The general consesus emerging amongst the chattering classes is that tomorrow’s elections in South Africa will become known as “The Toilet Elections of 2011.” However, had that matter not so spectacularly erupted in the face of both major political parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the African National Congress (ANC), this election could have very well become known as South Africa’s Social Media Elections of 2011.
Just as electioneering has stormed through social networks across the world in other countries — mostly since Barack Obama utilised it in such a spectacular fashion in his run for President in 2008 -– South African political parties have come to recognise the inherent power of social media in getting their message out.
This has not been an attitude always held by South Africa’s political powers, as was most memorably shown by last year’s call by the ANC’s Youth League for the “closer of Twitter” due to the “creation of fake Twitter accounts”.
Things have changed greatly since then, with even this former great enemy of social networks having come to embrace them, opening their own Twitter account, perhaps succumbing to the “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality.
Beyond that, however, the big players on South Africa’s political scene, the DA and the ANC proper, have taken to waging their electoral campaigns on the various social networking platforms – largely Facebook and Twitter.
The DA has without a doubt dominated Twitter, from candidates, to political strategists having (and using) their Twitter accounts, as well as Twitter town-hall weekly Q & A sessions (a model the ANC copied in the later stages of the election) run by their at times controversial but always informative, strategist, Ryan Coetzee. To use the parlance of their campaign, they have engulfed the South African Twitter sphere with their “blue-wave.” And with the media being so enamoured with Twitter, the general consensus has been that because of this the DA has “won” the stakes when it comes to their social networking campaign.
The statistics however tell a different story.
Acceleration Media, a South African strategic digital marketing consultancy found that the ANC, holding a 46.6% share of the conversation in social media channels as opposed to the DA’s 31%, is the most talked-about political party among South African internet users in this run-up to the elections.
It was interesting to note, that with all the negative sentiment generally seen in real life regarding all political parties, only 19.3% of social media conversation about political parties was negative as opposed to an overwhelming 78.4% being neutral in tone. Unsurprisingly, only 1.3% of conversation reflected positive sentiments however.
According to Diane Charton, managing director at Acceleration Media, what this information tells us is that the majority of chatter on social media about political parties is sharing of news rather than opinion. However, when South Africans do give their opinion about political parties it is an overwhelmingly negative one. As Charton went on to note that, using this data, parties would be able to know what concerns and grievances voters have, and use it tailor their policy or communications strategies accordingly.
Another interesting finding from Acceleration Media’s analysis, considering the media focus placed on what happens on social networks, is that the majority of conversation did not take place on these platforms.
The election conversation took place primarily through the comments sections and discussion forums attached to mainstream news sites: over 36%. Following that, 26% of online mentions of political parties came through blogs, and then 21% on “”micromedia platforms, mostly Twitter”. Web forums accounted for 9.4% of the conversation.
Not all of the chatter has been organic. As the report states, “massive volumes of chatter about political parties across social media channels [was] driven through the parties’ official social presences”, such as the Q and A sessions run by the two parties on Twitter.
Charton went on to say, “Though all parties have some way to go before their social media campaigns are as sophisticated as those of American president Barack Obama, it is encouraging to see them use social media to communicate with their constituencies and deepen the democratic process.”
The acceptance the South African political sphere has shown towards social networking has not been without controversy. Eusebius McKaiser, political analyst and host of a number of South Africa’s political talks shows both on radio and television, noted (on his Facebook account ironically), “I would have loved to take part in the DA leaders’ Q and A session later. But apparently it is on Twitter. So myself and about 48 million South Africans are excluded. But, I guess, elitism is not for everyone.”
McKaiser may have a valid point. Yes, the majority of South African’s do not have access to social-media or social-networks, however those that do are as South African as those that do not, and as the web becomes less of a “digital playground”, and more an extension of our everyday lives, political parties would be remiss to ignore this sphere.
As Charton concluded however, “With an estimated 16% of cell phones in South Africa thought to be smartphones, and the proportion growing each month, it is no longer just the middle class that will be found on social media channels… By the time the next set of general elections, in 2014, political parties will have integrated online and social media into their campaigning strategies as one of their basic tools.”