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Election 2020: Does the online battle for votes really matter?

Candidates hope that magical online alchemy can make them victorious. But it's still mostly down to old-fashioned footslogging, writes Kim Bielenberg

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Outrage: pictures of Leo Varadkar posing on a forklift hours after a homeless man was seriously injured by an industrial vehicle removing tents in Dublin were labelled as insensitive 
on Twitter

Outrage: pictures of Leo Varadkar posing on a forklift hours after a homeless man was seriously injured by an industrial vehicle removing tents in Dublin were labelled as insensitive on Twitter

AFP via Getty Images

'Irish parties slow to adap': Ecanvasser's CEO Brendan Finucane

'Irish parties slow to adap': Ecanvasser's CEO Brendan Finucane

� Neil Danton

Instagram post of Michael Healy-Rae

Instagram post of Michael Healy-Rae

Instagram post of Josepha Madigan

Instagram post of Josepha Madigan

Micheál Martin's Instagram post

Micheál Martin's Instagram post

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Outrage: pictures of Leo Varadkar posing on a forklift hours after a homeless man was seriously injured by an industrial vehicle removing tents in Dublin were labelled as insensitive on Twitter

Ireland this week embarked on its sixth general election of the internet age, but there is a sense that parties have still not gained an edge through technology.

As candidates hope that some kind of magical online alchemy can push them ahead of their rivals, most politicians and analysts agree that going door to door pleading for a number one is still the best way of getting elected.

Former Fianna Fáil adviser Derek Mooney, who has worked with consistent poll topper Willie O'Dea, said: "Using social media for campaigning is still hit and miss. The most important way of getting elected is by meeting people face to face."

This is the first election where the photo and video app Instagram is supposed to have a significant presence in the campaign.

"A lot of politicians are charging on to Instagram, but they have not really figured out how to use it effectively," says Mooney.

Leo Varadkar is the first Taoiseach who sits comfortably on social media, and it helped him to get noticed as a politician.

But his Instagram presence is low-key. By Thursday morning of this week, his Instagram grid had just one photo related to the election campaign. It showed the street sign on Hope Avenue, where he started his campaign.

Micheál Martin only launched his Instagram page in recent days, and has just 390 followers.

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Micheál Martin's Instagram post

Micheál Martin's Instagram post

Micheál Martin's Instagram post

Other politicians have embraced Instagram more enthusiastically. Cabinet minister Josepha Madigan brings more personality to her account - with photos of dogs encountered on the canvass, and a video of her addressing voters from her kitchen.

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Instagram post of Josepha Madigan

Instagram post of Josepha Madigan

Instagram post of Josepha Madigan

Michael Healy-Rae marked the start of the campaign with a photo of himself firing a rifle with the caption: "First shots fired."

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Instagram post of Michael Healy-Rae

Instagram post of Michael Healy-Rae

Instagram post of Michael Healy-Rae

Facebook remains by far the most significant social media platform for politicians. The Facebook ad library has details of political ads put out by parties and candidates on the network. It also includes ads on Instagram,.

A candidate can tailor their message to their audience easily. For example, they can put out an advert targeting women aged 18-24 in Athlone, and then have a different message for older men in Mullingar.

The information used by candidates may not be as detailed as that used by candidates in other jurisdictions such as the US, but it is seen as an effective way of targeting thousands of voters for a relatively modest outlay. In the present campaign, most of the adverts are put out by individual candidates, but the central party operation also delivers sponsored posts to targeted groups.

In the past year, Fine Gael's central operation has spent more than €13,580 on advertisements on Facebook and Instagram, and there was similar spending by Fianna Fáil. Spending on ads is likely be ramped up enormously in the coming weeks.

This week for less than €100, Fine Gael put out an advert with a video clip featuring Simon Coveney delivering the message: "It's only half time in Brexit."

The advert was shown to up to 15,000 people, and the most common cohort of people who were shown the ad were men aged 35-44.

Fianna Fáil posted a video of Micheál Martin delivering his "Ireland for All" message, focusing on housing and health. For €400-€500 outlay, they reached a predominantly male audience of up to 80,000 voters.

Sinn Féin was targeting voters in Dublin, Cork, Cavan-Monaghan, Sligo and Kerry with its promise to "give workers and families a break".

Overall, spending on Facebook and Instagram adverts about social issues, elections or politics amount to €750,000 since March of last year. The proliferation of online adverts has given rise to fears that Irish voters would be inundated by Trump-style attack commercials and fake news.

But most of the adverts circulating this week are fairly bland, and there are hardly any personal attacks. An advert of a little-known candidate attacking a rival by claiming that she is just back from a four-week holiday and looks like she got some sun is a minor exception.

As well as posting adverts, activists are campaigning on social media with regular content that can be posted free of charge.

One of the few effective social media attacks from a Fianna Fáil supporter dug up an old Fine Gael billboard from the 2007 election showing a youthful Enda Kenny with the slogan: "I'll end the scandal of patients on trolleys."

Media bubble

Political activists will also try to target their opponents with short video clips of their gaffes.

On the first full day of campaigning this week, the Taoiseach was filmed posing on a forklift, and the clip was circulated on Twitter.

Opponents portrayed this as insensitive on the day after a homeless man was seriously injured while an industrial vehicle was removing tents pitched in Dublin.

Some of these attacks may damage a campaign, but others will quickly be forgotten, or make little impact beyond the Twitter media bubble. While many candidates will use social media ads to reach a target audience, others will try to gain an edge by using apps that hold information about voters on the canvass.

In the recent British election, canvassers were able to zone in on particular streets, and access information about how members of each household are likely to vote.

This information is gathered from previous interactions with voters and the information can be stored on a central database.

An Irish technology company Ecanvasser developed an app that is widely used by canvassers in foreign elections to provide information, but this type of technology has been slow to take off in Ireland.

"We have worked with some individual campaigns, but Ireland is a difficult market to crack," said Ecanvasser's Irish CEO Brendan Finucane. "That is partly because the quality of the data is not as precise as that available in other countries such as the United States. Parties here have been slow to adopt new technology."

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'Irish parties slow to adap': Ecanvasser's CEO Brendan Finucane

'Irish parties slow to adap': Ecanvasser's CEO Brendan Finucane

� Neil Danton

'Irish parties slow to adap': Ecanvasser's CEO Brendan Finucane

One of the reasons why these canvassing apps have not become more popular in Ireland is our system of multi-seat constituencies, according to communications specialist Derek Mooney.

"In Irish elections, you often have two candidates from the same party seeking a seat. The data controllers are the candidates, and if they are competing against each other, they prefer to keep the information to themselves."

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