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Candidates take mixed approach to social media

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Christchurch City Council candidate Erin Jackson knows the power of social media.

As University of Canterbury Students’ Association president for the last two years, she has engaged with about 15,000 students across the association’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and has developed a dedicated social media strategy for the local body elections next month.

Jackson has Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn accounts promoting her council bid in the Spreydon-Heathcote ward.

“The exposure generated is pretty important,” she says. “If you’re reaching over 10,000 people with a single post then you’re starting to see that exposure.”

Social media and politics have become increasingly interlinked, most notably in the United States, where Bloomberg BusinessWeek says the 2008 US presidential election was the first “social media election”.

A Pew Research Centre Internet report found that during the 2008 election 46 per cent of Americans used the internet, email or cellphones to “get news about the campaign, share their views and mobilise others”.

However, to engage with all voters, Jackson says it is important candidates have other strategies to complement their social media campaigns.

Traditional strategies still important

The ward Jackson is running in has a wide mix of ages and socio-economic groups.

“To rely just on social media would be a little short-sighted for me,” she says. “I’m pretty determined for it not to be the be-all and end-all.”

Traditional campaign strategies, such as door knocking, still have a place alongside social media.

“It’s just as important to be out and be seen doing things,” Jackson says. “It’s just about getting a balance between those two.”

Social media and online campaigning is seen by some as a way to engage young voters and combat traditionally low voter turnout in council elections. Local Government Minister Chris Tremain announced last week that online voting would be trialled at the 2016 local body elections, with Porirua City and Manawatu District the first to sign up.
Council candidate Raf Manji says he wants to see online voting in Christchurch in 2016.

“People are consuming more and more information on the go,” he says. “If you want to reach them you have to get with the shift.”

Manji says social media is now an important part of any elected officials job.

“You can’t hide anymore and people are keen to know what is going on,” he says. “The days of secret meetings and deals behind closed doors are numbered.”

True participation requires complete openness, he says.

“Time is always an issue and you wouldn’t expect them to be online 24/7,” says Manji. “But many of our MPs manage to use social media well and local politicians should be prepared to do the same.”

Candidates see role for social media

Christchurch mayoral candidate and Labour party MP Lianne Dalziel says social media have great potential at a local government level.

Christchurch local government  - social media snapshot - Sheet1

“I think social media is terrifically important and it will change the way we do business at the council,” she says. “The city council itself has to become more social media friendly.”

Riccarton-Wigram Community Board chairman and council candidate Mike Mora has sat on the Riccarton-Wigram board for 21 years, and says social media is “a valuable tool”. He wants to use it more.

He has a Facebook page, but doesn’t use it often: “[it’s about] getting my head around it and having enough time”.

Lack of knowledge about social media is also an issue, he says.
“I don’t know the difference between Twitter and Facebook to be honest.”

“What I need is a guardian angel to guide me through step by step.”

He concedes his lack of social media use means he will miss out on votes, but he plans to increase his use if elected again.

While most councillors and community board members agree that social media is now vital, others rely on more traditional forms of campaigning.

Christchurch City Councillor Jimmy Chen acknowledges the importance of social media, but says he was elected because he went out and met people frequently.

“My strength is door-knocking.”

“Social media will add to their [other councillor’s] job’s effectiveness,” he says. “But in my case, I am still effective because of my reputation for direct person to person contact.”

He says he is still able to connect with the city’s young people, despite his lack of social media use.

“I meet them through door-knocking, forum activity, as well as events,” says Cr Chen. “I have a high presence in the ward through word of mouth.”

_Ben Irwin