It’s different this time. In South Africa’s last general election in 2009, 99% of people had never even heard of Twitter (only a handful of people in the county had accounts back then, and they hardly used them). This time round, millions are on Twitter. Over 5.5-million, in fact (according to the most recent study by World Wide Worx). By this stage, that number’s probably closer to 6-million… All tweeting, retweeting and consuming in real-time.
Of course the US Presidential Election in 2012 gave the world a taste of all of this. Then, though, the combination of Twitter and TV was still in its infancy. South Africa’s last election — the municipal election in 2011 — was still too early. Plus, politicking and campaigning was very localised.
In planning for Wednesday’s election, South African television news networks (and news websites) must’ve been salivating at the thought. Especially now that there are three (!) 24-hour news channels to fill. The complex process of audience interaction on broadcast television has been largely solved by Twitter. The paradigm has shifted completely – from tweeting about what’s on the news, to Twitter becoming news. What better (and cheaper) way to fill hours and hours of dead broadcast time than with presenters reading random tweets?
Websites have cottoned on, with single tweets becoming news stories in their own right. South Africa’s largest news site, News24, has become a pro at this. This site too.
Twitter has afforded us the luxury of real-time coverage of political rallies, of debates, of campaigning… We can pick and choose. Not only from the politicians and their handlers, but top political writers too. The kind we could read every 24 hours, subbed-down to fill a hole between adverts, printed for eternity on newsprint. You know them… Stephen Grootes, Justice Malala, Ranjeni Munusamy. Now, with instant analysis. Distilled into 140 characters. Follow, unfollow, retweet, reply, engage.
Politicians have (sensibly) seized on the opportunity to engage with voters in a disintermediated way. The power of this, from a voter’s perspective, is really quite incredible. In Twitter ‘Town Halls’ (or ‘Q&As’, depending on the party), citizens from far flung corners of the country have been able to engage with political leaders and quiz them on anything and everything. That was simply inconceivable three or four years ago. The three largest parties, the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and upstart Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have drowned out nearly every other conversation on Twitter in recent weeks. The latter two have, perhaps, punched above their weight.
(How valuable are the party election broadcasts – free ads made available to parties – on national broadcaster the SABC in 2014?)
The two front-runners, in terms of followers at least, remain Julius Malema (head of the EFF) and Helen Zille (head of the DA). Malema retains a lead with roughly 450 000 followers vs Zille’s 410 000. The ANC was relatively late to the Twitter game, with its official account at 120 000 followers and Malusi Gigaba (current minister of public enterprises and third on the ANC’s parliamentary list) at 72 000.
Twitter has also afforded the parties a means to communicate to local communities. So accounts for well-organised, suburban branches across all parties have popped up. Most with a few hundred followers, but in aggregate, these are even more powerful.
Of course, the negative of this disintermediation, is that some followers will be swayed by half-truths (and blatant lies) from politicians.
But hey, this is politics.
The virality of Twitter has been fascinating to watch, too. News no longer waits for hourly broadcasts on radio or TV. The ballot box incident overnight (where voting materials were found at a party agent’s house in the East Rand) was a twitter storm on Tuesday morning.
Mistakes or missteps by parties are pointed out and amplified. The (now) well-known pic of yellow luxury cars campaigning for the ANC became a meme. A number of the tweets sharing the photo have been deleted — there’ve been plenty of cheap shots taken, with the tweets hastily removed after they’ve have their effect.
In perhaps the clearest sign of our times, the Independent Electoral Commission was forced into asking voters not to take ‘selfies’ in the ballot booth on Wednesday.