Why all the political parties want us to be their Facebook friends....
Both government and opposition have digital strategists in place, ready to fight online for votes. Could this be the first Irish election where social media plays a decisive role?
Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30
This is likely to be the first General Election where social media plays a major role. Teams of eager young digital natives will be in place in party headquarters and around the country to promote politicians, particularly on Facebook.
It will be the first campaign where some of the more tech-friendly politicians will begin to regard the Facebook post as being just as important as the traditional poster.
At the last General Election, the parties were interested in social media but tended to be much more focused on Twitter; strategists have since realised that getting the message out on Facebook is more crucial.
The importance of the medium was underlined during the same-sex marriage referendum, when Yes Equality concentrated heavily on the social network. During the last week of the referendum campaign, Facebook posts from Yes Equality were reaching an audience of millions.
Craig Dwyer, who was head of social media for Yes Equality, says: "It is worth remembering that there are more people on Facebook - 2.5 million - than voted in the last general election."
Many of these online citizens belong to the generation that is less likely to vote in elections, but the referendum campaign showed how social media can mobilise them. Ciamh McCrory, digital media strategist with Insight Consultants, says: "Social media had a major influence in the referendum in driving a younger audience to the polling booths. The parties will try to repeat that in the election, and that could be the key to success."
Party officials will also have learned from the British General Election campaign, where David Cameron's successful Conservative Party spent 10 times more than Labour on promoted posts on Facebook.
Paul Moran of ad placement company Mediaworks says: "Social media will be huge in this campaign, but a lot of politicians are still struggling to get their heads around it."
Ciaran Cannon, Fine Gael TD for Galway East, is concentrating heavily on Facebook this time out, and will spend money on promoted posts.
He says he can reach up 7,000 people in his constituency with a promoted post costing just €10. This means these voters get a message from him when they open up Facebook.
"I reckon that only about 5pc of my constituents are on Twitter, but the vast majority, particularly those aged 25-55, are on Facebook."
Norma Moriarty, Fianna Fáil candidate in Kerry, says: "Facebook is a good way of building up your profile, when you are competing with well-known candidates. It is a useful way of keeping in touch with voters in a large constituency, where it can be very hard to get to everyone."
Dr Jane Suiter of the School of Communications at Dublin City University tracks the use of social media in political campaigns. She likens the use of Twitter to the air war, as it helps to shape national debate, while the use of Facebook is like the social media ground war.
"Facebook is the way to get through to the average person and their family, and some younger candidates use it well. You have to have an image or video with your message.
"You can also target different groups. If you want to send promoted posts to women in their thirties in Longford you can do that."
That is the great advantage of the Facebook post, according to Ciamh McCrory.
"You can target people in the 18 to 25 age group with a certain message. You can send a similar message to people over 50, but it will be phrased a bit differently."
Dr Suiter says the social network was used effectively during the Meath East by-election in 2013 by Fine Gael's Helen McEntee.
"It worked well for her because it came naturally to her," says the DCU lecturer.
Jane Suiter says a telling tweet can still have a profound impact in politics. After Brian Cowen's infamous interview on Morning Ireland in 2010, when he sounded under the weather, then opposition TD, Simon Coveney of Fine Gael, tweeted: "God, what an uninspiring interview by Taoiseach this morning. He sounded halfway between drunk and hungover…"
Sinn Féin has a strong presence on social media through its legion of keyboard warriors, known by their detractors as "shinnerbots".
Any criticisms of the party are likely to be met with swift rebuttals.
Ciamh McCrory says Sinn Féin is the party on Twitter with the most followers - 40,000 - while Gerry Adams has the biggest following of any leader with 98,000. The party also has the biggest Facebook following with 77,000 likes.
Party spokesman Shaun Tracey says: "As social media grows so does our emphasis on it. Facebook and Twitter are our main social media platforms but we have also recently set up an Instagram account and Gerry Adams is using Periscope on a regular basis now as well."
Gerry Adams no doubt inspires mixed feelings with his homespun tweets about rubber ducks, and getting into the leaba, which have recently turned into a book. A typical recent example: "In bed. Nothing on but my onesey, 2 blankets, 1 duvet, bed socks & my favourite quilt. Cosy. Xoxozzzzzzz."
His musings about domestic life may be seen as cringeworthy by many, but perhaps he has used the medium shrewdly to take the rough edges off his image.
Craig Dwyer, the Yes Equality social media manager who now works for Newstalk, says online campaigning has become a lot more sophisticated in recent years.
"At this election, you are seeing a lot of candidates using techniques that we saw in the referendum and telling personal stories. I have seen candidates producing video content profiling people or businesses in their constituency.
"Politicians can still use traditional media to sell their policies, but use social media to sell their personalities."
Brian Hayes, Fine Gael's director of elections, says: "This is going to be a social media election and we are investing heavily in it.
"However, I still think old-fashioned legwork and getting out and meeting constituents will still play a crucial role." Hayes believes that in order for online campaigns to work, they have to be creative and sometimes humorous. So, don't be surprised if we see cheeky ads showing a tiny Micheál Martin sitting in the top pocket of Gerry Adams.
How to avoid political gaffes on social media
1. DON'T MIX UP TWEETS WITH TEXT MESSAGES
Social media users don't expect TDs to be as profound as Abraham Lincoln, but they don't expect shopping requests either.
Labour's Sean Kenny once caused bewilderment when he tweeted:
"Eoin, did you u collect the eggs?"
2. KEEP IT PERSONAL, BUT NOT TOO PERSONAL
Politicians have to strike a balance between giving their posts on Facebook and Twitter a personal touch, and not being too forthright. Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner committed the ultimate social media sin when he sent intimate pictures to a 21-year-old woman in Seattle on Twitter.
3. DON'T JUST FOLLOW ANYONE
Don't just follow or make friends with anyone on social media. There were red faces at the top of the Israeli government some time ago when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was following @PersianHotBook, described as the "library for hot sex books in the Persian language". His spokesman explained that Mr Netanyahu didn't post tweets himself and this was due to a 'malfunction'.
4. DON'T MAKE FUN OF THE VOTERS
After days on the hustings, it may be tempting to ridicule those pesky people who cast their ballots. In Britain, Labour's then leader Ed Miliband sacked a Labour front-bencher Emily Thornberry. She appeared to mock a family's terraced home draped in England flags when she posted a picture of it.
5. BE CAREFUL OF JOKES
Jokes don't always work if you're a politician, and messages to individuals can be read by everyone. In 2013, Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, one of the more interesting political tweeters, sent a message to a follower with the hashtag of Prime Time #rtept: "@colmtobin We're having a referendum on the O'Neill-Keane marriage in 2015... I'm pretty sure that's what I heard today... #rtept"
He was mortified when it was actually read on Prime Time.
6. DON'T BE JUST PLAIN DAFT
Make sure your messages on social media make sense, unlike the utterance from Fidelma Healy Eames before the Same-Sex Marriage referendum.
"Happy Mothers' day all! Hope we can continue to celebrate it after #SSM passed. In some US states Mothers & Father's Day banned #pcgonemad."