Without the GAA pitch sidelines and local events, the candidates vying to win the seat vacated by former Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy in tomorrow’s Dublin Bay South (DBS) by-election have adapted remarkably well in using social media as their primary means of accessing voters.
Much of this election battleground developed during recent national referenda and last year’s general election, but the Covid-19 pandemic and the requirement for a socially distant campaign have meant that the tone and content of a candidate or cause’s social media presence have never had more important roles to play.
The long-standing playground of political nerds and controversial issues, Twitter has been the go-to social media haunt for all the DBS candidates. While some, such as Fine Gael’s candidate Cllr James Geoghegan, dabbled poorly on TikTok and others utilised the image-sharing and community components of Instagram and Facebook, on balance, tweeting and trending were the process and objective.
All candidates created and utilised a Twitter profile to share their story, ideas, and campaign. Despite the desire by some to appear more ‘hip’, for now, Twitter remains the default political social media arena.
While Twitter exposure can be useful, it also comes with challenges. The platform allows everyone to vocalise an opinion with varying degrees of accountability, which means that trolls, anonymous accounts, and the ever-present cancel brigade have relatively free reign on what they say and who they target.
Thick skin and a commitment to continue posting despite the negativity are crucial for any Twitter influencer wannabe, particularly for the DBS by-elections candidates.
Our analysis shows that 16% of all DBS-related Twitter commentary up to Friday, 2 July was negative, and most of it was directed towards Fianna Fáil candidate Cllr Deirdre Conroy and Fine Gael candidate Cllr James Geoghegan. To both Government party candidates’ credit, they have refused to engage in the negativity, stuck to message, and continued posting content.
360 also found that 49% of the engagement with each candidate’s Twitter content was ‘neutral’. This, perhaps, reflects a somewhat disengaged public on issues that they do not find relatable.
Puppies, FOMO, and the power of content
Each candidate has consistently posted photos highlighting their level of support from their respective parties and canvassers. There’s a benefit to this: voters back a winner.
Canvassers and ‘boots on the ground’ are also drawn out to participate when they see others enjoying the same thing. Fine Gael’s Geoghegan pulled a large contingent of Young Fine Gael support from counties across Ireland last weekend, many fearful of missing out on the supposed ‘fun’.
Labour’s candidate Senator Ivana Bacik has visually demonstrated her large support across the age groups, making herself relatable to each one in the process. Our analysis shows this approach has ensured #VoteIvana was the most popular candidate-specific hashtag throughout the campaign, regularly trending and being used almost on an hourly basis in the seven days leading up to Friday, 2 July.
Voters also back a humble candidate who can demonstrate their appreciation for the ‘little man’. Along with the majority of her competitors, Sinn Féin’s Senator Lynn Boylan has regularly posted content thanking both her team and the communities backing her.
People also vote for someone who seems normal and relatable. Photos with cute puppies, babies, the elderly, ice cream in the sun, sea swims, and coffees have been content go-tos and contribute to creating the sense of a candidate ‘just like you’.
The most consistent message in the DBS social media conversation has been ‘change’. Voters are looking for it and candidates are offering it.
Used best by Boylan in her criticism of the Government’s policy on housing, others from opposition parties have also used it to their advantage. The Social Democrats’ Sarah Durcan and People Before Profit’s Brigid Purcell have regularly posted calls for a ‘change to politics as usual’, criticising the Government for its response to the pandemic, housing, and climate issues.
Constituency-specific topics have also featured heavily in the online conversation. DBS has a varied demographic and covers areas that are predominantly upper class and others that are mostly working class. It’s also home to a transient renter population, including students and working blow-ins who still hold a vote in their home constituency outside the capital but have yet to transfer.
This diversity has led to a number of issues featuring in social media discourse. As expected, housing and homelessness feature heavily. All candidates, even those whose parties are currently in Government, have posted plans to ‘fix’ the housing crisis. For Geoghegan and Conroy, and to some extent the Green Party’s Cllr Claire Byrne, these commitments have been criticised as ‘fake promises’ from parties that have ‘had enough time’.
Topics like climate, childcare, homecare, and the challenges for lone parents have also featured in social conversation. In an effort to tap into his constituency’s frustration with traffic jams and a lack of service provision and travel infrastructure, Geoghegan has used his vision of a ‘15-minute city’ to lure voters. However, the associated hashtag has not trended as he may have hoped, only featuring in 13 tweets last week.
Other-candidate specific hashtags have had varying success. The Sinn Féin-coined #Lynn2Win and #BígíLynn were mentioned in 59 and 26 tweets respectively last week, with others having minimal impact.
A growing trend for all election activity now, candidates encouraged the public to join the overall campaign conversation through using #DublinBaySouth (avg. 4 tweets per hour), #DBS2021 (avg. 3 tweets per hour), and #DBSbyelection (avg. 1 tweet per hour).
Who has the momentum?
Creating a political movement that peaks on election day is no mean feat. Even more challenging is conveying that momentum on social media.
Once seen as a likely contender for the seat, Boylan’s social media campaign has simmered to a gentle halt with less canvassing-specific content posted in recent days.
In doing so, she has helped leave the door open for a two-horse race between Fine Gael’s Geoghegan and Labour’s Bacik, both of whom have executed a steady increase in daily social media content, including content demonstrating their growing support on the ground, despite the changeable weather.
While the fruit of this effort remains to be seen, overall, both candidates have created a social media presence that positions them well in the final hours of their campaigns.
Regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s vote, DBS candidates’ social media strategies should be used as a micro-case study by all politicians, whatever their generation, to hone their social media skills ahead of the next general election.
While all politics is local, a social media footprint makes that ‘local’ a whole lot bigger, which is an opportunity for some and a greater challenge for those who struggle to adapt.
What’s clear is that when it comes to building a communications strategy, social media can’t just be a ‘nice to have’—it’s an integral part of the process.
About the author
Barry supports 360’s portfolio of public affairs and corporate clients. With a background in farming, he has a particular interest in the agrifood sector and environmental policy. Before joining 360, Barry was Campaigns & Communications Officer and later President of UCD Students’ Union. He is also an alum of the Washington Ireland Program, interning with the New York State Comptroller during his time in the US.