LOL! Politicians ‘keeping it real’ on social media


It’s been said that if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. Bryce Edwards looks at our politicians’ desperate attempts to connect with ordinary voter and galvanise the non-voting millenials.

In the unpredictable world of social media, it’s sometimes hard to tell embarrassing and fashionable online behaviour apart.

Was it embarrassing or endearing when Bill English Facebooked his spaghetti pizza creation?

To his detractors it was a transparent, cringeworthy attempt at appearing relatable, and there was much mocking of his culinary tastes.

But it also managed to achieve the intended outcome – making the rather grey prime minister more human and colourful.

And the post went viral, picked up by media everywhere, including internationally. US-based comedian John Oliver made fun of English’s pizza to a large international audience and the YouTube clip of this has been viewed nearly a million times.

Getting it right on social media – including on Snapchat and Facebook – is seen as all important these days, and politicians rely heavily on spin doctors and consultants to project the “right image”.

However, since the departure of “good bloke” John Key, the knack of coming across as authentic and ordinary is proving more elusive for our current batch of campaigners.

One of the secrets to Key’s success was his image as an affable guy-next-door. He might have been our most elite and wealthy prime minister, but he had the knack of coming across as down-to-earth and ordinary, and was skilled at connecting with people.

English on the other hand is becoming the master of the “so bad it’s good” online stunt and – have no doubt – there will be more.

After his spagehetti pizza fame, there was his “walk-run” video posted to Facebook (“This is a bit where I run” and “When it’s like this, I walk”).

Still from Bill English Walk-Run. Photo / Supplied via Facebook

Still from Bill English Walk-Run. Photo / Supplied via Facebook

And last week he joined Snapchat and posted video of himself celebrating the America’s Cup triumph. It was awkward even by his standards.

Donald Trump famously tweeted last month to his 12.5 million followers the following mysterious line: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.”

Despite it becoming one of the most discussed tweets of all time, the President still refuses to explain himself, which has merely added to his appeal.

Authenticity and engagement is huge in politics at the moment. Globally, we see the public embracing mavericks, populists, and even very mild-mannered politicians who seem like a breath of fresh air because they come across as real, and not too far elevated above the public.

It’s part of a global mood that is tired of – or even in revolt against – elite politicians who appear overly polished and removed, with bland and carefully crafted speeches and arguments. Hence, a bumbling and unfettered Trump, a folksy Jeremy Corbyn, and a steadfast Bernie Sanders have recently found surprising success at the polls.

In 2017 New Zealand politics seems lacking authenticity and genuine public engagement. Nowhere is this clearer than on social media. Here – as with the parties’ other attempts to mobilise youth and other disengaged sections of the population – they’re failing badly.

It’s hard to imagine any New Zealand politician tweeting as Trump does. Party leaders here tend to have their accounts controlled by communications staff, who normally allow only the blandest, most uncontroversial statements to go out.

The main exception to this has been Gareth Morgan, whose Twitter tirades against online opponents have been labelled by many as abusive. In one evening in April, he managed to call his critics “whores”, railed against New Zealand’s “PC culture” and complained about “crap people, crapping on us with contempt, bottom-feeders and bleeders”.

Of course, Morgan’s own Opportunities Party communication staff then took his account from him, perfectly encapsulating the thinking in New Zealand politics – that politicians can’t afford to make mistakes.

Andrew Little's video of him ironing a shirt was contrived and - even worse - genuinely boring. Photo / Supplied

Andrew Little’s video of him ironing a shirt was contrived and – even worse – genuinely boring. Photo / Supplied

Where is the authentic online engagement in New Zealand? MPs don’t take many risks online. Do you actually learn anything by following Andrew Little on Facebook or Twitter? Not much. He put up a video of himself ironing a shirt, which might have been intended to make him seem more “real”. In reality it just seemed contrived and it was genuinely boring.

Key’s social media was rather more authentic – videos and photos of him planking, doing the “derp-face”, taking a turn on the catwalk – it all seemed unscripted and some of it was probably carried out against the advice of the spin doctors.
A senior press gallery journalist says Key was one of the rare politicians who wasn’t led by spin doctors.

One of the biggest mistakes politicians make is trying to be “down with the kids”. Politicians appear to believe they simply need to adopt some of the phrases and mannerisms of youth to be seen as “in touch”.

Little recently explained how he would handle recent disagreements with the Australian Government: “I’d be on the blower to Malcolm Turnbull saying ‘hey dude – this is not the way we do things between mates’.”

There is no doubt social media has the capacity to impact on the election campaign.

