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Playing nasty: How social media became an election battleground in 2016

Negative campaigning went digital in this year’s campaign. Has it worked?

IN WHAT HAS been one of the shortest election campaigns in the history of the state, the country’s main parties have shifted much of their more aggressive point scoring from newspapers and posters to a cheaper platform: social media.

Negative campaigning has long been a feature of Irish politics, but Twitter and Facebook have taken centre stage during this campaign in an unprecedented way, offering parties an opportunity to engage with younger voters and hammer home their message.

With Friday’s election likely to be one of the most tightly contested in recent memory, both sides of the political divide have been sharpening their online attacks to mixed results.

The jibes, in most cases, have drawn on the same messages as negative campaigning on the ground.

Enda Kenny and Joan Burton have failed to electrify voters with their “keep the recovery going” slogan and their rivals have made unexpected headway in the polls.

Their response? Go on the offensive and tap into fear.

Predictably, Labour has focused much of its attention on undermining opposition parties, particularly Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil.

Capture Source: Labour Party/Facebook

And Fine Gael has launched repeated online attacks on Fianna Fáil and its leader, Micheál Martin.

Capture Source: Fine Gael/Facebook

Choose the others, voters are told, and chaos will ensue: massive debt, unemployment and emigration.

The point is succinctly made in this Facebook post, targeting Sinn Féin candidate Sarah Holland.

Capture Source: Fine Gael/Facebook

While Labour has been a little more restrained on its official pages, its youth wing took aim at Gerry Adams in a parody video that has been viewed just over 300 times on YouTube since it was posted three weeks ago.

Source: Labour Youth/YouTube

One of the obvious advantages of social media as a platform is that it allows parties to channel their more aggressive messages through its followers and, if necessary, deny any association with them.

Inspirational political messages are most frequently served up to less politicised audiences on Facebook, but Twitter gives parties greater scope to go on the attack, supported by its armies of online supporters.

Individuals politicians’ accounts have also played a role, hammering out slogans and attack lines so similar they seem to be taken from a party memo.

Take these tweets from Fine Gael TDs during the first RTÉ leaders’ debate:

Capture Source: Twitter

A concerted effort? Of course not, said Fine Gael, who told us members are simply “encouraged to engage with social media and outline our plan to keep the recovery going while exposing the fact that the opposition have no plan and no vision”.

Attacking government policies

Opposition parties, for their part, have not shied away from the dark arts of negative campaigning.

Fianna Fáil regularly takes aim at the coalition’s record, blasting budget cuts and broken promises.

Capture Source: Fianna Fáil/Facebook

And Sinn Féin has played to its online following in lashing government policies and figures.

Capture Source: Sinn Féin/Facebook

But Facebook and Twitter also provide a space for voices outside the political mainstream to address mass audiences.

The Right2Change grouping is particularly active online, sharing videos and stories highlighting the impact of austerity, and taking the occasional swipe at politicians.

Capture Source: Right2Change/Facebook

Other activist-run movements from both the left and right boast tens of thousands of likes on Facebook, allowing them to bypass traditional media to speak directly to the swing voters targeted by big parties.

Theresa Reidy of UCC says the tenor of political rhetoric in this campaign reflects the broader decline of trust in traditional parties.

A new mood of anti-politics is changing the discourse around elections.
There’s venom against political parties and the hostility of negative campaigning reflects that.

But how effective can negative campaigning be in convincing voters?

“There’s no evidence of it ever working to any significant extent in Ireland,” says Prof Gary Murphy of DCU.

He describes Fine Gael’s tactic of targeting individual opponents as “fraught with danger”.

Irish people, for the most part, tend to be more sceptical than their British and American counterparts about personal attacks.

But to suggest that it could change how long-time voters feel about established parties like Fianna Fáil is “foolish”, Murphy adds.

Reidy has a similar take, though she says some degree of information has the potential to impact on any swing voter.

“The research on negative campaigning is quite contested – most of it is based on the US and the most reliable data suggests mixed results,” she says.

The strongest studies indicate negative campaigning can in fact have a demobilising effect, turning people off politics and depressing voter turnout, Reidy points out.

And, in general, she says, negative campaigning doesn’t work well with people who have high levels of political knowledge.

What does strike a chord is fear: fear of change, potential loss and risk.

“Social psychology tells us that people are more attuned to messages that invoke that feeling of fear,” Reidy says.

The more you know, the less you’re susceptible, but voters are more likely to react and process those messages than others.

Read: More bad news for Labour in the latest opinion poll

Read: Here’s what all of the parties’ general election promises mean for your wallet

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About the author:

Catherine Healy

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