All politics is social: How Fine Gael and Sinn Féin have taken the fight online
Two parties lead the pack in terms of social media impact, but does it translate to votes?
Fianna Fáil has ‘no great name recognition – nobody stands out who everyone knows on a first-name basis’ – such as Leo or Mary Lou. Photograph: Niall Carson/Pool/AFP via Getty
The new battleground in Irish politics is online, where the fight for dominance is decided by technical IT skills, money and an ability to connect with voters in ways that appeal to the emotions just as much as the head.
Fine Gael has expanded its core social media team from a one-man operation to three after Sinn Féin’s “sophisticated” use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms was credited with a late swing in the general election last year.
Increasingly, the online war between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael is crowding out many of the other political parties, although the former is credited with having the best understanding of the medium and the resources to exploit it.
But, experts warn, the “radicalisation” of party supporters on online forums is leading to a “coarsening” of the national debate, and threatens a US-style polarisation of the Irish public.
And, though it drives debate and builds brand recognition, there remains little evidence that social media traffic translates into votes at the ballot box.
Prof Jane Suiter, of Dublin City University’s school of communications, who has carried out extensive research into the use of social media by politicians, says parties that are successful at social media do so using “emotional content”.
Algorithms used by social media “reward anger and anxiety”, which is gauged by how much time a user spends on the platform.
“If something engages emotion, we spend more time on it. It’s an unfortunate part of our human psyche and the algorithms are built to exploit it,” she says.
Suiter, like other analysts and even other parties, agrees that Sinn Féin is ahead of the curve in driving debate on social media. “They are just better at telling stories in a narrative that appeals to the younger demographic, who will share these stories on social media,” she says.
Many of her students who do not tune into the evening news rely on Sinn Féin for their news feed.
The party has hired ODV Digital, a Dublin and Serbia-based company headed by former Facebook manager Clare O’Donoghue Velikic, as consultants.
The firm says it advises and supports “progressive political parties, campaign groups and activist organisations on how they can best use digital tools and strategies to make the world a better place”.
O’Donoghue Velikic did not respond to calls, while Sinn Féin declined to put someone forward to speak about their social media strategy.
“They are just not writing content that the algorithm is picking up and pushing.”
Although Fine Gael often employs soft-sell tactics for traction – Richard Bruton baking buns on Twitter or Simon Harris having a cup of tea in front of the television on TikTok – the party also uses Dáil-style attacks on Sinn Féin’s relationship with the IRA.
But, Suiter argues, it often fails because atrocities and killings during the Troubles “simply do not resonate with the younger generation”.
“Maybe it will at some stage, but it hasn’t to date in any of the analysis that we have done.”
Younger people are more interested in being able to afford a house, she says, and Sinn Féin “gets that” and pushes the message accordingly on social media.
Johnny Fallon, political commentator and strategy director, believes the online dominance of Sinn Féin and Fine Gael is simply down to personalities.
“Right now in politics, those parties have the biggest personalities. Personality sells in politics, and personality matters on social media.”
Fianna Fáil has “no great name recognition – nobody stands out who everyone knows on a first-name basis” – such as Leo or Mary Lou – and that is “mirrored” on social media, he argues. “Labour suffers the same problem,” he says.
Although social media “is hugely influential and will continue to grow more influential” in driving debate, it does not equate to a scientific analysis of what everyone is thinking, he cautions.
Like Suiter, he worries about it hardening opinions and closing exposure to more moderate voices.
“In a way, it radicalises people,” he says.
“A day or two on social media would convince you that you’re the greatest thing that ever happened in politics, and everyone who is biased is out to get you and you’re in a war that you have to win.
“That’s the kind of radicalisation that is happening to party members as they get into arguments with other extremes, blocking others and just talking to others with similar views, who reaffirm them.
“That creates an awful lot of echo chambers where people are hearing just what they want to hear.”
Fallon praises Fine Gael’s Neale Richmond as one of the best examples of using social media to operate a de facto online “clinic” for constituents, while building his profile among the wider electorate.
But Richmond himself rails against the social media companies for not policing the platforms.
“Without a shadow of a doubt Sinn Féin are ahead on social , and I give them credit for that, but I’ve been at the wrong end of a Shinnerbot pile-on at times, and it’s not nice,” he says.
The Dublin Rathdown TD “accidentally liked” a tweet by outgoing DUP leader Arlene Foster a few weeks ago and blames a blistering onslaught on so-called “Shinnerbots”, a supposed army of keyboard warriors who push the Sinn Féin message online.
“It doesn’t usually, but it got to me this time,” he says. “It was constant, hundreds of tweets saying the most vile things. My brothers and sisters see this, my wife, my friends.”
Suiter says there is no evidence of social media users “resourced by Sinn Féin, but there are certainly a hell of a lot of Sinn Féin supporters online”.
“They certainly act in concert to some extent. But whether they are in any way controlled or resourced by Sinn Féin, I have absolutely no idea.”
Sinn Féin, too, refer to Fine Gael-bots doing that party’s bidding online.
Kelly Fincham, a lecturer at NUI Galway who is doing a PHD on Twitter’s impact on political journalism and politics, says “staggering abuse” of public figures online in the US has seen many retreat from the platforms.
“The ennui with social media in New York is huge. Will people pull back from these platforms here and what will be left behind if they do?” she asks.
Fincham believes Twitter is where journalists and politicians “hang out” in Ireland, and that politicians use the platform as a way of getting into traditional print and broadcast media.
It’s a trick learned from Donald Trump. Her research has shown that the former US president’s “mastering” of social media – before being ejected from it, of course – drove mainstream media coverage more than it did in outlets sympathetic to him.
At the moment, the technology is still in its infancy, but it is really “old wine in new bottles”, she suggests.
Attracting attention is the name of the game, she says, citing Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly as being “excellent at it when he was with the Social Democrats”, while Simon Harris’s widely publicised “friendly, non-threatening” pop-ups on TikTok are “gold”.
Stephen O’Leary, managing director at social media analysts Olytico, thinks most Irish politicians are making the “biggest mistake” by treating platforms as a broadcast medium. “The majority are missing the value of having conversation,” he says.
“No one likes people who come into a room and talk at you, and then walk away.”
O’Leary argues more engagement – while avoiding trolls and putting up with inevitable criticism – would easily help politicians “build relationships, build trust”.
Supermarkets, insurance companies and banks have already cracked on to this, he adds.
While policy debates would be difficult in 280 characters or fewer, it is not impossible, he says.
He has “no empirical evidence that social media engagement translates into votes”, but he says the “sophisticated approach Sinn Féin took in terms of social media in the run-up to the last election almost certainly played a role in its success at the polls”.