after social media platforms negatively impacted on the smaller parties.
“The ANC recorded the biggest Facebook growth, when looking at the overall research period. It grew from 52 536 likes to 136 046, from 7 March to 2 May 2014. The ANC’s Facebook audience overtook their Twitter audience and eventually also overtook the DA’s Twitter audience, which was the biggest of all parties at the beginning of the campaign,” Green said.
Mathurine says a major problem in assessing success of political parties’ social media campaigns is to “move away from simplistic views and likes to examine online conversations more closely and relate this data to issues like assessing sentiment of users towards political parties”.
“Social conversation does assist the creation of a more rational public sphere is on closed or semi-closed groups like Facebook where conversations between users of a similar political or ideological persuasion can seek information and reinforcement for their views.
“Of course, this also limits the potential for competing views and the free flow of alternative ideas since some voices are either silenced or fail to enter these spaces,” he says.
Mathurine says changes to the cost of mobile communication will see not a social media election but a ‘mobile media’ election in the next few years. “The use of mobiles (and mobile social media) to communicate with voters during this election is by far more interesting issue to watch,” he says.
“Mobile camera phones have made it easier for the public to take on a fifth estate role as observers of the conduct of government and state bodies. Electoral fraud is made more difficult by the possibility of having 18 million voters act as election observers. The story of the ‘mislaid’ ballot boxes certainly received much more traction when the images and story was picked up by the mainstream media and retweeted by politicians like Julius Malema, Helen Zille and Mamphele Ramphele. The IEC was quick to use its own social media to allay concerns and investigate the matter which resolved that at least in the Lynwood case boxes had been left behind when the IEC packed up their tent,” Mathurine says.
Green says the DA used Twitter and Facebook effectively to share pictures of alleged election transgression, like the reports of the removing of their posters to be replaced by ANC posters. This content was distributed by their social media profiles, which had a larger reach.
Mathurine says the rise of social media “has made politicians more circumspect because they are now surrounded by numerous eyeballs”. “However, the trend locally, as it is in the United Kingdom, is for individual politicians and candidates to pontificate and opine more and engage less. Those leaders who do engage with the public often find that explaining policy in 140 characters or comments is challenging. Debates are often oversimplified simplistic and may devolve into flame wars between users from different parties and ideological perspectives,” he says.
And the journalists reporting on the elections? Green’s research says Stephen Grootes (EWN and Daily Maverick) recorded the highest growth from 59 000 to 62 900. Business Day’s Peter Bruce went from 27 600 to 29 000), and Beeld editor Adriaan Basson from 40 600 to 42 600. City Press’s Carien du Plessis grew from from 35 400 to 36 900 while the Mail & Guardian’s Chris Roper’s went from 23 100 to 23 800.
In terms of political party figures, Mmusi Maimane topped the list with 15.5% from 27 800 up to 32 900 followers. Tim Harris grew his audience with 10.18%, up from 9 935 to 10 800, followed by Malusi Gigaba with followers climbing from 66 600 up to 72 000. Lindiwe Mazibuko had a growth of 6.8% (from 120 800 to 129 700), Floyd Shivambu’s 6.2% (from 42 400 to 45 200), Patricia de Lille with a growth of 5.8% (from 35 600 to 37 800), and Zwelinzima Vavi’s growth of 5.5% (from 157 800 to 167 000).
News24 breaks all records with their Election 2014 coverage
News24 reported that it broke all their previous records with staggering user statistics during the election. Voting day saw 625 000 unique users and four million page views while Thursday (results day) hit a whopping 1.7 million unique users and 22 million page views. The growth in unique users was an unprecedented 220% with a 484% growth in page views*. “When we started our planning for Elections 2014 we knew that we wanted to surpass all local benchmarks from a development and user perspective,” says Cathryn Reece, product development manager for 24.com.
The site reached its peak at 10am with 102 000 concurrent views, which is where it remained for the majority of the day. (Concurrent views are the number of people online at the same time). This broke their previous record of 79 000 concurrent views which they received on 19 February 2013, the day of Oscar Pistorius’s bail hearing.
The clear winner out of all the features on the platforms were the interactive results maps which collected over a third of the total web and mobile traffic. “Our maps were world class. They worked seamlessly across our web, mobile-web and app platforms using the IEC’s data, which was loaded directly from their live results database,” added Reece.
Mobile has always been an important part of News24’s strategy and the most important thrust for this election was to make sure all the elements worked on mobile. “We knew that mobile was going to be the most important platform on voting day and that we had one chance to get it right,” says Reece. This was clearly evident in the stats with 80 000 active users on the iOS and Android app. And with 39 000 downloads of the app (30 000 of those downloads happening on Thursday alone), it was clear that users were looking for reliable, on-the-go news as it happened.
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