Robbie Byrne inspects the social media dominance of Sinn Féin and whether it adds up to true political power.
Some weeks ago The Guardian posed a simple question: “Does The Sun really speak to more people than Russell Brand?” Many scoffed; it was an absurd question, perhaps the most brainless of the year. The Sun has long been a staple read of the working class, a British institution, a newspaper that has sold over two million copies every day for four decades. So how could a comedian turned political revolutionary control the British psyche?
A recent study revealed that the average American spends 51% of their day on some form of digital media, and to people like Russell Brand, this matters. Brand has 8.74 million Twitter followers as opposed to The Sun’s 659,000; three million Facebook likes versus 1.7 million; 800,000 YouTube subscribers compared to 8,000. Through freely accessible online platforms, Brand’s political spin reached seven million more people yesterday than The Sun’s digital and print arms.
Last month Brand was the focal point of BBC’s Question Time where he battled with UKIP’s Nigel Farage over a host of socioeconomic issues. This rapid rise as a valid political entity is made more incredible by Brand’s claim that he will never run for parliament.
‘Brand’s political spin reached seven million more people yesterday than The Sun’s digital and print arms.’
So just imagine how Ireland’s political landscape would alter if a political party gained the same social media popularity as the erratic comedian. But there’s no need to imagine. Ireland has its very own Russell Brand that comes beautifully packaged in 32 counties and one very odd Twitter account – and that is Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin’s domination of the political social media landscape is worthy of an (admittedly odd) Hollywood script. In four years, Sinn Féin’s Facebook page has gained more likes than Fine Gael, Fine Fáil and Labour combined, while Gerry Adams has become Twitter’s most followed Irish politician. It’s a startling feat and one that has slipped under the Irish media’s radar.
How did a party once the butt of centre right politics become, digitally at least, Ireland’s most popular party? A quick glance over official party social media pages reveals some fascinating contrasts between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael.
One key aim of Sinn Féin’s PR spin is to please the disgruntled. Like Russell Brand’s utopian ramblings, Sinn Féin’s social media targets specific rumors on its way to making extravagant claims. One Facebook post from December 12th asks; “Really, what is the point of the Labour Party?” While another reads: “Rich getting richer, poor getting poorer thanks to this Government.”
‘Sinn Féin’s Facebook page has gained more likes than Fine Gael, Fine Fáil and Labour combined.’
This all sounds attractive to the disgruntled keyboard warrior, who, struggling to make ends meet, finds comfort in Sinn Féin’s argument. Conversely, one can easily see why voters would be irked by Fine Gael’s social media strategy, which spotlights their own political achievement, though admittedly one rooted in numerical fact.
But slip away from political spin and we find the jewel of Sinn Féin’s propaganda tool: Gerry Adams Twitter account. Here is somebody who faces accusation of being a key member of a terrorist organization but tweets about kittens, rubber ducks and duvet days, with the odd splattering of pidgin Irish. But as odd as it may seem, infantile tweets are the ultimate tool in Sinn Féin’s armory.
How can a supposed IRA ringleader dream of eating crème eggs before waking up with a “beard covered in chocolate & cream thingymebob?” Impossible. And that is exactly what Sinn Féin has achieved under the cloak of otherwise inappropriate tweets; social media has transformed Adams into a loveable rogue who to some would make a great leader and for others, well, he’s a bit of entertainment. But a murderer? Not a chance.
The party’s Vice-President, Mary Lou McDonald, has experienced a similar social media makeover. Portrayed as the stereotypical working class mother, the Trinity graduate is now Ireland’s most followed politician when all social media forums are considered. Appealing to the average tweeter, city dwellers aged 35 to 44, McDonald’s page is propaganda bliss, complete with Riefenstahl aping camera angles and all the motivational political spin required to reel in her own niche of urbanised 40-something, middle-class parents.
Sinn Féin’s dominance of social media channels would trick those unread in Irish politics to assume that the all-Ireland party is the Ireland’s ruling political force, but this is far from true. Though Sinn Féin may not be a dominant force in parliament, we must question if it’s Ireland’s most popular party today. Compiling an average popularity percentage from the three RedC polls taken in 2014 presents a complication; especially when contrasted with combined social media popularity.
‘Though Sinn Féin may not be a dominant force in parliament, we must question if it’s Ireland’s most popular party today.’
The RedC average reveals a far closer political race with Fine Gael in the driving seat, boasting a 31% share of party popularity, followed by Sinn Féin with 27%. Under the shadow of RedC, the insurmountable advantage that social media once provided Sinn Féin with has evaporated. It is conflicting information from two different, but equally authentic sources. Though if we peel back the layers discrepancies can be found.
11% of Facebook users are under voting age, which wipes out a significant proportion of applicable votes. Facebook likes and Twitter followers do not equal ballot box votes. Mary Lou may have 60,000 Facebook followers but if 5,000 of those come from Cork City the Dublin based politician cannot benefit.
Still, the same could be argued for the other three major parties. But these time hardened political groups with comprehensive membership networks from parish pump politics to the ministerial cabinet are fashioned in an old-world politics that somehow remains relevant. An infantile Tweet won’t get you the vote but ensuring the son of a local businessman gets that college grant sure will.
It’s simple reasoning, one that brings us right back to Russell Brand’s affirmation that he will never enter party politics. He knows that social media popularity does not equal political power.
For Brand and Sinn Féin, social media provides the perfect platform to forward loose ideologies, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of watertight programmes for government, both falter in spectacular fashion. So while social media popularity may have helped Sinn Féin gather troops at December’s Right2Water protest, convincing somebody to change voting preference is a height that social media simply struggles to scale. Voting preferences are, wrong as it may be, family traditions or even social statements, and these are customs that social media will struggle to change.
To use one of Adams’s own tweets, it seems that social media is the duvet day of politics: an oasis where the true bite of state affairs cannot sink its teeth. Where waffle will be hyped and exaggeration praised.