Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald (thumbs aloft) with Pearse Doherty (to her right) on the first Day of the 33rd Dáil on February 2,2020
One year on.
How Sinn Féin’s social media strategy dominated the 2020 online general election campaign
Bethany Langham writes:
On Saturday, February 8, 2020, before COVID vaccinations and lockdowns were a primary concern of the nation, the Republic of Ireland held an historic general election.
This election led to the unprecedented coalition of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party as well as the sudden upthrust of the Sinn Féin party.
Sinn Féin’s performance saw the party take home 535,573 votes in total which represented 24.5% of the Irish electorate. This was almost double the number of votes Sinn Féin received in the 2016 general election.
General Election results 2020
This surge was particularly surprising given Sinn Féin’s poor performance at the local and European elections in May 2019 which saw the party lose half of its council representation and two thirds of its European Parliamentary seats including MEP Lynn Boylan.
Political Scientist and Editor of ‘How Ireland Voted 2020’, Dr Theresa Reidy says the Sinn Féin party saw a trend among Irish voters and successfully appealed to the electorate:
“There was a kind of a general zeitgeist amongst the voters that they wanted to change, they wanted something different, but Sinn Fein tapped that more effectively than any of the other political parties.”
On Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show in May 2020, Sinn Féin TD and the party’s Director of Elections for 2020, Pearse Doherty claimed that Sinn Féin’s use of social media was a large contributing factor in their success with Irish voters.
Twitter, Instagram, Facebook follower-increase Aug’19- Jan ‘20
“We use social media” he told the programme. “There was over half a million interactions with our posts […] we read the comments and we answer the comments”.
In the six months before the election, posts on Sinn Féin’s Facebook page received over 750,000 reactions, comments and shares and its Facebook followers increased by 17%.
Between August 2019 and election day, 97% of the reactions to Sinn Féin’s Facebook posts were positive showing an engaged and devoted social media following.
This higher level of engagement was also seen on Instagram and Twitter where Sinn Féin accounts were interacted with much more than their counterparts.
Twitter, Instagram, Facebook follower-increase Aug’19- Jan ‘20
While Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael held their own in the opinion polls, this performance was not reflected online where they paled in comparison to Sinn Féin.
Of the 34,329 reactions to Fine Gael’s Facebook posts between August 2019 and February 2020, only 60% were positive. Fianna Fáil’s posts garnered 35,281 reaction-responses of which 68% were positive.
Positive reactions to Facebook posts Aug’19- Jan ‘20
Sinn Féin’s unexpected rise in popularity had a number of contributing factors such as the generational shift caused by new leadership in the Sinn Féin party and the disconnect between politicians in power and the Irish public.
But one arena Sinn Féin made sure to dominate was online and it used a number of tactics to do so.
One such tactic was how often Sinn Féin posted online.
Sinn Féin published a total of 2,342 posts on its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts between 4 August 2019 and 8 February 2020. Fianna Fáil posted 1,159 and Fine Gael just 673.
On Facebook alone, the Sinn Féin account posted 328 videos totaling in 13.6 million views.
Facebook video views, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin Aug’19- Jan ‘20
Despite posting the least amount of videos overall, Fine Gael had the most views per video on Facebook. According to Facebook’s Ad Library, out of the three largest parties Fine Gael were the biggest spenders on their Facebook Ad campaign for the election.
The party’s account posted 49 videos in the six months prior to the election which amounted to a total of 2.4 million views. This is an average of 7,872 more views per video posted than that of the Sinn Féin party’s Facebook account.
Of the party leaders of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar had the most successful Instagram account. As well as having been on Instagram for longer, Varadkar posted over twice as often as Mary Lou McDonald and Micheál Martin.
Unlike Fine Gael’s official accounts Varadkar significantly outperformed his counterparts on Instagram. Between August 2019 and February 2020 his account received nearly 12 times more interactions than McDonald’s and over 33 times more than Martin’s account received.
Since Varadkar’s speech regarding COVID-19 on 12 March, his Instagram following has seen a surge in activity with the former Taoiseach’s following going from 26,177 followers on 12 March to 187,687 by 1 January 2021.
The party’s familiar faces became their online cheerleaders.
Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty were selling points for the party. Posts in which they were featured received a very positive reaction. In the lead up to the election, both of these politicians were tagged and posted about more and more frequently on the Sinn Féin Facebook page.
The account’s most popular posts in the six months before the election all featured videos of Doherty and/or McDonald.
The most popular of these posts was a 1.5 minute-long clip of McDonald at the leaders debate on the Claire Byrne Live Programme on 27 January 2020. The caption read “And that’s a knockout by Mary Lou” .
As well as posting more frequently, Sinn Féin accounts and party members engaged with the public online.
The Sinn Féin Facebook account regularly replied to comments on their posts, answering questions, correcting what they saw to be misinformation and posting links to petitions.
The party also frequently posted the link to the Sinn Féin website encouraging its followers to sign up to become members of the party.
Between August 2019 and February 2020, Pearse Doherty personally replied to a number of comments. One example on 12 January led Doherty to provide his office phone number to a disgruntled Facebook user to talk about her concerns with the party. He also provided her with a day and time that he would be available to talk.
The Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou McDonald also engaged with the public online. McDonald too replied to Facebook comments on the Sinn Féin account. On 3 December 2019 in an Instagram post from the party’s account, McDonald asked the public to tell her of their personal experiences with the housing crisis by private message, comment or email at which point she provided her email address.
Sinn Féin’s social media accounts frequently asked to hear the experiences of its followers. When hosting a Facebook live video, Sinn Féin would ask its followers where they were watching from, promoting a type of inclusion and interactivity which was not visible on the pages of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
In the final weeks of the election campaign, Fianna Fáil hosted a Facebook live video event nearly every day. However, it did not actively interact with its followers or deviate from the seemingly prescribed format of two speakers on a podium.
Time For Change, Time For Sinn Féin
From the outset going into GE2020, Sinn Féin’s messaging was clear. Their campaign slogan, which was the title of the foreword of Sinn Féin’s manifesto, was “Time For Change, Time For Sinn Féin”.
In November 2019, this mantra of change started to crop up more frequently, no doubt ahead of the by-election held at the end of the month. It continued online throughout December and into the 2020 general election campaign, frequently seen in online posts of the party and echoed by members of Sinn Féin.
Towards the end of the campaign, Sinn Féin’s call for change was so ubiquitous it began to appear in the comments sections of other party’s pages.
On 3 February 2020, Fianna Fáil posted a video adopting this message of change and amalgamated it with its own manifesto slogan: “It’s time for change. Join us in building an Ireland for all”.
This was met with hostility with many users claiming Sinn Féin was the “real change”. The top comment of this post read: “call it a day you’ve passed your sell by date”.
Coming into the 2020 election, Sinn Féin had a larger online following than its opponents which may also have aided the party’s growth.
TD Matt Carthy and Sinn Féin’s Director of Elections in 2016, claims that during the 2020 election the party found that it was able to use “social media to direct the tenure of the campaign”.
According to Carthy, this was “a result of a number of years of really hard work on building up a social media presence, and using social media in a very clever way”.
Carthy says a new framework of messaging had been put in place shortly before the local and European elections of 2019.
“Clearly, we hadn’t done enough at that stage and we had suffered the bruising day at the polls back in May of 2019. But at the same time, I think we learned an awful lot of lessons from that campaign.”
Bethany Langham is a Galway-born, Dublin-based freelance video journalist