Airwaves all a-twitter as SA parties cotton on to social media

2011-04-29 00:00

IN 2007, U.S. President Barack Obama embarked on a social media campaign that would ultimately help win him the election. With the local government elections approaching, our politicians are hoping to garner similar support from the South African online community.

Obama used Facebook and Twitter to build a political brand and engage with voters. The ANC and DA, both of which have been using digital media for the last few years, have made social media part of their local government elections campaigns.

A few weeks ago the DA started a Sunday night question and answer (Q&A) session, which allows voters to receive real-time answers from DA strategist Ryan Coetzee, and other DA leaders.

Coetzee said he realised many people ask questions via Twitter, and he should set aside an hour on a day to deal with them. He said that The DA Twitter Town Hall Q&A allows interaction between the party, voters, political commentators and journalists.

The ANC also held a live Twitter Q&A last week with spokesperson Jackson Mthembu. Mthembu said the focus is interaction with voters, as well as reaching people the party is not able to reach through conventional media, like newspapers or radio.

He added that the impact of social media cannot be ignored as a tool for reaching the larger population, especially after it played a role in the revolutions in northern Africa. Facebook and Twitter were used to communicate with the larger population which did not receive information from censored news sources. Similarly, the social media sites were used during the Iran elections in 2009 to alert banned Western media of irregularities. “If [social media] can cause a revolution, why can’t we use it to get our message to the people?” said Mthembu.

And interaction seems to be what the parties are getting, with Coetzee estimating that the DA answered over 100 questions in their hour, and Mthembu answered over 50 in his debut session.

However, with less than 15% of South Africans able to access the Internet as compared with the vast majority in the U.S., one cannot expect the parties to have the same success as Obama. “This is not the U.S., our way of consuming is totally different,” said Coetzee. He added that social media does give them more access to younger supporters.

Mthembu feels that the Internet penetration is not an important factor. “It’s immaterial how many have [Internet] access. We must reach all South Africans, whether it’s through newspapers, radio, posters or digital.”

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