In 2014, there were a “missing million” voters, largely believed to be young and left-leaning. It is a similar demographic to that which appears to have been galvanised in the UK and European countries in reaction to the populist right swing in the US and elsewhere.

Chloe Swarbrick based her campaign for the Auckland mayoralty on social media. Photo / Chris Smith

Chloe Swarbrick based her campaign for the Auckland mayoralty on social media. Photo / Chris Smith

Although it’s true Key connected with many people, it is equally true that his politics-lite style of communication failed to make headway with the growing numbers of people increasingly turned off by politics.

Internationally, voters are increasingly engaging with political leaders who project a form of politics that has substance and delivers on big ideas.

Like them or hate them, political leaders from Trump on the right, to Corbyn on the left, are drawing in young and old alike in a new form of politics based on big, radical ideas and a populist reaction against the tired and boring political establishment.

New Zealand’s political leaders are now desperately attempting to show how “real” and sincere they are to persuade the missing million to turn up to the polls in September.

The challenge of reaching those voters has been the same for years – the difference now is that politicians have the tools to talk to them directly.

And we’re seeing how changing technology is changing campaigning. In particular, video and photos – especially due to the capacity of smartphones – have changed the dynamics, making for more visual and creative campaign material.

Parties, politicians, and the public can easily create photos and amusing memes, and share these widely. Social media is becoming more about images and less about text. Even Twitter is much more visual than it was in 2014.

Winston Peters mistaken tweet that was meant as a search. Photo / Twitter

Winston Peters mistaken tweet that was meant as a search. Photo / Twitter

The problem with this is it makes the campaign even less substantive.

The capacity for live video may also impact on the campaign. Facebook’s Live video function could take off – especially with the parties, and public, streaming various events, encounters, and conflicts.

Back in 2014, Twitter was supposed to be the big social media platform for politics. That’s where most of the cut-through debate and campaigning was seen to be occurring.

But three years later, Twitter has stagnated and become the elite’s coffeehouse – it’s where the activists are, but fewer politicians or public engage there.

Facebook has re-asserted itself as the main place for broader online public discussion. It’s estimated about 60 per cent of New Zealanders use Facebook on a daily basis, making it an incredible potential vote-winning forum.

Politicians are also using Snapchat and Instagram to connect. But despite the novelty of these platforms – which means politicians are keen to show they’re using them – there’s really not much happening there. For example, on Instagram Bill English only has 1959 followers. Andrew Little has 1090, and Winston Peters just 296.

In the next three months, our politicians are certain to be hammering social media for all its worth – but there’s a note of caution in how effective it is.

Facebook says about 2.9 million New Zealanders are regularly active on their platform – about 60 per cent of the population.

But as of May this year, 89,000 people had “liked” Bill English’s Facebook page, while Winston Peters had 77,000 likes and Little close to 32,000. These figures represent just 1.9 per cent, 1.6 per cent, and 0.7 per cent of the overall population.

And although National won 1.13 million party votes at the last election, the party’s Facebook page currently has only 75,371 likes – 6.7 per cent of its voters.

Next time English wants to show off his spaghetti pizza he might want to remember that success on social media does not translate to electoral success.

If it did, perhaps Kim Dotcom would be prime minister. Social media success is often in the eye of the beholder.

Social media fails

Disability Issues Minister Nicky Wagner's tweet fail.

Disability Issues Minister Nicky Wagner’s tweet fail.

1) Nicky Wagner’s public declaration that she’d rather be sailing than attending disability meetings

2) Labour’s Facebook meme criticising the knighthood for John Key – it just came across as nasty

3) Gareth Morgan’s twitter abuse of his critics

4) Andrew Little’s video of him ironing a shirt was contrived and – even worse – genuinely boring

5) Green MP Steffan Browning farewelled John Key from Parliament by posting a picture of a glass containing blood-coloured drink in the debating chamber, and referred to the outgoing PM’s legacy of death

Social media successes

Bill English posted a picture of spaghetti pizza to Facebook. Photo / Supplied

Bill English posted a picture of spaghetti pizza to Facebook. Photo / Supplied

1) Bill English’s spaghetti pizza – showed him in the same goofy light as John Key at his best

2) The prime minister’s Walk-Run video

3) Winston Peters mistaken tweet that was meant as a search: “Tweets on Winston Peters NZ politician” – the closest thing New Zealand has to Trump’s enigmatic “covfefe” tweet

4) Green list candidate Chloe Swarbrick based her campaign for the Auckland mayoralty on social media, which helped her to come third in the race

5) Though not a politician, Jesse Mulligan broadcast a monologue last week on The Project criticising a tweet by Bill English that said his government “is delivering for all New Zealand”. The story went viral on social media.

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