Social media platforms are outperforming traditional forms of media in communicating news and trends with younger voters.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and LinkedIn are broadening the reach of political rhetoric globally. However, South Africans still tend, to coin a phrase, to ‘knock it before they’ve tried it’. Yet, younger constituents flood to these platforms. South African politicians tend to focus their reach solely on Twitter, with little regard for other platforms. But it is at their peril that political campaigners ignore other platforms such as Instagram and LinkedIn. 

Increasingly, generations Y and Z flood to these platforms. According to the 2019 Digital report by Hootsuite, there are 23 million active users on social media platforms in South Africa. This statistic is all the more significant given that 27% of those users are between the ages of 18 and 24, and 33% between 25 and 34. Thus, the report suggests, 60% of social media users are between 18 and 34. According to the IEC, 21% of voters registered were under 30. Given the poor voter turnout among this age group, one would think politicians would be in thrall to such potential social-media reach.

Judged against these statistics, it seems that the political elites are missing an opportunity. A microcosm of this mentality is the level of disdain shown by older constituents toward the global trend of Social Media Influencers. Younger voters connect with an online community, which leads them to become activists for anything from climate change and veganism to a collective Trump dysphoria. Whether these fads are based on truth or fiction is not as relevant as the fact that youngsters are taking action in the name of these movements. The hook simply suggests that influencer marketing is working.

Globally influential marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuk, also known as Gary Vee, is a vocal advocate of using social media at scale. Vaynerchuk holds that creating content on each platform four times a day is crucial to building brand consciousness. Moreover, he suggests that TikTok and LinkedIn have the most organic reach. What this means is that if South African politicians fail to create content daily, an opportunity to grab the attention of a sizeable chunk of the electorate is wasted, particularly among those who will be eligible to vote in future election cycles.

Twitter is simply not enough to reach a younger audience. In fact, according to the Hootsuite report, only 1.67 million people use Twitter, yet a staggering 4 million use Instagram. Creating content at scale on Instagram is important not just to reach a younger constituent base, but appears to be the only way to reach a significant block of voters who are apolitical. Yet, a simple search for prominent politicians and commentators on Instagram produces a no results found response, or takes you either to parody accounts or to valid accounts with posts predating the establishment of the refreshment station in Table Bay. In this digital age, one cannot lament the lack of young voter turnout if one is not engaging with them.

My personal experience of engaging with high school debating students shows that they have a collective belief in the values of the free-market, liberalism and the consensus that socialist and communist policies are dangerous to democracy and liberty. However, these students are often forgotten when politicians try to rebuild on past successes by targeting older constituents instead. While the latter are important, one need look no further than a marketing adage ‘If you want the parents to come, then target the child’s needs’, one of the best-known results of which was the innovative Kids’ menu.

This point goes to the heart of the communication disconnect between politicians and younger voters. One election, when I was still too young to vote, my mother was on her way to vote. I remember pondering the catastrophic events which Mr Zuma had presided over. I sent my mother a WhatsApp message telling her that I knew she believed in the ANC and that I respected that, but that I felt the ANC could no longer be trusted, and would destroy our country and that she could not be complicit in it. My mother, who, from the very start, had only ever voted ANC, changed her vote for the first time. She told me that my message struck a chord and made her realise that the ANC were not entitled to her vote just because of Nelson Mandela.

Unless liberal politicians embark on a social media crusade, we will be doomed to the days of yellow T-shirts, red berets and combo meals from popular take-away chains. Teenagers have persuasive power over their parents, who trust their progeny. Creating a space for dialogue on their terms and on their time is not only essential for social media reach, but is an extremely efficient means of communication. Driving down the road and hooting with a megaphone might grab attention or trigger giggles, but the real point of contact is via the smartphone. Kids are living in a reality which is intuitively associated with where their world is going rather than the world they come from.

One need only observe American politics to understand the gravity of the communications revolution South Africa is on the cusp of. Virtually all members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, with a move to TikTok being imminent. Political commentators in the United States have amassed followings that would put ANC handout rallies to shame. One is Turning Point USA, founded by Republican Charlie Kirk, which has spurred a student movement on college campuses across the US, and hits back at mainstream-media coverage of the Republican Party. Another figure is Andrew Yang, a Democrat presidential candidate in 2020, who has created a sizeable movement and gained the attention of political pundits on the left and right. His followers call themselves the Yang Gang.

Social media will not be the magic wand that will magically consign the ANC and EFF to the dustbin of history. What it will do, one hopes, is create a significant dent in their voting pool via a revolutionary political campaign that could change South African history.

The determinant for success in the 2021 local government election will be which party and candidates are active not just on the streets, but in the rectangular devices we all have access to 24 hours a day. If campaign managers don’t have the vision to believe in this ethos, better we part with them now or risk the black-draped podiums that only breathe life into our common enemy.

 The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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