Shaving my son’s head in a north Belfast salon – where talk of politics is normally off limits – hairdresser Nicola White brings up Michelle O’Neill’s Instagram account.
The 44-year-old says she’d never voted “in her life” and had little interest in Stormont but decided to follow the Sinn Féin deputy leader on social media during the pandemic. “I followed her on Twitter first and then Instagram just to get Covid updates. I noticed she was like a real person. I don’t know much about politics but she was someone I could relate to.
“She was at the gym, cooking food for her family, going for a walk with her friends; she was doing what we all do everyday. She was being a normal person. So I did vote in the end as I thought you could see a change with her. But I would never have voted Sinn Féin only for her.”
The party’s “slick” use of social media in the run-up to the Assembly election – and careful timing in heralding O’Neill as a presidential “first minister for all” in the final days before the May 5th poll – contrasted sharply with the DUP’s negative focus on a Republican victory hastening a “divisive Border poll”.
In a campaign dubbed safe and lacklustre by many commentators, Sinn Féin’s targeting of younger and disconnected voters through videos on platforms such as TikTok – where it has 80,000 followers alone – Instagram and Facebook has been linked in part to its historic win.
Sources say discipline within party ranks on their use of “socials” was also reinforced in the run-up to the election as successive opinion polls showed it was “theirs to lose”. “We are a long way away from the Barry McElduff days where someone did their own social media for weeks leading up to something catastrophic,” according to civic nationalist group Ireland’s Future member Andrée Murphy.
Referencing the “Kingsmill loaf” incident in 2018, when McElduff sparked an outcry after posting a video of himself balancing a loaf of bread on his head on the anniversary of the Kingsmill atrocity in which 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead by the IRA, Murphy added: “That wouldn’t happen now. If you’re going to do something personal or quirky it has to be run past political parties first.”
To know to put push notifications to advertise your videos is slick because you're always being exposed to the party's brand – they're doing that with their 80,000 followers
The Irish Times asked Sinn Féin to discuss its social-media strategy and provide figures on the number of online staff employed – as well as provide an insight into the production of the personalised O’Neill videos. In a statement the party didn’t address the specific queries, instead saying it “ran a positive campaign that it was time for real change”.
“We took that strong positive message to the voters in face-to-face conversations on the doors and through media, social media and print,” it added.
Caolán Magee, a digital journalist with the Independent in London, singled out Sinn Féin’s “extremely strong presence on TikTok” as an important factor in reaching a younger base. The social-media app allows users to create 15-second videos and became a massive lockdown hit with its blend of memes, dances and skits.
“I get TikTok push notifications constantly through on my phone because I follow Sinn Féin,” says Magee who has just completed a master’s degree in interactive journalism. “To know to put push notifications to advertise your videos is slick because you’re always being exposed to the party’s brand – they’re doing that with their 80,000 followers.
All social media comes with risks, however, in an election marred by online smears and abuse against female candidates in particular
“They’ve really found this new terrain to reach the electorate. Their videos have over a million likes and I think you can connect that to the increase in their vote. Within the election, there is the narrative that young people are flocking towards the middle ground. But I also think they’re flocking towards Sinn Féin because they do have that positive messaging and reach on social media. I don’t think the DUP are even on TikTok, they don’t have a presence.”
The Alliance Party, which is now the third-biggest political party in the North after a dramatic surge in its vote, has also used Instagram effectively, according to Magee. “But if you look at a party like the SDLP on Instagram, they only have 2,400 followers and are not even verified and have no blue tick.”
The rise in Sinn Féin and Alliance’s online dominance is more about personalities than strategies, according to communications expert Arlene O’Connor. “No matter what field you’re working in, people identify with people and the more you can show the everyday side of people, what they do in their everyday lives when they’re not at their desk or speaking at a podium, helps appeal in different ways,” said the Brown O’Connor Communications founder.
All social media comes with risks, however, in an election marred by online smears and abuse against female candidates in particular: “A lot of political parties over the last number of years, while seeing the importance of social media and how it can allow them make that very quick interaction, there’s also a huge health warning to go alongside that,” adds O’Connor.
“You look at what the UUP faced earlier this year when a lot of old tweets of leader Doug Beattie were dug up. Before that, we were talking about a ‘Beattie bounce’ – that obviously then had some impact on his campaign translating into votes on the ground.”
In the final week before the election, more than £20,000 was spent by the North’s five main parties on social-media advertisements on their official Facebook and Instagram accounts. Since the campaign began in late March, more than 200 ads were posted across the parties on their main platforms. But did an enhanced online presence and targeted ads translate into votes?
Disastrous election result
Belfast Live political journalist Brendan Hughes examined the costings and discovered that in the seven-day period before May 5th, the SDLP ran up the biggest bill, at £4,432, for 66 adverts. The once-dominant nationalist party had a disastrous election result, losing a quarter of its Assembly seats. Alliance spent less on adverts but ran more because these were picture driven.
You can put forward your messages, your key pledges, your arguments about other parties on to screens without having to rap doors – and potentially field face-to-face abuse
“Sinn Féin surprisingly came in at third and spent £3,277 in those seven day and they ran 15 ads,” says Hughes. “But if you look at the types of ads they ran, that has been crucial to their success both in this election and previous.” A video featuring Michelle O’Neill at her kitchen table speaking directly to camera talking about her family was released a few days before polling day.
“If you’re buying an ad on Facebook you can target people with particular interests. This online video focusing on Michelle O’Neill was cut from the party’s second party-election broadcast. It was targeted at the 18-25 year-old category – and mostly women. At the end of the ad it states if ‘you want a first minister for all come out and vote on Thursday’. This message was introduced towards the latter stages of the campaign and was clever.
“Also, there was no mention of a Border poll – you need to go back to September last year to see any Sinn Féin ad directly referencing an Irish unity referendum.”
Fresh from their election win, Sinn Féin is now using its online platforms to encourage people to join the party. Despite the trolling and inevitable criticism political parties meet online, Hughes says social media is “hugely important” in connecting with the electorate: “If you speak to parties, many of them will tell you whenever they go out on a physical canvass of an area, there’s very few doors that they’ll knock where people actually open them.
“So this is a way of reaching people without having to leave your house. You can put forward your messages, your key pledges, your arguments about other parties on to screens without having to rap doors – and potentially field face-to-face abuse.”
Arlene O’Connor agrees: “The support you get on social media doesn’t always translate into support at the ballot box but I think people react well to positivity. In terms of what I’ve been observing from a communications point of view, the parties that did best out of it ran very positive campaigns on social media – and we saw that with Michelle O’Neill. This election was very much around her as first minister – and using her image in a positive way.”