A big change in political campaigning since South Africa’s last national elections has been the rise in social media. But how has this new dynamic manifested in South Africa, and to what extent is it a factor in political campaigning? The use of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and YouTube has emerged as an important electoral campaigning tool in recent years. Understanding the electoral power of social media could prove very rewarding for political parties, particularly in the lead-up to the 2014 national elections.
The potential impact of social media campaigning first became evident in the 2008 United States (US) presidential election. President Barack Obama’s campaign included the use of sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, along with other social media such as podcasting and mobile messaging.
The election, dubbed by some the ‘Facebook election’, saw nearly 70% of the vote among Americans aged 25 years and younger going to Obama. The number of his Facebook and Twitter followers increased on a daily basis, and the sites allowed users to publish activities and send postings to one another. By 2011, Obama’s Twitter account – @BarackObama, which he used to promote legislation and support for his policies – was the third Twitter account in the world to have at least 10 million followers.
In Africa, a recent example of the use of social media in an election campaign was during the 2013 general elections in Kenya. Social media became one of the key tools used by most of the presidential candidates to engage with young voters. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s use of social media and digital communication played an instrumental role in his election campaign.
Kenyatta’s Facebook page received close to 500 000 ‘likes’ or followers in the run-up to the elections, making it one of the most ‘liked’ pages in Kenya. In a research study conducted by Portland Communications, Kenya has been identified as Africa’s second most active country on Twitter, following South Africa. Kenya has over 14 million Internet users, many of whom make use of social media sites.
In South Africa an estimated 88% of young people (15–34 years old) live in a dwelling that has access to a landline, cellular telephone or the Internet, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The results of a research study in 2012 that was commissioned by infoDev, a global partnership programme within the World Bank Group, about the use of mobile phones in South Africa, found that more than 75% of South Africans (15 years and older) reportedly owned a cell phone.
A 2012 UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study titled the ‘South African mobile generation’ found that the country’s residents were among ‘the highest users of mobile technology and mobile social networking on the continent’. This means that young South Africans are now making use of social media to express their views on the country’s democratic processes.
A student at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, during a presentation on the 2011 Reconciliation Barometer survey results, made the following comment: ‘Most of us … grew up in a digital age. Our socialisation and media, especially media, is the part that actually informs us most … Now, as it relates to political affiliations … [we] say what’s this trend about voting and regurgitating my vote for the same party, whereas there’s a new trend now … As young people we are not fully informed, we don’t read a lot, we Google and we Facebook a lot and watch TV...’.
In a bid to increase the number of first-time voters (those aged 18 and above) and registered voters aged under 35, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has embarked on a campaign to encourage the youth to register for South Africa’s 2014 national elections. As part of this registration drive the IEC is also turning to social media. According to the IEC’s Chief Electoral Officer, Mosotho Moepya, ‘We have also made an effort to put in place capacity on our social media platforms, namely Facebook, Twitter and Mxit, to deal with queries from our technology-savvy youth in a medium that they are familiar with.’
This strategy appears to be bearing fruit, as the IEC’s Facebook page received over 60 000 ‘likes’ or followers ahead of the voter registration drive, with at least 10 000 followers ‘talking about this’ or actively engaging on the IEC’s Facebook page.
Following the IEC’s voter registration campaign, 2,5 million South Africans registered to vote on the weekend of 9–10 November. Just over 1 million of these were registering for the first time and, encouragingly, 881 011 (80%) of new registrations came from young people aged 18–29. Registration levels among those aged 20–29 also increased from 49,1% to 54,5%.
New political parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by controversial former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, have seemingly caught on to the power of social media in their electoral campaigning. The EFF’s Facebook page has received more ‘likes’ or followers than that of any other South African political party. As of 13 November the EFF had approximately 56 396 ‘likes’, followed by the ANC with 54 315, the Democratic Alliance (DA) with 41 812 and AgangSA with 28 491.
Interestingly, the picture on Twitter is very different, with the older, more established parties attracting the most followers. The ANC twitter handle @MyANC_ has 81 368 followers, followed by the DA (@DA_News) with 44 602, AgangSA (@AgangSA) with 36 719 and the EFF (@EconFreedomZA) trailing behind with 28 198. In South Africa, however, Facebook is still ranked as the most popular social networking tool with 3,2 million users, compared with Twitter at 1,1 million users, as found in a global online survey conducted by Google in 2011.
With social media and digital communication increasingly being used as tools for marketing and market research, it makes sense to use them for election campaigns. Of course, the extent to which this proves effective in attracting young voters to political parties will only be known after the country’s national elections next year. Be that as it may, South Africa’s political parties still have more to gain than lose in entering the social media sphere in the run-up to the elections.
Lauren Tracey, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria