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Twitter and the Taoiseach: Why Fianna Fáil is playing catch-up on social media

Fine Gael is generally seen to have been adept at social media – something heightened during Covid-19 crisis.

THE TONE HAS changed at the top of the Irish government – at least, if Twitter is anything to go by. 

The entry into government of Fianna Fáil, joined by Fine Gael and the Green Party in a historic coalition, could mark something of a shift when it comes to social media. 

Leo Varadkar’s party is certainly known for spending more on social media – it clearly did so on Facebook during the general election. But it’s not just the money that matters. 

Already, some differences in tone are emerging. The departure of Simon Harris from the Department of Health, who is widely hailed as one of the most effective communicators in government, has seen something of a shift in how Covid-19 policy is conveyed on social media. 

A prolific Twitter user, at least in the world of Irish politics, Harris has tweeted over 60 times since being appointed Minister for Further and Higher Education. His replacement in the health portfolio, Stephen Donnelly, has clocked up barely 20 tweets in the same period. The content has changed too with his replacement – gone are the live questions-and-answer sessions Harris routinely did with his followers to discuss Covid-19.

There are various reasons for this, of course. It takes time for a new minister to settle in, while the social media presence of a minister often depends heavily on the emphasis placed on it by the minister’s own staff – whether personal advisors or his departmental team. 

Nonetheless, there is something of a consensus that Fianna Fáil has been less slick at social media than Fine Gael in recent years. 

Digital campaign consultant Craig Dwyer, who ran the social media campaign for the marriage equality campaign, agrees. “We have seen certainly more recent years, a lot more activity and a lot more engagement from Fine Gael,” he says. 

“Enda Kenny wouldn’t have been a big pro-active presence on social media, but that fundamentally changed when Leo Varadkar came to power,” he said. Varadkar is a regular user of both Instagram and Twitter – with 173,000 followers on the former and 362,000 followers on the latter. 

In part, this is what comes with being leader of a country – but it probably also helped that Varadkar, Ireland’s first gay taoiseach, received international attention upon his appointment. 

Martin’s approach to social media has, at least so far, been more restrained. He’s only had an Instagram account since January – just before the general election campaign began – and currently has just over 4,600 followers. On Twitter, he’s doing a little better with 81,000 followers. 

This isn’t to say Fianna Fáil are laggards at social media. Dwyer says the party definitely seems to be getting better. 

“Fianna Fáil are probably thinking now how do we be more proactive in the social media space and articulate what they are doing,” he says. “Fianna Fáil certainly ramped up efforts during the general election,” he adds, pointing to more shareable video content recently. 

He also stressed that Instagram is the really important space for parties, where there’s a chance to reach new – especially younger – voters.

Few senior politicians are particularly good at Instagram, although in Fine Gael former minister Richard Bruton has carved out something of a niche by posting his cooking and baking. A trawl through other accounts shows plenty that might have been launched for elections and campaigns now left idle. 

Still, Twitter offers a useful test case to see the social media bona fides of senior figures in government. And going by the Cabinet, it’s certainly a place Fine Gael feels more comfortable. For instance, Norma Foley, the Minister for Education, only created her Twitter account in May. 

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None of this is to say that either party are world-leaders when it comes to social media. Dublin City University’s Prof Jane Suiter, in a 2015 article, said that given Irish politics’ tepid approach to innovation, candidates “continue to use social media as a form of personal press release, primarily to market unmediated campaign messages and reflect the ground campaign”. 

This remains largely similar today. Plenty of posts on Instagram are simply ready-made party graphics, while plenty of TDs largely use Twitter to retweet the party message. 

But when you crunch the numbers, some surprising details emerge. According to data provided to TheJournal.ie by Dwyer, it’s Fianna Fáil that tweets more. 

On an analysis of the last 3,200 tweets from each of the party’s accounts, Micheál Martin’s party sent out on average 12-13 tweets a day. The corresponding figure for Fine Gael was only two to three. 

While this might look like a success for Fianna Fáil, it actually had much less original content and engagement. Of all the tweets sent from November until July, 60% were retweets. By contrast, 66% of Fine Gael’s tweets were original content – and the party had significantly higher engagement. 

What this means for the future remains to be seen. Certainly, Fianna Fáil still needs to build an audience – at least online, Fine Gael remains the most visible. 

Given the emphasis the former government placed on social media during the pandemic, Fianna Fáil’s ability to engage with the public – not just party members – online may start to become very important. 

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