Political parties and social media: Does it make a difference?

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While political parties are upping their ante on social media, experts say young people only engage in political discourse on such platforms, without necessarily translating this to active participation on the ground.

Social media expert Tebogo Ditshego said it was undisputed that social media would have a telling effect on voting patterns of South Africans.

However, these platforms were not doing much to increase youth engagement on the ground.

This has not stopped, for example, President Cyril Ramaphosa from taking to Twitter.

The DA also took to Twitter and Facebook and unleashed a digital-only advert that channels Childish Gambino’s music video This is America.

In it, DA youth leader Luyolo Mphithi calls on South Africans to save the ideals of the rainbow nation by placing their crosses next to the face of Mmusi Maimane.

During the 2014 elections, there were just over 600 000 individuals between the ages of 18 and 19 registered to vote.

According to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC), there are only 353 828 individuals in the same age group registered to vote now.

There is, however, a marginal increase in the 20 to 29 age group registered to vote, from 5 007 501 to 5 329 676.

“The youth make up the demographic that largely participates on social media, however, even with this political engagement, it has failed to translate into registration to vote ... as shown by the recent IEC stats,” said Ditshego.

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Political parties' followers on social media

ANC head of elections Fikile Mbalula, also active on Twitter, said social media had become a way to “inform and engage with their electorate”, the advantage being that it was “not one-directional. We have seen an increase in the youth engaging with us. Our youth is actually clued up on political issues.”

National chairperson of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) Youth Brigade, Mkhuleko Hlengwa, said that it was the instantaneous nature with which social media allows politicians and parties to engage with their supporters or potential supporters that makes it attractive.

“Other types of media are being surpassed by the pace of social media. Even older people are now utilising platforms like WhatsApp, which we as the IFP have incorporated as part of your communications machinery leading up to the upcoming elections,” said Hlengwa.

It is the EFF with 727 000 followers and its leader Julius Malema with 2.3 million that have the most followers on Twitter, in spite of having joined later than the ANC and DA.

With the significant role of social media in the elections, and the rise of trolls, bots and fake news, the IEC now has an online platform for citizens to report alleged digital disinformation.

Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird said, “Without the skills and techniques to distinguish real information from disinformation, the likelihood of the public being misled is increasing. While some efforts to build critical digital literacy skills have been made, it is essential, in the lead up to elections, that concerted efforts to develop these skills are rolled out.”

To help distinguish between official and fake adverts, political parties contesting the elections have been asked to upload all official advertising material to an online political advert repository.

This will allow anyone to check whether a poster or a digital banner is legitimate or has been digitally altered.


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