All a twitter in search of votes

 

Political parties plan to embrace the online world like never before to woo voters in the run-up to the June local and European elections

IRISH POLITICIANS will be blogging, twittering and facebooking in a bid to win votes in the forthcoming local and European elections.

The importance parties are putting on the internet is reflected in the fact that Fianna Fáil enlisted the help this week of Barack Obama’s former director of new media, Joe Rospars, to revamp its online presence.

E-mail, social networking sites and YouTube helped to seal the US presidency for Obama, and his methods are now being copied by politicians all over the world. Barackobama.com had over 1.5 million registered members, organised into 35,000 local groups which set up 200,000 events during the US Presidential election campaign.

While having an online presence does require initial investment, the use of social networking tools is free and has the attraction of reaching out to a potentially untapped youth vote. For example Obama has five million supporters on Facebook while most Irish politicians struggle to reach 300.

Irish parties are also waking up to the fact that the internet can be used to raise funds. Obama raised $10 million (€7.9 million) in small online donations in the 24 hours after Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain’s running mate on the Republican ticket. The parties are also turning to the internet to recruit new members.

Broadband may turn out to be the barrier for Irish candidates trying to follow Obama’s lead, particularly in rural areas. While some 70 per cent of Irish households have a computer, broadband penetration still lags behind the EU average,with just 43 per cent of all Irish households in 2008 reporting a broadband connection, and 19 per cent reporting having a modem/ISDN connection only.

Green Party senator and European election candidate for Dublin, Deirdre de Burca says there is no way she can arrive on the doorstep of every voter in the constituency and will be using the internet to reach people. A blog, she says, allows a “more intimate” look at the candidate rather than the use of more formal political literature.

While Senator de Burca does not believe the internet will ever replace face-to-face canvassing, it does provide an opportunity for an exchange of ideas with voters. “People love to tell politicians what they are thinking.”

While it costs money to set up a website, there is a return on your investment. “The larger parties will have more posters and leaflets as they have more money. Once you have a website, you can attract large numbers of people,” she adds.

Fianna Fáil MEP for Dublin, Eoin Ryan, who will be seeking re-election in June, agrees with Senator de Burca that you can’t replace personal contact. “In ancient Roman times politicians put on the white robe to meet the voters and you still have to – people expect it.”

Labour Party European candidate for Ireland South, Alan Kelly, says the elections will be like “a mini-presidential campaign”. A former e-marketer, he sits down for a few hours most nights after canvassing to update his blog on which he speaks in the first person revealing “what makes me tick”.

“It’s all about the content, having the latest information and images and writing about where you are going next.”

He uses Google adwords to promote his website – “much like ads on the side of the road” – and considers internet monitoring as another part of the job.

A BIG FAN OF keeping in touch with her constituents via the web is Munster Independent MEP, Kathy Sinnott, who says she sleeps with her laptop by her side and e-mails voters constantly. However, while technology is “brilliant”, meeting people is the “fun part” of campaigning, she adds. Sinnott says because she doesn’t have money for television adverts, the internet is a really cheap way to get her message out there.

The internet “comes into its own” for Mairead McGuinness, Fine Gael MEP for Ireland East, who has nine counties to cover. But like other candidates she stresses there “is no substitute for direct contact and hearing what people are saying as there is a lot of anger on the ground”.

McGuinness is set to launch a new website for the forthcoming campaign which she feels is useful for initial contact and getting across basic information. She says that it is a lot of work responding promptly to hundreds of daily e-mails.

While a new website is as important for a campaign as new clothes, voters want “cleanliness and honesty rather than bells and whistles and will be unimpressed by vulgarity and overpostering this time around”, she says.

With the constituencies of local election candidates being a lot smaller than those for European elections, many are using the internet to highlight small issues that would not make the local papers.

“If I see a cracked pavement, I’ll take a photo and put it on my blog and e-mail it to the town engineer to take a look at it,” says Keith Martin, Labour candidate for Mayo County Council and Westport Town Council. He puts the responses on his blog to keep locals in the loop. “None of it is rocket science and it is all free,” says Martin who uses his iPhone to update his blog and Facebook page. Apart from their own sites, politicians must also contend with what is written about them elsewhere, including on forums. “A web user recently levelled personal abuse at me online, saying things they wouldn’t dream of saying to my face,” says Martin. He has a “donate button” on his site but says the only real fundraising online “is to circulate information for a race night”.

