The tumultuous NZ election campaign and the impact of Facebook

Just a little over six weeks ago it seemed like the writing was on the wall for this election result; and the thought of National losing was deemed to be almost impossible.  However, the dramatic twists and turns that have occurred in the space of a few short weeks have made this one of the most riveting and unpredictable elections to-date. A few highlights include:

  • Green co-leader Metiria Turei’s admission of DBP fraud on 16 July
  • Labour leader Andrew Little’s resignation on 1 August (following Labour’s slump in the polls to 24% – its lowest in two decades)
  • Jacinda Ardern and her ‘relentless positivity’ stepping in as the new Labour leader, effectively turning the election on its head, almost overnight
  • Two green MPs resigning over Turei’s actions on 7 August
  • Metiria Turei’s eventual resignation on 9 August
  • United Future’s Peter Dunne withdrawal from the election on 21 August
  • And thrown into the mix, cantankerous NZ First leader Winston Peters facing media inquiries regarding overpaid NZ Super across a seven year period on 27 August

This now doesn’t look like the bland election of two middle-aged white guys battling it out that we all thought it would be.  Last time we saw an election this close was back in 2005, when Don Brash almost ousted Helen Clark as the incumbent, and with Labour and National neck-and-neck in the current polls this election race has certainly been colourful, in fact I don’t think anyone could have predicted the way this election was going to play out.

With just three days until polling day it’s evident that social media has become just as influential (if not more so) than more traditional forms of media such as radio, TV and print.  NZ has approximately 2.9m Kiwis who are posting about, reacting to, commenting on and sharing on Facebook in the lead up to the election – that’s about 60% of the population.

With social media now becoming a key part of electioneering, (especially with our ongoing desire for instant news), it’s no surprise that politicians rely on this outlet as a way to interact and engage with the public, particularly with social media savvy millennials. It has become such a vital component of their campaign strategy, that even mainstream media report on what politicians are doing on Facebook – cue Bill English showing off his cooking skills with his tinned spaghetti and canned pineapple pizza creation; which went viral, for all the wrong reasons.

There has been much discussion around Facebook’s growing influence as a political platform, particularly in the wake of the shock results of the US presidential election and EU referendum. It has been widely acknowledged that Facebook swayed the outcome of both events, and was also credited with increasing the youth vote in Britain’s snap election in June, which backfired terribly for Prime Minister Theresa May.

Micro-targeting has also been particularly powerful for political campaigns on social media. The term micro-targeting refers to a marketing strategy with adverts that target a very small number of potential voters. Regardless of your interests, you will have no doubt seen political content invade your feed with election updates and targeted content from different parties. However, the content you are being served will most likely be different to what others have seen, because what you see on Facebook is increasingly shaped by the history of what you have shared with the Internet. Given their effectiveness and the availability of data that fuels them, micro-targeting has certainly revolutionised politics as we know it.

Whilst political marketing on social media is still fairly new, the trend to have more information blast your newsfeed as opposed to newspapers or TV debates will no doubt continue. Moreover, Facebook has played a much bigger role in political messaging in this year’s election campaign then ever before. If research tells us that more people turn out to vote if they feel their vote will count and if an election is close, then here’s hoping this election can buck the trend of Kiwis disengaging from the political process, especially with this election on such a knife edge.

Stephanie Helm, PR Consultant, One Plus One Communications