GE16 — The War of the Words

The 2016 general election is barely a week old, but already there are election posters suspended on nearly every lamp-post across the country and home-owners are well used to answering their doors to canvassers. With 26 February looming large, the political elites are scrambling to communicate their vision to the electorate, while simultaneously launching staunch critiques of their rivals, with soundbites largely being preferred to statements of substance.

Political spin is not exclusive to election campaigns, but it is during these short and intense periods that we expect the spin to be at its most cutting, incisive, and, at times, antagonistic. However, thus far too much of this spin is lacking in any real substance. The quotes and missives that are being dispersed through social media and email are longer than what you might fit on a poster, but not by much. This is not to say there is no place for this sort of spin, but it cannot come at the expense of more substantive discourse.

This is especially important given the many agendas and narratives to follow in this campaign. On one hand Fine Gael and Labour are determined to defend their record government over the past five years, while both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are putting themselves forward as viable alternatives. There is also the case of the smaller parties – such as the Greens, and the both the Social Democrats and Renua who are contesting their first election – who may yet find themselves in the position of king-makers in any future coalition if they can impress the electorate.

Given these high stakes, the rhetoric of the campaign has been strongly partisan. One need only peruse the social media accounts of any of the political parties to attest to this. While it is debatable whether #GE2016 is the first Irish general election to fully embrace the social media revolution, there is no doubting the huge volume of tweets and statuses that have already been posted.

It remains to be seen to what extent the party Twitter pages will have an impact on the result of 26 February, but the there is no doubting that large audience this medium is catering too. The twitter accounts of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour and Sinn Féin each have in excess of 19,000 followers with Sinn Féin boasting the largest number at about 41,300.

On the basis of these numbers alone, it is worth considering the value of this medium and the messages they transmit. Most carry the quote of a prominent candidate, or some graph or image seeking either to boost the claims of the party the account represents or to belittle its rivals.

One of the more notable examples of this comes courtesy of Labour, and a highly charged tweet attacking a Sinn Féin proposal to have one-third of TDs elected through the list system of voting. It is not necessary to dwell on the specifics of the list system here save to mention that it is a system of voting widely used across Europe, with Italy and Spain among its proponents. You would not get this sense in the Labour tweet however which instead reads, “SF’s list opens way for people like their friend Slab Murphy appointed to Dail”.

Whether you view this tweet as a clever bit of spin or a below-the-belt put down is down to your own interpretation but it is certainly a rather misleading tweet from Labour, and one that makes a proposal that has many supporters appear to be a move motivated by cronyism. The election would be more boring without these provocative statements, but it is doubtful that the electorate would welcome any adoption of Donald Trump’s childlike taunt tactics.

While posts on twitter are subject to the 140 character limit, there is no such hindrance elsewhere. You could be forgiven for not realising this though with much of the election discourse focused on buzzwords and short soundbites that reveal little of any substance. Compare these two messages on the economy courtesy of Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil respectively. The former promises to “give families a break” if elected, while the latter state they will introduce “fair and affordable” policies. What can be said about these statements? Besides saying that the first contains four words compared to the latter’s three, there is essentially no substance to the comments.

While the parties are hoping to resonate with voters by using these soundbites, the electorate cannot be expected to wait long for the finer details. It hardly bears repeating that there is much at stake for the parties and candidates over the next few weeks but for all their ambitions, the voters will be the biggest losers of an unsatisfying campaign. They will be hoping there is more substance to come.


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