SA political parties square up on social media

Read time 7min 30sec

#OneSAForAll, #GrowSouthAfrica, #OurLandAndJobsNow, #VoteWisely and #Siyanqoba are hashtags popularised over the last few months, as political parties leaned on social media platforms to engage voters ahead of the 2019 general elections.

The past weekend was no different, as the country's parties rounded up their campaign rallies, which saw them become trending topics on social media platforms like Twitter.

This week sees South Africans cast their votes to elect a new National Assembly and new provincial legislatures in each province. This will be the sixth election held since the end of the apartheid system in 1994.

While posters, rallies and public service announcements are still the go-to methods to campaign for votes, social media pages of political parties are a hive of activity, with messages urging citizens to vote, pictures of their leaders and supporters, as well as manifesto promises should they be elected to govern.

For example, the African National Congress (ANC), Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are the three most popular parties on Twitter. At the time of writing, the parties had over 1.9 million followers combined.

Mabine Seabe, DA national director of communications, says his party has a long history of using social media platforms as part of its campaign ecosystem.

"Social media is part and parcel of campaigning; it is the most direct way of reaching voters outside of door-to-door activity. That said, its use is not done in a silo, it links up with the campaigns being run, and the messaging thereof."

Although platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have proven to be popular among the masses, Seabe says it's more than popularity but about who the party is trying to reach and the kind of content and information it is trying to disseminate. "Each platform has its strengths and limitations. Our effectiveness on social media is understanding who is using which platforms and the kind of content that works on each platform."

Londiwe Mbhele, CEO of Nudge Unltd, says for politics, Twitter is the best playground, followed by Facebook.

"Twitter is more interactive and fast-paced; it also has simple ways of tracking reach. For fashion, art and design it would be Instagram, then Twitter because of how these can be aesthetically captivating in how they are designed."

Numbers game

If social media follows were anything to go by, the EFF would win this year's general elections, having amassed 743 955 and 476 778 followers on Twitter and Facebook, respectively.

The ANC, the country's governing party, has the most Facebook followers with 540 440 South Africans following the party on the world's biggest social network. On Twitter, the ANC has 652 035 followers.

The DA has over one million combined followers on Twitter and Facebook.

In terms of Instagram, the ANC leads with 118 000 followers, while the DA and EFF count 23 700 and 77 300, respectively.

Nudge Unltd, a digital media agency involved with the ANC Gauteng social media campaign, says social media has helped keep people in touch with the work the party does and has been doing, leading up to the elections.

"Social media as a shared media platform affords an alternative to the mainstream that often unfairly and partially showcases our political landscape," notes Mbhele.

Explaining the advantages of social media, Mbhele points out the platforms have broader reach. "A tap of a hashtag or searching a word links you to related information quite fast, wherever you are in the world. You can tell the story of a specific time or season through social media and with sufficient retweets and responses, it could appear on the timeline of more people, even gaining trend status."

Even though parties like the United Democratic Movement (UDM), Congress of the People (COPE), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Freedom Front Plus (FF+) have been around for some time, their social media footprint pales in comparison to the three parties mentioned above.

New kids on the block

Hlaudi Motsoeneng, former SABC COO, is leader of the African Content Movement, which reportedly promises to pay all government employees very well if elected to govern. Motsoeneng's party has a total of 438 followers on Twitter.

After breaking away from the DA, former Cape Town mayor, Patricia de Lille, launched the Good political party last year. It has 3 924 followers on Twitter.

Mzwanele Manyi founded the African Transformation Movement (ATM), which has 3 695 followers on Twitter. ATM says its mission is to unite South Africans, who have different beliefs, religions, life-styles and ideologies, to build a progressive democratic state which addresses the needs of all those who live in it.

The ZACP Capitalist Party of South Africa, also known as the purple cow party, is another new entrant in the country's political space. Since its launch earlier this year, the party has attracted 7 163 Twitter followers.

Fighting fake news

Meanwhile, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) says it has received over 70 complaints via its online reporting platform.

Since allegations of Russian meddling during the 2016 US presidential campaign, there have been heightened efforts across the globe to combat fake news, propaganda operations and extremist content spread on social media platforms.

Locally, the IEC launched "The Real 411" Web site, which aims to curb the scourge of fake news intended to unfairly influence the elections. It partnered with Media Monitoring Africa to develop the platform that facilitates the online submission and tracking of complaints relating to misinformation encountered on social media platforms.

According to the IEC, of the complaints received, 34 have been finalised and the remainder continue to be processed as they are received. To date, no instances of deliberate misinformation have been found by the committee set up to assess complaints.

The electoral body goes on to say a number of the complaints, while not considered fake news, are related to the tone and content.

Several of the complaints refer to news articles or opinion pieces on news Web sites, and these have been referred to the press council, where appropriate.

The IEC says: "It is important to note that journalists reporting on what politicians say is not disinformation. A free press is critical for free and fair elections, and encourages accountability and keeps the electorate informed.

"Another area of potential confusion relates to the nuances of satire. Satire has an important role to play in political commentary and the Electoral Commission is committed to ensuring free speech is not undermined in this disinformation initiative."

The IEC, however, highlights in using original images of political party material, there can be confusion as to what emanates from the political party and what does not.

"The complaints received have served to highlight the challenges of combating disinformation and the continuing need for education regarding what constitutes disinformation."

"The number of complaints and interactions demonstrates that South Africans are taking the time to engage with political messages and reporting in digital media," says Janet Love, vice-chairperson of the Electoral Commission of SA.

Last year, the DA issued a stern warning to those planning to peddle what it termed "digital dark arts" ahead of this year's elections.

Commenting on social media ills, Seabe says public platforms by their very nature are risky, but bring with them great opportunity.

The DA has been successful in using the opportunities brought by social media, he declares. "For the conduct of staff and public representatives, we have a social media policy to ensure the party's best foot is always put forward."

Mbhele concludes by saying communicating and engaging with facts is important. "Being factual and remembering that people do have a right to accurate information has navigated the campaign in a way that we count as a success.

"For this voting season, Gauteng specifically ensured they used every means of communication tactfully. Social media not only gave an experience of door-to-door campaigning but also relayed their manifesto messages. Risk is everywhere, but a solid strategy guides you through 'trolls' and those seeking answers from the organisation."

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