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Did social media really turn 'No' votes to a 'Yes'?

Elections – like referendums – are determined by the undecided.

THE IMPACT OF social media on the result of the marriage equality referendum has been cited as crucial by observers as diverse as Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin, gay-rights activist Rory O’Neill, Iona Institute Director David Quinn and the Catholic Church’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

Many have suggested that Irish political parties will be desperate to discover how the Yes campaign was able so effectively to harness the power of digital networking and communications channels to deliver electoral success.

That social media comment on the issue of same-sex marriage during the campaign was extensive cannot be denied; online media analysts Olytico found on Twitter alone in the 24 hours before the polls opened that over 85,000 mentions were made of #MarRef. It is impossible, however, to quantify how many people (if any) changed or made up their mind in response.

The importance of social media in the referendum result was frequently asserted but repetition should not be confused for credibility. Digital marketing techniques and tools are hugely powerful in certain regards but do we really believe that 140 characters (however well composed) can, for example, turn yes to no or Labour to Fianna Fail?

Digital helps brands – but votes are different

Digital marketers will tell us that Facebook, Instagram and Google+ et al are powerful tools and they are absolutely correct. Social media is vital to driving brand awareness in 2015 and often the most effective way to establish a marque’s attitude and values. Digital marketing tools undoubtedly play an important part in informing purchasing decisions but votes are rather different.

As any political observer will tell you, elections are determined by the undecided. Political social media campaigns are rather more about identity than persuasion.

Tribal markings

The thousands of “Straight up for Equality” and “Yes to Equality” logos on profile pictures were tribal markings designed to create a sense of community within those of that particular view rather than an exercise in persuasion of others.

The loyalty of core voters to each party is almost impossible to shake. They are the people who have given their first preference to the same party for many years, perhaps even decades, and assume that they will continue to do so. They are not only those least likely to be persuaded by social media campaigns, they are also those most liable to engage in them.

To think that they might vote differently as a result of the digital hustings would be as credible as to suggest a die-hard Leinster fan would switch allegiance to Munster in response to a particularly charming selfie from Paul O’Connell.

Preaching to the proverbial choir

As most friends, followers or connections are likely to be members of common social and political circles, the vast bulk of online canvassing will have no more impact than preaching to the proverbial choir.

The question that will be asked in the headquarters of all the major parties is what can be learned from the Yes campaign’s social media strategy and activity for the upcoming general election. In reality there is little similarity between a campaign for the binary decision of a yes/no referendum and the multitude of options based on single transferable vote in a multi(and no)-party national poll in which a legion of issues are in play.

Personal stories

“Personal stories” have been greatly credited with swaying the vote in favour of marriage equality and this is certainly true. Undecided voters and “soft nos” were moved by testimonies from such figure as Ursula Halligan, Pat Carey and Una Mullaly. Many were not only moved but also persuaded.

Where social media was most effective in influencing voting decisions was when it was used as a channel through which to tell these stories. Deeply personal and utterly compelling content was posted by individuals and shared with their own social networks. This was hugely effective in informing how the referendum decision would impact on the real lives of a person with whom the audience had an existing personal relationship but seems not to have been formally coordinated.

On the doorsteps

The Yes campaign won voters over on doorsteps, in shopping malls, at railways stations by speaking with individual voters. Through old-fashioned canvassing, they brought the electorate face to face with people who might be personally impacted by the outcome of the referendum. Even at the one-to-one level, personal stories proved decisive for voters.

By sharing individual experiences, hope and aspirations, the Yes campaign generated empathetic responses on a human level and moved marriage equality from an issue of concern for a minority to one in which everyone – gay, straight or undecided – held a stake.

Social media supported (and sometimes facilitated) both campaigns but it would be far too great a stretch to say that it was decisive. Digital electioneering certainly assisted in creating a sense of community within each side but did more to consolidate support than create it.

The supplementary register

This is not to say that social media was irrelevant to the outcome of the referendum. It broke through the apathy which had surrounded previous votes on proposed constitutional change.

There was a direct cause and effect relationship between the campaign to make non-registered voters aware of the existence of and deadline for the supplementary register, for example, and the massive number of late registrants. It is clear a great many of those people voted and did so overwhelmingly in favour of the amendment.

#HomeToVote

The Home to Vote campaign was an almost exclusively social media phenomenon. It is hard to imagine that so many non-residents would have made the decision to travel home to cast their vote without the level of engagement with Irish current affairs facilitated for exiles by social media and digital access to news sources such as thejournal.ie, irishtimes.com and the Ireland Radio Player smartphone app.

Social media activity clearly played a role in encouraging voter turnout. Reports during the latter part of the campaign that the margin between yes and no was diminishing and the result might be very close led to great digital encouragement to vote from both sides of the argument.

Facebook and FOMO

Facebook’s prompting to declare that one had voted also created a sense of community among those who had and that most zeitgeisty of phobias, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), in those who had not.

Directors of elections have much to learn from the successful social media campaign run by the Yes side. These channels are effective in mobilising supporters, generating a sense of belonging, confirming bias and creating buzz around excercising the mandate. However, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube are of limited effect in actually persuading people to vote for a particular candidate.

In short, a strong social media strategy is an essential addition rather than a replacement for traditional political campaigning.

Kevin McPartlan is a communications and public affairs consultant

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