The Age of Transparency in Digital Politics

Guest post by Minter Dial @mdial on social, transparency and politics using the recent French Presidential election between Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande as a case study

The paths of social media and politics would seem to be inextricably linked. Politics has proven, in many countries, to be a great way to “democratize” social media, or the other way around. During the Arab Spring, social media helped inspire a change in regime. In the US, social media clearly contributed to Obama’s success in 2008 and the presidential campaign certainly brought a big lift to the likes of Twitter. On the other hand, the most recent digital marketing campaigns of the two finalists of the French Presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, were quite a disappointment and a missed opportunity for the country. In short, neither candidate was connected and their presence on line was stuffy, uninteresting and one-way, not to forget at times downright unattractive.

There’s something to learn here for government everywhere. If you’re a political strategist, a government official or candidate, or involved in any way shape or form with politics, pay attention.

In this United States, the importance of social media can not be understated in the coming election. As Brian Solis noted in his 2008 post for TechCrunch, “Is Obama Ready to be a Two-way President?”, he observes that Obama’s use of social media was actually one-way campaign funding guised as engagement. As he notes, a strategy  rooted in broadcast will no longer suffice. For the record, I’d like to point out that the @barackobama account follows @briansolis.

Simply put, the digital teams of both Hollande and Sarkozy did a poor job. Perhaps the digital space was not the decisive battleground for the French presidential elections; nor did it have a role in materially influencing the ultimate winner. However, the manner in which social media was used clearly did not help. Bottom line, it was a missed opportunity to help promote digital media and encourage investment in the digital space.

Relatively weak impact of the web

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The graph above from the French business newspaper Les Echos (article in French) shows how relatively little the web was considered as a source of information for following the French presidential elections. However, between social networks (5%), non-media websites (6%) and pure player media web sites (13%), there was plenty of room for a marginal impact. Considering most democratic elections are won and lost by rather small margins (1% to 3%), even these small audiences might have had an influence. The methods employed by the two candidates on social media were little changed from those of mass media; thus, there was little hope that the tide might be altered by a change of channel.

More concerned with the negative than the positive

The biggest concern among political circles was about how social media might screw up the elections by revealing the winner before the final “big” announcement at the end of the day. French electoral laws were never revised despite social media being around for more than 5 years. In a string of surreal moments of coverage of the Election Day by TV and radio stations alike — featuring many traditional journalists and prominent analysts — none was allowed to comment on their Twitter streams or Facebook messages, many of which were noteworthy and extremely humorous. The second ornery problem that faced the media oversight body (CSA), which must ensure that all candidates receive equal airtime, was how to cap (much less measure) social media airtime. The concept of shared and earned media takes on new meaning in this context. Overall, the preoccupations of the governing bodies and political candidates seem to speak more to a mindset and culture of fear & control.

General lack of innovation

Outside of the badges that Sarkozy offered on his website (largely for propagating information), much like Foursquare badges, there was nothing of interest or new in either of the two campaigns. Moreover, neither of the camps established a presence on Pinterest or Tumblr, and neither saw fit to create a blog. Worse, the only presence on Pinterest was a parodical board for Nicolas Sarkozy. Sometimes, the message is in the media. Clearly, in this case, the message was nothing new. The only valid strategy that caught my attention was that the Socialist Party evidently budgeted its social media activities under market research. Even if this strategy was somewhat obscured from the public eye, it is safe to say that using social media as market research to test and improve campaign messages is a smart investment in resources, especially when messages are time sensitive.

Effective offline is a good recipe for strong online community

I believe it’s fair to say that if you don’t know how to build community offline, you will probably struggle online. Neither Sarkozy nor Hollande were born to be community builders, men of the people. And it showed. Their campaigns were one-way, non conversational and sterile. At best, the Facebook and Twitter presences were a pure reproduction of the message on other media.

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Here is a revealing (and condemning) table of the Twitter presences of Hollande and Sarkozy and how they stacked up against Obama. The figures were taken as of May 6, 2012 (when the second and final round took place).

Brian Solis 2
*The account was essentially dormant up until the autumn of 2011.
** @fhollande was put into action essentially only in the last six months leading up to the elections, so the de facto average in 2012 was more like 30/day.

To put the number of followers into perspective, there are some 5.2 million Twitter accounts in France(1) versus 108 million in the USA. Although one cannot extrapolate with any degree of accuracy, the penetration of Obama on the US Twitter population is clearly markedly higher. As another benchmark, Britain’s PM David Cameron has over 2 million followers (versus 23 million accounts in the UK).

The daily tweet rate per day was absurdly high for Sarkozy (48.3) compared to Obama (2.1). In reality, Hollande’s number was equally ridiculous. The 3.5 figure is low merely because Hollande’s account lay dormant for 3 years. For both candidates in the run-up to the election, their Twitter stream was an incessant parade of communications, bereft of any conversation, much less personality. Hollande’s account had, to his credit, many first person tweets, but they were mixed in with a plethora of campaign slogans and political communications with a deliberate opaqueness as to who was the author. Sarkozy opted for just a few personal tweets, signed “–ns.” Clearly, however, neither candidate has, what I like to call, a high “digital IQ.”

The number of following-to-followers is substantially lower for Hollande at 1 followee for every 42 followers. On this score, Sarkozy was oddly on par with Obama. Obviously, Sarkozy “woke up” to Twitter on the eve of the elections: radically unprepared for any community build or social campaign. And, most revealing, neither of Sarkozy or Hollande’s camp invited engagement and constructive community building. Twitter was treated merely as another one-way channel of communication. At best, it was adversarial. At worst, it was dictatorial.

If the digital space, eCommerce and social media were sorely missing from the political debate, the opportunity to use the elections to “move” the public by example and to have a material impact on the economy was equally missed. For members of the C-suite of large organizations intending to figure out the scope, dynamics and potential impact of digital and social media on their business, the lessons of how not to run a campaign are multiple.

Epilogue

Twitter has made more news in France since the elections than before, thanks to an ill-advised tweet by France’s First Lady and Hollande’s current “partner,” Valerie Trierweiler. The latter tweeted her support for a candidate standing against Ségolène Royal, who was none other than Hollande’s former partner (and the Socialist Party’s failed presidential candidate in 2007). If you don’t know the story, check it out here on the New York Times; it reads like high drama. The @fhollande account has since risen to 411,000 at time of writing (July 4), adding 90,000 since his election. In the same period, @NicolasSarkozy has added 40,000 followers, despite not having tweeted once more since May 6 and having disappeared from circulation. Not much to write home about I would suggest.

(1) Based on the figures from Semiocast, end of 2011.  It is safe to say, based on anecdotal evidence, that the number of accounts in France has grown substantially in the first half of 2012.

By Minter Dial, 2012, President of The Myndset. You can follow Minter on Twitter @mdial or connect by email: Minter@themyndset.com.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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