Why the 2017 New Zealand General Election Will Be Won Online

This September’s election will probably see just as many berms and back gardens sprouting the usual crop of billboards – but, more than ever before in New Zealand political history, voters will likely make up their minds off the back of what they hear via digital media.

The fact that a new battalion of social media-savvy Millennials has now hit voting age is, of course, a major driver for all political parties to up their online messaging, but the huge growth in Kiwis’ reliance on mobile devices and their demand for “instant” news, also means that political parties can’t ignore a new, vital part of their campaign strategy.

A major signal in this sea-change has been the tweak to the Broadcasting Act which means that public broadcasters don’t have to give up airtime to parties’ campaign messages. The Electoral Commission has also upped the amount taxpayers give parties to help them fight the election to $3.6 million, so the obvious question is that, if we’re not going to get those political ad breaks in the nightly news, where will all this money be spent?

With print media heading the way of the dinosaurs and even TV and radio broadcasters struggling to fight for cash and audience against the fresh, dynamic slew of digital platforms, it seems the obvious place for political parties to target voters is through their online accounts and mobile devices.

After all, with all the data and analysis on offer via social media and Google, it makes sense to target specifically those voters you know can make a difference with messages tailored to their lifestyles and choices as displayed via their online profiles.

The success of such strategies has already been felt in the US, where Donald Trump’s campaign used the electoral college system and careful big data analysis to take the White House without requiring the popular vote. In France, too, President Emmanuel Macron’s surprise (and meteoric) rise to power came after his campaign created the website En Marche which built a database based on 100,000 interviews and 25,000 questionnaires and used it to create real-time maps and demographics of key neighbourhoods, records of on and offline interactions with voters and volunteers, and manage newsletters, emails and SMS.

In the US and the UK, politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have realised that clever use of technology can also mean that having few staff on the ground doesn’t matter as much because you can target voters more directly via a medium many already accept. Just consider, for example, the usual recoil when a telemarketer calls you during a family dinner or your local wannabe MP knocks on your door while you’re about to sit down to watch Netflix – and compare it to the way you consider video ads on Facebook or YouTube. And now build into the equation the fact that neither your telemarketer or your local MP know you from a bar of soap, whereas your social media profile possibly knows your views on a huge swathe of election campaign issues, and it’s easy to see who has the upper hand when it comes to securing your vote.

The other highlight of this new digital campaigning is immediacy. You don’t have to watch 24-hour TV stations like Fox or CNN for long to realise that the breakneck speed of news in the 21st century has more traditional outlets scrambling to keep up. Setting an agenda is almost impossible.

But when a campaign can control its message instantaneously and reach tens of thousands of voters with a single tweet, post or YouTube video – and none of the recipients have to stand at a rally, read a leaflet left in their letterbox, or even get up to switch on the TV – then it’s clear that a coordinated online strategy is going to be key to delivering a swift, coherent message.

We’ve yet to hear the nuts and bolts of major parties’ digital campaign strategies – although the Conservative Party of NZ has proven to be an early adopter by holding its May 20 campaign launch via a free online webinar flowed by a town hall-style Q&A with party leader Leighton Baker – but all voters will certainly know when it kicks in.

Politics conducted by algorithm will be more obvious in New Zealand’s 2017 election than ever before – and it will only get more precise and more prevalent in subsequent election contests.

Politicians will talk to voters with pitches aimed at our family makeup, lifestyles, gender, ethnicity and education, the messages will be direct and seemingly specific to personal concerns; campaigns will no longer founder at the front door but find their way into voters’ everyday media consumption; it might just do away with voter apathy as more and more people feel politicians and parties understand individuals’ issues.

And, just maybe, we’ll be able to reclaim our berms and back gardens from those damned billboards.

Leave a Reply