South Africa Election 2014: the social media wars

With only one day left before South Africa’s fifth democratic general election, Reprobate decided to revisit the social media performance of local political parties and their leaders. Back in September 2013 we compiled a set of infographics, Twits or Twitterati: Social media & South African politics, in which we compared Twitter and Facebook accounts to demonstrate which parties and party leaders were winning the political social media wars. In this new set of infographics we compare social media data from September 2013 with data from May 2014 to illustrate which parties and leaders have grown their digital footprint over the past eight months.

We first took a look at the Twitter and Facebook growth of South Africa’s main political parties as well as a couple of brand new parties, Agang and the EFF. We also included the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), due to its influence and membership of the tripartite alliance.

South Africa Elections 2014 Social Media

What is quite obvious from a general perspective, is that support for political parties on social media constitute only a small fraction of South Africans active on Facebook and Twitter. Total followers and likes for all parties was 674,000 compared to 9.4 million unique users on Facebook and 5.5 million on Twitter.

Have South Africans become politically apathetic or are the parties not doing enough to engage voters? For one, it seems that sports teams elicit a higher level of loyalty or interest than political parties. One Johannesburg based football club, Kaizer Chiefs, has 256,000 followers on Twitter and 1.2 million Facebook likes, almost double the social media support of all the parties combined.

Among the parties themselves, three have shown substantial growth over the past eight months. The ANC and DA have both grown their social media following with over 160%, while the EFF grew with 80%. In absolute terms the ANC grew with 159,000 supporters, the DA with 106,000 and the EFF with 57,000.

As we warned in our previous analysis, one must be careful to read too much into these stats, since there are many variables, such as internet access, that may create a distorted picture of party support. For example, a small party like Freedom Front Plus has 23,600 Facebook likes and 4,450 Twitter followers, far more than Cope, which received a million more votes than the Freedom Front’s 147,000 in the 2009 election. Parties with substantial rural support, such as the Inkatha Freedom Party, seem less inclined to devote time and energy to social media. If that is because of a perception that rural people don’t utilise social media or because of party laxness can only be speculated.

One should also not discount the influence of instant messaging applications like Mxit, which had 6.3 million South African subscribers in 2013. In January the ANC launched a nationwide Mxit app following the success of its Western Cape Mxit application, which gained more than 400,000 subscribers last year.

There is however value in comparing growth over a period of time, as we have done here, both as an additional indicator of support trends and as an indication of party engagement with the public.

Next we had a look at the Twitter accounts of selected political party leaders. DA leader, Helen Zille, was the unsurprising winner of the daily tweets award, thrashing her competitors with 24 tweets a day. Not necessarily a good thing when you consider mounting instances of foot-in-mouth disease and distracting twitter wars with journalists. Less-is-more seems to apply equally to the tweetosphere. The undisputed king of the ‘less-is-more’ philosophy is president Jacob Zuma whose Twitter following grew with 46,000, despite not having anything to tweet about for 211 days, Nkandla included. No surprises there either.

In absolute terms Julius Malema with 446,000 and Helen Zille with 410,000 Twitter followers are still the pace setters, a role they already assumed last year. Also not bucking a trend is Zulu prince and Inkatha Freedom party leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who is probably still unsure what exactly Twitter is. Hence no account.

In conclusion it is obvious that some parties and party leaders have embraced social media with gusto while others have ignored it. In general, higher levels of engagement with the public seem to have paid off with substantial growth in online support. The fact that individual party leaders have far greater support on social media than the political parties themselves, supports the notion that South African politics are still very much personality instead of policy based.

This will be the first South African election that will be intensely scrutinised for the role that social media played in the success of the various political parties. With further substantial internet and social media growth in South Africa foreseen, it is a role that can only become more important in the future. The 7th of May 2014 will give us an indication of how important that effect has been up to now.