Politicians' Relationship with Facebook: It's Complicated

laine uudised-laine
2. Jun 2011

Although Estonian politicians have improved their netiquette and no longer post excerpts of press releases on Twitter, most MPs cannot adequately use their Facebook pages to campaign, or for that matter, any political purpose at all.

You would think that Estonian politicians would have been energized after the surprise win of the lone runner Indrek Tarand during the last European Parliament elections. Tarand, an independent candidate, won an unprecedented 25% of the popular vote, beating all political parties, including the Reform party and the Centre Party, long-time winners of previous elections. Moreover, Tarand reportedly spent less than €3,000 on his campaign, which was run almost exclusively through Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. 

Alas, Tarand turned out to be one-time affair, as the following Parliamentary Elections, held this March, proved far poorer in terms of communication via social media, according to a study by the e-Governance Academy. 

Although 70% of all candidates had their own Facebook pages, the report notes, a lot of them did not know how to make use of this new technology, leaving their walls blank, or worse, populating them with birthday wishes, FarmVille updates and Zombie games. 

The online campaign was characterised by a lack of coordination within party structures – candidates were left largely to their own devices when it came to Facebook and Twitter, which ended with mixed results.

On the one hand, some candidates quickly learned how to make use of the informal atmosphere, short attention spans and an ear for wit that social media provides. For instance, the old, nationalist arm of the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, known as the Sweaters produced a YouTube clip comparing the efficacy of sweaters and suits, which quickly went viral. On the other hand, many politicians failed to separate their personal and political pages and ended up hitting the Facebook friend limit (5000, if anyone's counting) or posting pictures of their kittens or favorite breakfast recipes to voters who couldn't care less.

Indeed, a high friend count certainly did not necessarily translate to a high vote count. The Centre Party politician, Evelyn Sepp, who currently has over 4,800 friends on Facebook, would have easily made the top 20 most popular politicians' list, had everyone on her friends list voted for her. However, she only received slightly over 400 votes and did not make it into the new Parliament.

According to the study, the most successful candidates integrated all forms of social media, as well as the official web sites of their respective parties, which helped to aggregate links and provide better coverage. 

However, both analysts and politicians noted that social media should not be seen as simply a means for campaigning, but as a means of grassroots communication. "I never saw Facebook as a way of winning the election," Evelyn Sepp told ERR Evening News. "It's a tool of civil society, a way of communicating with the electorate, of creating professional and social networks, and every smart politician will want to be a part of that."