Opinion | The path to re-election is paved with social media

With local elections coming up in six months, mayors should have their media strategies in place and be leading their election campaigns from every platform available. This is far from the case. According to new figures, just under every fourth mayor does not have a Facebook profile. And for the vast majority, Twitter is beyond their conception. A meagre ten percent use this increasingly crucial platform to communicate with voters.

While Copenhagen Mayor Frank Jensen (Socialdemokraterne) regularly suggests political initiatives and introduces initiatives on Facebook, the opposite is the case on Twitter. Here, he wrote his most recent tweet in 2011, despite having more than 1,000 followers and potential voters. Even less visible on Twitter is the mayor of Høje-Taastrup and chief negotiator for the national association of local councils (KL) during the teachers’ conflict, Michael Ziegler (Konservative). He wrote his first and only tweet back in April. The most active mayor on Twitter is Aarhus Mayor Jacob Bundesgaard (Socialdemokraterne). But he is the exception that proves the rule: mayors have yet to take social media to heart.  

The author is a political analyst and an editor

While Morten Østergaard, the higher education minister, announced news about SU reform on Twitter, and Margrethe Vestager, the economy minister, followed suit with the first part of the stimulus package, mayors are conspicuous in their absence from social media. Using social media as a political communication tool seems to be something only Copenhagen’s councillors do – especially the younger candidates for mayor.

Considering the limited activity on social media, it comes as no surprise that voter turnout in local elections four years ago was the lowest in 35 years. Young people, in particular, are staying away from the polls. In 2009, the voting rate for 18 to 30-year-olds was below 50 percent, and it appears it will be even lower in November’s local elections.

Traditional electoral meetings at assembly halls, balloons along pedestrian streets and billboards hanging from lamp-posts are no longer sufficient to capture voter attention – especially the young. Young people also ignore regional and local news. They are, however, active on social media. Every fourth mayor deliberately opting out of Facebook is the equivalent of politicians in the 1950s ignoring television as the new medium of communication. Many mayors and candidates have simply failed to understand social media’s modern world and the unique opportunity it presents for supporting local democracy and local politics.

Social media has become the online version of the assembly halls. Three million Danes are currently on Facebook. Journalists and political analysts extensively use both Facebook and Twitter. Politicians who are inactive on social media miss out on opportunities to solidify their profiles, make political announcements and get honest feedback from voters and journalists.

And when mayors complain about the diminishing interest in local politics in the traditional media, it is even more remarkable that so many of them neglect social media as a platform to communicate with voters. Particularly when a recent study revealed that 88 percent of journalists use social media to uncover political news stories and that every third political personage story currently comes from Twitter or Facebook.

Tweets and status updates are no longer restricted to the internet, but are increasingly being employed in the traditional media as viable news stories.

Here are a couple of advantages mayors can benefit from:

  • Obtain editorial freedom and ability to decide agendas independent of the media
  • Make local politics accessible and interesting to readers
  • Reinforce citizens’ sense of belonging to a local community
  • Reach a broader circle of potential voters
  • Enable a clearer identification with the person who bears the mayoral chain
  • Increase trustworthiness by meeting voters as an equal
  • Ensure greater transparency and guarantee a clear-cut profile

The declining interest in local politics can very quickly come to reinforce itself, as others come to feel that local politics are unworthy of their time. But mayors have only themselves to blame for the declining attention. Important local stories never see the light of day. These stories deserve to be told and supported, but they aren’t getting sent to constituents via social media.

If local councillors still want to be in office six months from now, they must make an effort to use social media. There are many other candidates – waiting in the wings – including 26 parliamentary candidates who are more accomplished at communicating and profiling themselves on Facebook and Twitter.