It makes sense to fight on the battleground that suits us.
(This article is syndicated with permission from https://joblog.substack.com/p/all-around-the-world-elections-are)
There are seven months to go to the Local and European elections and maybe not much more than that until the General Election. And it doesn’t seem – if we continue the way we are – that we’re going to be all that successful when those elections come around.
We being the populist movement. That covers everyone from East Wall residents to the library invaders to all the small parties that have sprung up.
We have won the debate. As a result of us speaking up and making a lot of noise about immigration others feel they can speak out too. It was us (and the enormous number of economic refugees) who changed what it’s OK for respectable people to say. Now 75% of the population believe Ireland shouldn’t take any more immigrants.
But the next step, the step of organising ourselves in to something that the 75% feel they could vote for, that’s something we’ve failed to do – just look at the opinion polls – and if we continue as we are it looks like we’ll go on failing at that right up to the elections.
It’s not that we’re inept or not up to it. There’s been a host of forces lined up against us. In the last few weeks there does seem to have been a change among the political classes in relation to immigration but prior to that Ireland has been in the grip of a media and political monoculture to an extent not seen anywhere else in Europe and that monoculture dedicated itself to silencing us.
Making things even more difficult we came to this with practically none of us having any political experience and the politicians who do have that experience are wary of associating with us.
We have struggled to throw off the toxic labels that were attached to us. Those labels matter. Because of them those among us with the skills, training and talent that you need to grow a political organisation feel they have to keep their heads down and stay in the background. There are
people with those talents among us. Some of them were behind the recent very successful Free Speech event in the RDS for example.
But if you were young, recently out of college, with a great job in data analysis with a major US company in Dublin, would you want a photo out there on the internet of a anti-establishment party leader with his arm around your shoulder. No matter how arch Catholic you were, say, no matter that you agreed with every one of the party’s principles, no matter how much you’d like to see someone from our side elected, it still wouldn’t make sense to risk a picture like that being taken and ending up online.
And it’s people like that, young talented professionals, who build up parties and make them in to serious options for mainstream voters. Successful parties have three or four people like that for every public face you see.
The toxic labels that have been pinned on us mean such people can’t be seen to associate with us publicly. And that’s a major part of why the public don’t currently have a serious professional candidate with good messaging and a top level, well run campaign that they can vote for.
If things continue as they are it’s going to be another election with our candidates struggling to get to 1% of the vote.
Could a miracle happen on election day? Are huge numbers too scared to tell pollsters who they’re going to vote for and just waiting in the long grass, waiting for the privacy of the polling booth, before they help sweep us in to County Councils and Leinster House. Really?
A lot might change in the next seven months but pinning our hopes on that doesn’t seem like much of a strategy.
That would seem to be the situation as regards the upcoming elections. Rather uninspiring.
Níor dhún Dia claí nár oscail sé bearna.
God doesn’t close one door but he opens another.
Against all of that though there is a reason for hope. An opportunity exists to turn things around. There’s an option available to us that plays to the few strengths we have and if it’s taken up it could deliver a lot of what we’re missing.
In other countries the use of the internet in political campaigns is at an advanced stage. In Ireland, by comparison, it is in the stone age.
Bolsonaro in Brazil
In Brazil, back in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro became President thanks to WhatsApp. Internet is expensive in Brazil but WhatsApp is free. Bolsonaro was legally entitled to 8 seconds a week of TV time but reached 90% of Brazil over WhatsApp.
Ordinary Brazilians, Bolsominions and Influencers.
Ordinary Brazilians don’t trust mainstream media and see WhatsApp groups as safe spaces where they can learn more about Bolsonaro, verify rumours and news, and find memes and other content to share.
The WhatsApp groups function as echo chambers: every time a member posts polls results or other news, members rally behind them, cheering with the Brazilian flag or the handgun emoji.
Bolsominions His three sons and an ad hoc loyal volunteer army of Bolsominions administer WhatsApp groups and stand ready to ban infiltrators – or anyone who dares question their leader.
Influencers The Influencers in these groups are not the most outspoken or obviously active participants. Rather, they work backstage to create and share news and to coordinate protests online and in the real world.
They use sophisticated image and video editing software to create convincing and emotionally engaging digital content. They are smart and know how to manipulate content into memes and short texts that go viral.
They work fast to undermine any person or news outlet that criticizes Bolsonaro.
Influencers also scour YouTube and Facebook for posts which challenge Bolsonaro, and then share the poster’s profile link so the “Bolso-swarm” can descend upon them.
It remains unclear what role these WhatsApp groups will play after the election.
Will they serve as propaganda machines for his eventual government? Will they become the main source of “news” for his supporters?
Zemmour in France
In France, in December of 2021, Eric Zemmour was a commentator with one hour a week on a TV channel. By February he was a politician heading up an internet driven campaign for the Presidential election. And at 20% in the polls
If you look at nothing else look at him answering the tough questions here
FS: Why do you use such inflammatory language?
EZ: The country is on fire. I didn’t light the fire. The fire exists. I’m just trying to find ways of putting out the fire.
Pressure, what pressure? Sweet as a David Clifford point.
A spy infiltrated the Zemmour campaign and wrote a book about it.
Bresson also joined Zemmour’s highly sophisticated covert online campaign, run through encrypted Telegram chat groups by the candidate’s director of digital strategy, Samuel Lafont.
