Social media has always presented an obvious opportunity for politicians. As Barack Obama’s campaign advisers were quick to note, social media offers a convenient, low-cost way for elections campaigns and public representatives to connect with the electorate, and it’s hard not to get excited about the potential for social media to offer one of the ways in which democracy can be made more meaningful.
So, who in South Africa is taking advantage of this? The Office of the President tweets from @SAPresident, while minister of public enterprises Malusa Gigaba is often quite active from @mgigaba. Presidential spokesman Zizi Kodwa is also out there in a low-key way, as are a couple of others. Earlier this year, the DA earned praise for its use of social media in the local government elections; prospective DA Paliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko is very active on Twitter, and often gets stuck into debates which liven up timelines.
But as has been observed before, the politician who far and away uses Twitter to anything like its potential is Helen Zille, with just under 70 000 followers and counting. Not that Twitter comes without hazards — Zille and the singer Simphiwe Dana ended up making the news over what Dana felt was a disappointing response from Zille on Twitter — but that’s the point, really: Twitter is a real-time channel that often reflects a quick response rather than something delivered after consultation with a spin doctor. A large part of what makes it so fascinating is the sense that you’re dealing with real people. The more real you seem to be, the more your followers will relate to you, and that’s exactly what Zille does.
Here are four ways in which — regardless of how you feel about her politics or the DA itself — she uses Twitter well.
- She’s responsive. She’s always responding to questions from the public, whether it’s how to fill in your census forms or what to do if you see an ambulance being used as a taxi. There’s nothing quite like getting the sense that a politician is prepared to listen to your problem when you’re at your wit’s end. We live in a country where we’ve been accustomed to getting blank stares from government officials for generations — poor service was not invented in 1994 — this is a revelation.
- She’s unscripted. Or at least it looks that way. While some of her tweets are more carefully composed, others look as if they were dashed off on the spur of the moment. She often shows her irritation with stupid questions – and that’s not a bad thing (in moderation) because it creates the sense that we’re dealing with a real person. Generally speaking, people like dealing with other real people.
- She’s active. She’s obviously not on Twitter all the time — presumably she has meetings to be in and work to do – but when she does find the opportunity, often in the evenings or while travelling between meetings, she’s visible and present. If you’re going to use Twitter successfully, you have to spend time there.
- She has a sense of humour. She asks her followers for the best Chuck Norris jokes — she loved “When Chuck Norris drives on Jozi roads, the tolls will pay him!” — and while she probably isn’t going to put Riaad Moosa out of a job any time soon, humour is an essential ingredient in maintaining our sanity. I have a lot of time for politicians who use humour effectively (bearing in mind that many of them don’t) and it’s good to see someone relaxed enough with the public to yank their chains, just a little.
How much of a positive impact is all of this really having? It’s difficult to quantify, but I would imagine that Zille’s presence on Twitter has persuaded some to either reassess a negative attitude to her, or reinforced their confidence in the DA. The risk of course is that Zille will be a victim of her own success: It’s already not possible to answer every question tweeted in her direction, and she will end up needing the kind of assistance that will dilute her authenticity.
There is no way she can keep everybody happy, and sooner or later, somebody is going to feel offended, as Dana did. “The best advice is usually recognised in hindsight, after you have ignored it!” Zille reflected after the spat with the singer.
“In politics, the more accessible you are, the more accessible you are expected to be. And this is multiplied many-fold on Twitter.”
Nonetheless, Twitter has the potential to be a great tool for democracy, linking ordinary citizens with the politicians that claim to represent them. Our understanding of politics and politicians is filtered by the media on the one hand and spin doctors on the other, and this benefits both voters and public representatives. More politicians should learn from the example of the chief of Zilleland, and get involved in social media in a meaningful way.