‘Bone-crushing’ Election 2016 all over bar results and pizza

It was the 487th ‘social media’ election since the vote was first rocked in 2007, but somehow not everyone was excited

Election posters outside Government Buildings in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Election posters outside Government Buildings in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Another election is almost over for the Irish media. One big push from the tally nerds and the hindsight merchants and that’s it. Drained followers of politics will be communicating only in emoji until Easter.

With the broadcast moratorium in place since 2pm Thursday, journalists employed by regulated broadcasters may experience brief polling day respite from the rolling gaffes of the past three weeks. The internet will carry on as usual.

Candidates will smirk as they give themselves a number “1” in the privacy of corkboard booths. The public’s doubts of the democratic virtues of, er, democracy will combine with a virulent strain of cheese-and-onion-perfumed deja vu, picked up in school polling stations. Everyone will be a little sad.

Then, from Saturday, the painful intricacies of the PR-STV system will prompt a weekend of feverish data processing, as websites (or, in RTÉ’s case, a “bespoke election hub”) are updated from erratically air-conditioned newsrooms around the country. Pizza emoji, coffee emoji, clenched fist emoji.

So how has it been? Was anything different this time?

Like every election since Barack Obama’s Facebook-assisted triumph in 2008, Election 2016 – aka #ge16 – was instantly declared to be the social media election, with Enda Kenny helpfully advancing the thesis by “announcing” the date on Twitter.

Youth websites

Things have changed since 2007, a year when a voter turnout organisation called Rock the Vote was almost alone in targeting “youth websites like Bebo, MySpace and YouTube” (as The Irish Times reported it). There has been more digital campaign activity this time – with some decent stall-setting videos from smaller parties and independents – as well as a proliferation in the number of PR firms “tracking” it all.

But the phrase “social media election” is still a jaded one, because none of this is surprising. If a week is a long time in politics, nine years is an absolute aeon in communications technology. And does anyone really think, in the cold light of polling day, that basic proficiency at a now mainstream medium is worth anything much without the right message?

“Fact-checking” was in vogue. But, as ever, there was a feeling that “the issues” were somehow losing out to insult-trading in a media keen to facilitate a scrap. Newstalk tried to head it off by pleading with candidates to skip the “history lessons” and look to the future – a task that defeat-bound candidates understandably found hard.

The first televised leaders’ debate, hosted by TV3 in association with Newstalk, was a festival of open-microphone interruptions. Not that TV3 will have cared, having happily drawn the political media out to Ballymount to a studio that five years ago wasn’t even built.

It won an average of 430,000 viewers for its trouble, while RTÉ attracted an average of 586,000 viewers for its seven- way debate from Limerick and an average of 622,000 for this week’s four-way.

They are good numbers, but not quite the heightened, State-in-crisis ratings achieved by the Frontline leaders’ debate of 2011, to which 961,000 people were glued in various states of anger. For more recent context, 612,000 people watched the Late Late Show Valentine’s Day special.

Some politicians were all over Facebook. But what was more obvious was that Facebook has been all over this election. The regularly quoted Elizabeth Linder, its politics and government specialist in Europe, even had her own analysis segment during the RTÉ2 Facebook Election special (average viewership: 97,000).

Pseudo-egalitarian

The Facebook special was broadcast from the media giant’s Silicon Docks base. Its participating politicians were dotted in the front row of a horseshoe-shaped audience, presumably on the basis that this would reflect the more informal, pseudo-egalitarian tone of the internet.

In practice, what it meant was that the camera could frame both spiel-delivering candidates and aghast youth in the one shot – or, as happened, they could go “long” on a young woman explaining why the Eighth Amendment was great while simultaneously capturing a boom mic clattering into the head of Leo Varadkar.

Although sponsorship of television current affairs programmes is not allowed, there is nothing to stop two media organisations “partnering” on programmes. In this instance, the slight queasiness induced by RTÉ’s alliance with Facebook – a corporation heavily criticised for the low rate of tax it has paid in the UK – was alleviated when Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, excluded from the grown-ups’ debate, brought that very subject up, right there in Facebook HQ.

Smack in the middle of the campaign, Prime Time’s Richard Downes did a jokey report that used the word “dull” three times to describe Election 2016 – alongside “tedious”, “uninspiring” and “bone-crushing lifelessness of it all”.

Comic exaggeration or cry for help? Either way, Downes was not alone. It’s just that, in the age of Trump, dullness seems not just underrated as a quality, but positively aspirational.

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