Politics on social: How to ride on a trending hashtag effectively

With the 14th Malaysian general election just around the corner, political parties in Malaysia have been ramping up their campaigning efforts in a bid to garner more votes. Likewise, netizens have also created social media hashtags to get all Malaysians more involved in the elections.

Among the list of popular hashtags include #PulangMengundi, #CarpoolGE14, #undirabu and #Malaysiamemilih, some of which have been making its rounds online since January this year. With various hashtags circulating on social media, this can potentially open up opportunities for political parties to leverage the social movement and strengthen their campaigning.

Ryan Lim, founding partner and principal consultant of QED Consulting, said political parties should only show support for social movements that they genuinely believe in. He added:

Leveraging on social movements is like riding the wave created by an online mob.

"Such movements can (and usually do) take a life of its own as they progress, because there is no individual steering it," Lim said. However, he said that it is easier to ride a wave on social media than create one because there is a potential for companies to not reap the rewards despite allocating numerous resources to create social movements.

The downfall Lim said, is that social movements to be unsustainable as they public might get distracted by another online trending topic. Sometimes, the social movement might have "insufficient velocity" to be known as a movement.

Also weighing in on the issue is Isobar Malaysia's lead strategist Tanvi Singh, who described social media as a "great channel" to interact and have two-way communication with audience. As such, it is a highly relevant platform for all individuals, be it marketers, businesses or public services departments, as well as outreach programmes and understand netizens' pain points.

"We live in a post-truth advertising era and the power of internet is making sure brands deliver promises they give. Same goes for election campaigns looking to leverage social media to create awareness on their mission and visions to the people of the nation," she said. Singh added:

It is a channel for honest communication for brands and election candidates alike and that’s how it should be used.

The marriage of politics and social

Politicians are increasingly taking to social media to connect with members of the public and their supporters. Individuals such as Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and US President Donald Trump, for example, have built a significant following on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

With the rise in popularity of social media, having a political presence on those platforms should be seen by politicians as a "critical requirement" and not an option, QED's Lim said.

Social media enables politicians to extend their reach to the intended voters and public, as there is limited ground politicians can cover when they campaign door-to-door. Meanwhile, mainstream media, which is often one of the platforms used by politicians during the campaigning period, may be a costly and limited option as there are several candidates jostling for limited airtime. Lim said:

A sophisticated politician would have already worked the 'online ground', building a significant online presence to articulate what they stand for.

However, he added that this relationship building requires investment of time and resources over an extended period to be effective.

While it is beneficial for politicians to have a presence on social media, they should also be mindful of the need to preserve a balance between being overly vocal and maintaining an image that is representative of their political party. Lim said that being outstanding (or vocal in this case) is a technique to cut through the clutter and be noticed online by voters who have limited attention spans.

"Taking a vocal or strong opinion, and being representative of the party are not necessarily mutually exclusive. So to be remembered by voters, some take a strong (and usually vocal) opinion to issues," he said. Lim added that this approach is often more effective compared to a neutral approach, i.e. politicians being unbiased to any issues, which can result in "blending into obscurity.

(Photo courtesy: 123RF)

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