Five things African politicians can learn from the US elections

Social media has had a profound impact on society, and sites like Twitter and Facebook have experienced significant increases in user numbers. Facebook’s global user base now stands at over a billion. Anything a person says on a social media site (and the whole Internet, for that matter) permanently resides in cyberspace  – and is available for review at anytime.

U.S Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (image: The Telegraph)

Often it is not what people do online that spurs the conversation, but what they have said or done in the real world that triggers mass online dialogue.

With the US elections only a week away, candidates have made use of social media to interact with followers and some users have taken to social media to participate in lively presidential debates.

IT News Africa has compiled a list of five things that African politicians can learn from the US elections – and how to effectively make use of social media.

1. Make sure the facts are correct

Social media has been the source of many disputes, but sites like Twitter and Facebook been just as instrumental in settling debates. When something is said on a social network, people will immediately try to differentiate fact from fiction if the information seems too good to be true. Online users are savvy at snooping around the Net in search of answers, and eventually, your bull—- will reach an individual that knows the truth.

Lesson learnt: Always tell the truth – if you lie, you will get caught.

2. The speed of social media can be detrimental

African politicians are often very quick to use social media to respond to speeches, protests or violence, but they have to remember that acting too hastily can also work against them and damage reputations. When an anti-Islam movie was released on YouTube, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy” and “US Embassy condemns religious incitement”. US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney thought the tweets were in response to an attack on a U.S. Embassy, and released a statement condemning the Obama Administration for sympathizing with the attackers. It was soon revealed that the embassy tweets were made before the attack and the Obama Administration did not authorise them, social media went wild condemning Romney for his premature action.

Lesson learnt: Know all the facts before making hasty comments, especially if it is breaking news or a controversial topic.

3. Answer questions with a straight answer

One thing that African politicians do very well is dodging controversial and tough questions. Seldom will they give a straight answer to a simple question and US President Obama recently fell into that precise trap. While fielding a Question and Answer session on social network Reddit, the President was asked about his views on legalising marijuana. He continually ducked and dived around the issue, which caused a lot of frustration among potential voters.

Lesson learnt: When asked a question, be as straight as possible. That way you will not be seen to be hiding something.

4. The spotlight is always on

During an election year (as is the case currently in the US and will be the situation in South Africa in 2014), the social media spotlight is constantly on candidates, politicians and members of Parliament. Every move will be scrutinized and analysed, and while it can work in the politician’s favour, it also has the power to diminish their reputation. Many U.S politicians have had to resort to quick-thinking when something went pear-shaped on Twitter or Facebook – often leaving them red-faced.

Lesson learned: Every move (online or in the real-world) will be monitored and documented on social networks. Politicians should be wary of what they do or say in public, and act accordingly online.

5. Do not feed the trolls

Online users enjoy hiding behind the semi-anonymity that social networks afford. While most users are genuine account holders, there are elements that create social network accounts just to provoke and stir things up – otherwise known as ‘trolls’. Just as in fairy tales, trolls should never be fed information and should generally just be left alone. South Africa’s Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille (while she is very active on Twitter) often responds to trolls. When someone tweeted her saying “You’re a racist old b***h, you deserve to die and burn in hell”, she replied with a calm “And I hope you are enjoying your evening too”. There is no need to respond to trolls, as their sole purpose is to evoke emotion and generally cause chaos online.  By the way, the person who tweeted Zille only had seven followers at the time.

Lesson learnt: Do not feed the trolls – they serve only to bait politicians and other online individuals into saying something controversial. Responding is unnecessary – much like poking a bear.     

Social media and networks can be a powerful tool if used correctly, but can just as easily spell the downfall of any candidate. US-based company Sendible has set up a monitoring tool to determine the appeal of both U.S Presidential candidates on social media, and as at end of September Barack Obama was in the lead with 78% of positive sentiment in the social media sphere compared to Mitt Romney’s 73%.

According to Social Bakers, Obama has over 31-million Facebook fans and over 21-million followers on Twitter.

Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor


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