Reading between the lines of social media politics
For the first time ever, we are seeing a major shift in how election messages are being given out to the public.
As we are all the receivers of political messaging and engagement, it’s important to understand how everything comes together.
Traditionally, an election means news stories about candidates. For Samoa, these are fairly tame. Most people emerge without a hint of tar and only a slight ruffling of feathers.
The juicier election stories are almost always confined to background noise; within earshot but mostly within the arena of idle gossip and unfounded rumour.
But we are in the age of information and times, they are a changing.
Prior to the 2020 US Primaries and Presidential election, the first US election where social media or online information became a driving force was the 2008 race for the Whitehouse.
History notes that “the 24/7 news cycle and the proliferation of blogs as a means of disseminating information (both factual and erroneous) framed the contest as both campaigns attempted to control the narrative”.
As we have seen in subsequent elections in the US, the use of social media platforms has completely changed the game.
We might be 13 years behind, but the tide is beginning to turn for our small island nation.
New political challengers Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) have, from the outset, embraced social media platforms as a preferred medium while undergoing the trials experienced by newer opposition parties, coming up against powerful ruling parties.
Think, David and Goliath but without the biblical moral high ground.
F.A.S.T. have been live streaming their every move - from major milestones and party activities to their post-roadshow celebrations where viewers were able to watch as the candidates and supporters relaxed over a few cold beers, toasting themselves to future success.
As we have said in previous editorials - oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.
So it is incumbent upon, well, the incumbents, to do their absolute best to maintain whatever buy-in they might have with constituents and their supporters.
That ‘maintaining’ has involved a lot of Parliamentary jibber jabber and media interviews leading nowhere new.
But now, an interesting development from last week has seen the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) surprisingly, and finally, launch a social media campaign; unveiling their social pages only three weeks out from pre-polling week.
Does this mean our ruling political powers-that-be are finally coming around to 21st century norms?
Are they finally accepting their own Samoa 2040 talk about a digital economy?
The Samoa 2040 plan by government acknowledges that “the external environment is constantly changing, and Samoa must position itself to take advantage of likely trends and respond to ongoing challenges”.
The plan’s outlook on the growth of our digital economy states that we need “better connectivity and a technology-savvy workforce” to help ease the “constraints associated with Samoa’s remoteness from major markets, expand the scope for e-commerce, trade in services and entrepreneurialism”.
These aspirations are great to read, and progressive in theory.
But they aren’t quite in sync with what government has been doing.
In July last year, this newspaper reported on government’s consideration to ban the platform. The consideration, according to the Prime Minister, was because government had received numerous complaints from victims of Facebook abuse.
“The suggestion came from members of the public for the government to consider this and we are entertaining the idea, similar to other countries,” said Tuilaepa.
“This is a result of defamation which continues to be a huge problem.”
A few days ago on the front page of the Sunday Samoan, we reported that the Prime Minister sought advice last September from the Samoa Law Reform Commission about election Facebook bans by other countries, and whether other countries had imposed taxes on social media sites to gain a share of their revenue.
The advice being sought on banning and advice about revenue possibilities is at odds with each other.
On the one hand, there seems to be a total disregard for social media such as Facebook; and then on the other hand, there is a curiosity about potential revenue streams from Facebook, for the state purse.
A case of wanting the honey, but not the bee sting?
Perhaps it has to take a global pandemic coinciding with an election to force us to move faster towards embracing a digital economy.
By now, most people know the power of social media.
Maintaining a sense of community and inclusion, despite the physical separation and isolating distance, is crucial to keeping the wind in our sails.
The F.A.S.T. party, rather smartly, embraced social media early to reach their preferred audiences.
Their use of the live streaming feature isn't revolutionary, as government has been doing this for some time now, but the engagement factor is something new.
We have seen F.A.S.T. candidates speaking directly to online audiences, updating and bringing them in to their world.
There is a personal connection being made with their supporters. Every milestone is streamed live or recorded and shared online.
But the Prime Minister has been doing this for many years in his weekly media interviews.
So what’s the difference between the Prime Minister’s informal ‘chats’ with the media, and F.A.S.T.’s social media campaign? Not much really.
They are both very popular and more or less exercises in public relations.
Where F.A.S.T. has garnered much of their growing support was in galvanizing our diaspora through online engagements and inclusion, whilst also reaching families and communities locally.
This is something the Prime Minister has not been able to do, due to his continued dismissal of the diaspora, and his party’s miscalculation of social media.
F.A.S.T’s super combo of online presence and community grassroots awareness is what continues to feed their party’s momentum, and the community’s buy-in to their calls for change.
That should have raised the alarms or a call to action for H.R.P.P. months ago.
Where F.A.S.T. has been imploring for months to local voters and their overseas families to believe in their promised overhaul of contentious government policies; H.R.P.P. has, for the past week, been outlining an impressive checklist of achievements and milestones over the last four decades of power.
As neutral observers, it is fascinating to see the differences in messaging and approach.
It’s essentially – experience versus something fresh, something new. Even the colours they chose give insight in to what they represent.
If Carl Jung – the father of analytic psychology - is to be believed, colour is the mother tongue of the subconscious.
Red for F.A.S.T., Blue for H.R.P.P.
Looking at it from a marketing lens, red is a colour of urgency. It is said to stimulate the body, raising blood pressure and heart rates. This colour is associated with passion, excitement, movement. It is essentially a call to action.
The colour blue is usually associated with peace, tranquility, reliability; and is preferred by men. This colour is mostly used by conservative brands to promote trust and security. It has been said that blue is the colour of communication, intelligence and trust.
As we see it, this is in sync with what each party is offering on their social media platforms, and provides a challenge for voters as they consider their options before polling day.
We’ve talked about F.A.S.T. a lot in recent months. The simple answer as to why, is because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. So they feel more confident to speak to this newspaper and dissect existing policies and give opinions about what they like or don’t like.
But it’s always easy to throw red, hot stones from the sidelines. As yet we have not seen nor heard any detailed plans laid out to support major claims they have been making.
In comparison, government unveiled their Samoa 2040 plan, which sets out where they intend to lead the country. In whatever way we might disagree with some parts of the plan, at least there is a plan on the table.
Aside from the Covid-19 pandemic, the greatest challenge this country is facing is the recession. Whether you’re red or blue, the dark cloud of an economic recession renders all a dull grey.
So while the social media pages are wild with activity and provide excellent outreach and awareness points, what this country and the voters deserve is real talk – and real details - about what is going to happen over the next year, or two or five.