SIMON HARRIS, a Fine Gael local election candidate in Wicklow, tries to capture the traditionally “apathetic younger voters” in the area by the heavy use of Bebo and Facebook. These are the voters who may be bypassed at the doors or would not go to a local constituency office to ask questions, he says.

“It’s where people my age get their information, and every time I issue a press release I can communicate freely and directly with my target audience with one click,” says Harris, who has 517 supporters on his Bebo page.

“The use of Bebo and Facebook is not dumbing down of politics, just making it user friendly,” he argues.

The website of Garrett Tubridy, Fianna Fáil candidate for the Pembroke-Rathmines electoral area of Dublin City Council, has a logo based on Obama’s, and he has been getting a lot of traffic since its launch.

So far visitors have been three times more likely to look at his biography than his policies. “This holds true of a lot of research in local elections, that people vote on the basis of a candidate,” he says. A website can set the tone of a campaign and leave an impression with your voters, Tubridy adds. “If a candidate’s website is outdated, it begs the question, is the rest of the campaign fresh and innovate or is it the same old, same old?” Tubridy says he is confident that running in an urban area with very deep broadband penetration will contribute to his campaign.

Read Harry McGee on the influence of the web and blogging on the world of politics: irishtimes.com/blogs/politics


CAUGHT IN THE WEB: HOW THE POLITICAL PARTIES ARE USING THE INTERNET

FIANNA FÁIL

The party relaunched its website this week. One of the features is a question and answer opportunity with Taoiseach Brian Cowen, which is part of the party’s drive to engage with members.

It will be used alongside the party’s YouTube, Facebook and Twitter sites. The party says it will encourage election candidates to blog.

www.fiannafail.ie

FINE GAEL

Fine Gael puts its press releases and political profiles on its website but does not incorporate blogs or social networking tools. It has no plans for a website redesign in advance of the elections but says candidates are using blogs on an individual basis.

A party spokesman said importing strategies blindly from America will not work in Ireland.

www.finegael.ie

THE LABOUR PARTY

The Labour Party uses YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook. It has also increased its online membership drive. Party representatives are responsible for their own sites. However, not all candidates have their own active individual blogs and the party’s head office is trying to make it easier for them to set these up.

www.labour.ie

THE GREEN PARTY

The Green Party says it will use the internet to organise and motivate campaign teams and to engage directly with voters without its message being filtered by the media. It will make use of dedicated campaign websites for candidates and will increase its use of YouTube, Flickr and Twitter. It will tailor e-mail lists for specific groups.

www.greenparty.ie

SINN FÉIN

Sinn Féin will launch a new bilingual website at the end of March. It will encourage dialogue to complement the party’s work at grassroots level and to reach a wider audience. The new site will have blogs, videos, a comment facility for visitors and stories told by voters. The party also hopes to encourage a growth in fundraising and membership. www.sinnfein.ie

FIANNA FÁIL

The party relaunched its website this week. One of the features is a question and answer opportunity with Taoiseach Brian Cowen, which is part of the party’s drive to engage with members.

It will be used alongside the party’s YouTube, Facebook and Twitter sites. The party says it will encourage election candidates to blog.

www.fiannafail.ie

FINE GAEL

Fine Gael puts its press releases and political profiles on its website but does not incorporate blogs or social networking tools. It has no plans for a website redesign in advance of the elections but says candidates are using blogs on an individual basis.

A party spokesman said importing strategies blindly from America will not work in Ireland.

www.finegael.ie

THE LABOUR PARTY

The Labour Party uses YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook. It has also increased its online membership drive. Party representatives are responsible for their own sites. However, not all candidates have their own active individual blogs and the party’s head office is trying to make it easier for them to set these up.

www.labour.ie

THE GREEN PARTY

The Green Party says it will use the internet to organise and motivate campaign teams and to engage directly with voters without its message being filtered by the media. It will make use of dedicated campaign websites for candidates and will increase its use of YouTube, Flickr and Twitter. It will tailor e-mail lists for specific groups.

www.greenparty.ie

SINN FÉIN

Sinn Féin will launch a new bilingual website at the end of March. It will encourage dialogue to complement the party’s work at grassroots level and to reach a wider audience. The new site will have blogs, videos, a comment facility for visitors and stories told by voters. The party also hopes to encourage a growth in fundraising and membership. www.sinnfein.ie