Now that advanced voting has begun, I will give my pre-election summary of the Echo Chamber Project NZ2017 here. I will comment on the way each party used Twitter for their campaign. I will generally not comment on their policies or on specific events that occurred during the campaign – if you want that you should read the news.
Although this is a summary of the election campaign, the campaigning is not over, and the project will continue until election day.
About the Echo Chamber Project NZ2017
This Echo Chamber Project, if you’re not familiar, is basically me monitoring the Twitter accounts of New Zealand’s political parties and sitting MPs, collating all the tweets for each party, summarising them in daily bulletins, and archiving any tweets that I have found to be deceptive or misleading.
If you don’t care for my opinion, feel free to peruse the echo chambers for yourself:
- Echo Chamber National: @EchoNZ2017N
- Echo Chamber Labour: @EchoNZ2017L
- Echo Chamber Green: @EchoNZ2017G
- Echo Chamber New Zealand First: @EchoNZ2017NZF
- Echo Chamber Maori Party: @EchoNZ2017M
- Echo Chamber ACT: @EchoNZ2017A
- Echo Chamber United Future: @EchoNZ2017UF
If you want to see me expose the lies, please refer to the False Tweets Archive.
Summaries for each party
Most of the time, National’s Twitter feeds are filled with photo-ops and schmoozing with various business-people around the country. If you judged them on their Twitter feeds alone, you’d think that they were a bunch of corporate aristocrats whose only role is to socialise with other corporate aristocrats. There are a few exceptions – Nikki Kaye tweeted a lot about the money spent on each individual school as Education Minister and appeared exceptionally hard-working, while Brett Hudson and Christopher Bishop sometimes linked to articles that directly contradicted their own assertions, presumably because they didn’t actually read the articles they linked. Up until July, there were some misleading quotes and misuse of statistics, but nothing egregious. For the most part, National’s strategy seemed to be to ignore the opposition and talk up their own accomplishments.
Then, starting from the second week of July, the character of the official National Twitter account changed markedly. The deceptive misuse of statistics and the misrepresentation of Labour’s policies started coming at a steady pace. There was a clear pattern of cherry-picking economic data to make National’s record on the economy seem rosier than it actually is. There was also the repeated conflating of “average income” with “middle New Zealand”, when it is actually the median that is the middle. After Jacinda Ardern took over Labour and started shifting the poll numbers, National felt compelled to attack Labour more. And then there was the @nzfactcheck account, run by National as partisan propaganda, but pretending to be neutral.
The deceptive tweets culminated in Steven Joyce’s “$11.7 billion fiscal hole”, and that was the point when National jumped the shark. They had gotten away with so much lying without the media noticing, but this one caught everyone’s attention, and a whole bunch of economists came out to explain that Joyce doesn’t know how to read a spreadsheet. The lies from National’s Twitter accounts continue, but if any businessperson still thinks they can be trusted to manage the economy, I don’t think those are rational voters. And if you think that maybe this is all Joyce’s shenanigans, you should note that the other National MPs will join his chorus without checking the numbers for themselves.
There was, of course, a difference between Andrew Little’s Labour and Jacinda Ardern’s Labour. Under Little, Labour’s tweets sounded like the opposition party, and most of the effort focused on the things that National did wrong. The things they said were factually correct, but it came across as a whole lot of nagging. They had their policies, and they were the usual Labour things. In principle, I think voters should vote for the policies they agree with, but I conceded that, in practice, many voters are more motivated by a sense of excitement. I was expecting Little to “do a Bernie” or “do a Corbyn”, by which I mean that the template for rallying the political left has already been demonstrated, and Little only needed to copy it. He never did, and I still don’t understand why.
But that doesn’t matter now, because Jacinda Ardern “did a Jacinda”. She said that her campaign would be relentlessly positive, and she meant it. Labour’s tweets went from nagging National to describing an aspiration vision for New Zealand. Again, I would prefer if voters voted on policy rather than personality, but I have to concede the reality that Jacinda’s personality draws in the voters. In truth, Labour’s policies haven’t changed that much since Andrew Little, but their attitude has, and maybe that is the important difference. It should be noted that, in this, I am not critical of Ardern or Labour as much as I am critical of the voters, who also seemed to like John Key more than his policies deserved.
