Is Personalisation of Politics in Social Media a good or bad ingredient for democratic political processes?

Wednesday December 25 2019

 

By Aikande Kwayu, Banita Lal, and Yogesh Dwivedi

It is widely acknowledged that social media presents a new form of ‘personalization’ previously not provided by traditional communication media. Political personalization is a “process in which the political weight of the individual actor in the political process increases over time, while the centrality of the political group (i.e., political party) declines” (Rahat and Sheafer, 2007, p.65).

Arguably, social media enables the shift of attention from political parties to politicians as individual politicians engage with citizens directly. Different forms of interaction, communication and personalization become possible and overcome the limitations of traditional communication media such as television, newspapers and other print media. These developments are often said to bring politics closer to citizens, increasing their political engagement in politics.

It has been found that highly interactive and personalized online communication does increase citizens’ political involvement (Kruikemeier et al, 2013). This ‘political personalization’ is a “process in which the political weight of the individual actor in the political process increases over time, while the centrality of the political group (i.e., political party) declines” (Rahat and Sheafer, 2007, p.65).

It is debatable whether this – in the short- and long-term – is a good thing. By focusing on a particular politician and the content that they post, citizens may focus less on the party’s wider political agenda. Thus, the nature of the political identity as perceived by citizens may change, especially given citizens’ increasing reliance on social media for political news.

In addition, as well as presenting politicians with unique opportunities to interact with citizens, the shift in attention from political parties to particular individual politicians results in more focus on the individual politician’s competences, private lives and emotions (Adam and Maier, 2010). For example, despite some of his content being controversial and much attention being given to his competences and attitude, Trump has been successfully elected. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is also well known for his savvy use of social media platforms for political engagement with citizens. Kapoor and Dwivedi (2015) argued “one of the biggest reasons favouring Modi’s 2014 electoral win is said to be his use of social media to directly connect with the masses of the country.” PM Modi also made aggressive use of social media for the 2019 general election campaigning, which we believe again resulted in positive outcomes for both him and his party.

His public engagement meetings are often live streamed, which helps him to reach out to his geographically dispersed audience. Such live streaming results in a significant number of likes and comments, which shows the direct connection of an individual leader with his/her audience. For example, a public engagement rally conducted my PM Modi in New Delhi on 22nd Sep 2019 was live streamed on Facebook and resulted in 280K likes, 97K comments, 34K shares and 3.9 million views (Facebook, 2019). Such engagements are not just restricted to supporters but also those with differing views.

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A number of politicians in Tanzania from different political parties are actively engaged on social media. These include January Makamba, Zitto Kabwe, Halima Mdee, Godbless Lema, John Heche, John Mnyika and Hamis Kigwangalla. Each has a significant following ranging between 190K to 950K on Twitter alone. Examination of their interaction on social media reflects a mixed content of politics, lifestyle and attitude.

Although their political engagement is often alongside their political parties’ lines, the interactions are personal and do not represent the official political party stance. As a result, each of these politicians has created their own ‘virtual constituencies’ that are beyond their political party affiliation and the physical constituencies that they represent in the House of Parliament.

This personalization can further be understood by the analysis of the political parties’ social media practices. In Tanzania, both of the main political parties – CCM and CHADEMA – have social media accounts which are used for communication and, at times, mobilization purposes. ACT-Wazalendo, which is an emerging party, has a social media strategy and uses the platforms in a relatively more systematic way than the main two parties.

However, none of the parties hinder their Members’ of Parliament (MPs) from running their own accounts for personal communication, engagement and mobilization. As a result, citizens tend to pose political related questions, comments, criticisms and suggestions directly to politicians as opposed to political parties. This has led to more engagement with the politician’s personal accounts than the official party accounts.

The personalisation of politics has led to a situation whereby voting has become more unpredictable (Rahat and Pedersen, 2018). The recent elections in the UK - which saw the success of the Conservative party - is a very apt example for voting unpredictability: considering the apparent lack of popularity of Boris Johnson amongst many of the citizens in the UK due to his actions and comments, many could not imagine him becoming the Prime Minister. However, he did, which suggests that the election results were far from predictable.

In his first promotional election video, Johnson was caught ‘on his tea break’ answering twelve questions, including: ‘why are we having this election?’ Political writers have stated that whether you love him or hate him, Johnson’s social media strategy worked and attracted millions of views. Thus, this is a very personalized video which catches the Prime Minister during a ‘candid’ moment and which, in actual fact, is cleverly filmed. The video also gives the impression that he is a down-to-earth individual who does things that ‘are typically British’ and that we can ‘all’ relate to, such as walking the dog and eating fish and chips. Hence, it is asserted that both social media and traditional media in the UK helped Boris Johnson win the election as the Conservative party’s messaging was amplified at the expense of Labour. With regards to Labour, questions arise over why their social media strategy did not work despite a wealth of investment such as: ‘did the limited personalization as compared to intellectual political party messages contribute to his loss?’ and ‘is personalisation healthy for democratic political processes?’

One may speculate that perhaps the catchy slogans Make America Great Again and Get Brexit Done were key factors in the election of leaders in both the USA and UK and that, despite the controversial nature of both leaders, some citizens could overlook their flaws which were widely disseminated across social media platforms. By focusing on messages that were ‘crowd-pleasing’ and which tapped into citizens’ emotions – e.g. the frustrations of the never-ending Brexit saga – citizens were drawn in. As we have discussed in our previous articles, the concept of ‘honesty/fact’ is questionable on social media platforms due to issues such as bias, fake news and heavy editing of content that is intentionally portrayed. The limited capacity to check content for facts calls into question the reliability of information that is posted and the impact of the same on the democratic political processes.

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