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Social media in Election 2016 was more important than ever before – more that 70 per cent of candidates had a Twitter account, up from 57 per cent during the 2011 election. However, the jury is still out on whether it influenced the result.
None of the parties in GE16 managed to capture online attention in the way that occurred during the marriage referendum, when online engagement played a significant role in the result.
If anything, the strategies employed by the parties were predictable and unspectacular – bar a few notable exceptions such as Social Democrat Gary Gannon’s one-take canvassing movie and Michael Healy-Rae’s campaign song.
However, the three leaders’ debates and opinion poll figures were widely played out and argued about, showing that the “second screen” phenomenon has moved beyond the realm of sports fans.
In many ways, social media has become a routine part of Irish elections , the digital equivalent of the campaign poster or the election leaflet. Ninety per cent of FG, Labour and Social Democrat candidates had Twitter accounts.
The four largest outgoing parties, including Labour – the parties themselves, plus their candidates – tweeted more than 27,000 times during this short campaign.
Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats were the most active parties and their frequent personal engagements with followers proved popular, allowing them to bypass the oft-derided mainstream media.
Meanwhile Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, and the Green Party each notched up more than 7,000 tweets over the 23 days, while their supporters were the most active, too.
For some candidates, the Twitter experience was one of many new ones during the campaign. However, others such as Gerry Adams and Stephen Donnelly have long since cultivated strong personal online brands.
Did all of this Twitter activity translate into votes? Not really, especially when it came to the established parties, but it did appear to have some value for the newer parties.
When we view Twitter activity through the lens of the election results, it suggests a tale of two demographics when it comes to social media. Fifty per cent of the audience consists of 15-24 year olds, largely living in urban areas.
For parties aiming to target younger voters, such as the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin, the emphasis they placed in developing their presence on the platform paid off.
So #GE16 was not “the social media election”, as some predicted. Social media is certainly gaining in significance, but it’s not a kingmaker – not yet.
Dr Derek Greene is a lecturer at the school of computer science, UCD, and a funded investigator at the SFI Insight Centre for Data Analytics. He ran the publicly available Insight4Elections election data analysis project with Dr Georgiana Ifrim at UCD.