For the most part, Labour avoided deceptive tweets, and the few that occurred early on could plausibly be attributed to genuine mistakes. During the leaders’ debates, however, their fact-checking at times got a little too economical with the details, but it was more a case of omitting the references rather than outright deception.
As far as I can tell, the Greens made no deceptive or misleading tweets at all. More than any of the other parties, the Greens seem comfortable with social media, and their echo chamber resembles a community of like-minded people. Throughout the campaign, the Greens demonstrated their remarkable competence at live-tweeting question times in parliament, and in the absence of similar live-tweeting from their opponents, their echo chamber sounded like they won every argument handily. They knew how to make themselves look smart, positive, and personable. Social media savvy out the wazoo.
There’s no secret who their friends are – the likes of Greenpeace, Forest and Bird, and other environmental groups are regularly retweeted into their echo chamber. Later in the campaign, after Metiria Turei got martyred (yes, I meant to use that word), the Greens used their platform to amplify the voices of beneficiaries, like @WeBeneficiaries. As their supporters became more active on social media and the election campaign ramped up, they were more frequently retweeted into the Greens echo chamber, too. The Greens are activists, they’re crowd-sourcers, many of them are millennials, they’re social media savvy. They win the internet.
Maybe they’re also idealistic and a bit lacking in political ruthlessness. If I asked their candidates whether they can be ruthless, I imagine none of them would give me a clear “yes”. You can decide for yourself whether that’s a positive or a negative.
New Zealand First
They have 12 MPs but only 3 tweet regularly. Mostly, they link to videos and media releases that few people would read in full. Sometimes, Winston Peters will tweet entire speeches in a thread, one sentence at a time. There are few graphics, and their black colour theme doesn’t help. New Zealand First uses Twitter the way old people would use Twitter, but given the demographics of their supporters, maybe that’s exactly right.
Winston Peters himself is a remarkably competent orator who is skilled at walking the fine line between saying the appropriate but suggesting the inappropriate, portraying his version of the story but without misrepresenting the facts in order to do so. Whether his followers can do likewise is a different story – you can see for yourself if you care to look through the replies to Winston’s tweets on immigration (spoiler: naked racism). Given the fine line that Winston is navigating, not a lot gets retweeted into the New Zealand First echo chamber – their message is tightly controlled. Despite that, there are still a few slips of the tongue from time to time, but if you dislike New Zealand First, you might be surprised at just how small their section in the False Tweets Archive is.
The Maori Party are the opposite of social media savvy, which is a shame, because they seem like awesome people. They use Twitter the way an ordinary person would, tweeting casually and retweeting things of interest. The problem is that we’re not talking about ordinary people, we’re talking about politicians who are meant to have a brand and a message and policies, who are meant to be out there winning votes. Maybe they want to be real. Maybe they hate doing publicity. I know I do, but you don’t see me going into politics.
I want to tell them to hire some publicity people, or train some, or ask the Greens for help. I want them to spend every day tweeting their kaupapa, in clear and concise sentences of 140 characters or less. I want them to use Twitter as a platform to amplify Maori voices. I want them to thump the metaphorical table and educate the ignorant masses on the real New Zealand history. I want them to use Twitter like it matters, because after a few hundred years of colonisation, using your voice really really matters.
And they seem like awesome people.
The David Seymour show. ACT doesn’t have policies as much as it has the opinions and musings of David Seymour, and those opinions are sometimes factually wrong or self-contradictory. Despite that, Seymour is an overachiever, prolific on Twitter and very good at communicating his message, whether you agree with that message or not. Everything he tweets is either himself or agreeing with himself. He definitely knows how to use Twitter to his advantage.
It used to be the Peter Dunne show, but now Damien Light has taken over the reins. Dunne seems like a reluctant tweeter, not eager to do publicity. Sometimes he’ll think of something to say, and he’ll link to a wordy blog post. If he were a private citizen, this would be fine, but he’s a politician supposedly competing for attention and for votes. Maybe he just doesn’t want to do that. Anyway, he’s not contesting this election any more. Damien Light seems more chatty on Twitter, but also is not a publicity machine. If there is still a United Future after election day, then maybe they’ll want to work on getting their message out efficiently on social media.