The book describes how a “shadow army” of hundreds of Zemmour volunteers are instructed to join a huge array of diverse Facebook groups, ranging from fans of the late French rocker Johnny Hallyday through supporters of Lens or Lyon football clubs to pizza lovers, anti-vaxxers and radical protest movements.
“They’re asked to pile in, as many as possible, posting pro-Zemmour content – articles, videos, links to his supporters’ website – and asking what people think of him. Flooding Facebook, commenting and reacting as much and as often as they can, constantly raising their candidate’s profile,” Bresson said.
“They can copy-paste material from a central campaign site; they can post exactly the same content across 20 different groups. It’s about creating an impression of huge numbers of people, of a massive online movement.”
The book also relates how volunteers are called on for mass campaigns, orchestrated by Lafont, aimed at ensuring pro-Zemmour hashtags – such as #STOPcensure (#STOPcensorship), when the candidate’s Instagram account was briefly suspended last August – trend on Twitter, attracting media coverage.
There’s much more besides. Sockpuppet Facebook accounts urging Zemmour to run… You can read more of their ideas here.
The team ran online polls and surveys about controversial topics. You needed to enter an email address to vote in them. And so they ended up with contact details for tens of thousands of supporters who might be ready to join the online machine.
A teacher wrote an op-ed for Le Figaro, loosely connecting multiculturalism to violence. Fifty more Zemmour supporting teachers co-signed it. “The online army shared it, which trended on Twitter and Facebook. The buzz got the teacher invited onto TV; clips were spread by Zemmour’s fan groups on Telegram.
That’s straight out of the campaign’s playbook: control what gets promoted by social media algorithms, creating the impression of mainstream interest, which becomes real once people talk about it in the media.”
Read how they got the campaign off the ground
Milei in Argentina
Argentina votes today (Nov 19th) in the final head to head round of its Presidential election. Javier Milei is a first term congressman and a former Rolling Stones cover band lead singer and tv pundit. He had next to no political support six months ago. After a massive TikTok driven campaign polls have him in a dead heat with the establishment favourite, economy minister Sergio Massa.
In a high-rise office in downtown Buenos Aires, a loose band of twenty-something influencers gather to plan how to propel Javier Milei to the Argentine presidency with TikTok videos, memes…The group, who take the occasional break from filming and strategizing to hoverboard ride around the office, say they are unpaid volunteers who believe in Milei’s libertarian ideas
“Social media is the new way of doing politics,” said Eugenia Rolon, an 21-year-old influencer who describes herself as anti-feminist and fighter of a “cultural battle” against progressive ideas. She has over 100,000 followers on both Instagram and TikTok.
Slimovich says right-wing figures such as Milei have found fertile ground online because their simple, grievance-filled language is eminently shareable—and because these politicians spend more time broadcasting on social platforms than appearing in traditional news media, which has become widely discredited in right-wing spaces.
Milei, Slimovich notes, has grown strong because of the sporadic organization that his followers have built, including those beyond the party’s structure. Accounts like @elPelucaMilei (Milei’s Wig) or @MileiPresidente have almost a million followers and act as the most important spokespeople for the libertarian. They have almost four times more followers than Milei’s official channel, getting millions of views from videos that they cut, edit and publish. The most popular ones are the clips of television interviews with titles celebrating how Milei “destroyed” or “annihilated” journalists or political opponents in live debates.
“Even if the candidate isn’t present, they’re reproducing his speech,” Slimovich says. “This explains the [high number of votes] he gets in places where he’s not physically present. His followers on social media are always present, resharing his speeches. And, of course, the mass media also disseminates his content.” The same thing happens on TikTok, Instagram or Twitter, where online libertarian militants churn out viral memes that Milei often shares.
Agustín Romo – director of digital communications and a congressional candidate for La Libertad Avanza – states that only about 15 people work for pay in the libertarian campaign, but that “90% of the content is produced ad honorem.” For Romo, Milei’s victory in places he has never visited “sets the tone for an epochal change in the way of doing politics.”
The difference between this
Update (Monday 20th Nov): The results are in! The sweaty guy hamming it up in those TikToks is now the President of Argentina.
So what about us?
Which of those look like a good fit for us here? Let’s hold off on that until later.
When you see all those options laid out like that you’re faced with another question: why is political campaigning so backward here? Our political parties are truly extraordinary at old fashioned offline campaigning, from tally men to the parties intimate local knowledge of voter behaviour, to genius level management of the PR system. When people from our side head out to compete with the experts from SF, FF, FG and others it’s like someone buying a hurley in Carroll’s on Leinster Final day and heading straight up to Croke Park expecting a game.
But when it comes to modern online campaigning these same Irish political parties are AWOL. Fianna Fail at their conference last weekend decided to address this – their answer was to hand every delegate a list of phone numbers and email addresses so they could contact radio talk shows. Jesus wept.
It could be a symptom of having lost the connection with both their grassroots and the public and it could also, and probably relatedly, be that they associate being online with taking a beating. You only have to listen to how TDs talk about their experiences on social media.
As a result those parties want to fight the electoral battle like it was the nineties, door to door and in the TV studio. In 2023 that’s not even a real battle that’s a historical reenactment.
There is no reason for us to fight them on the battleground of their choosing. No good General would. We should fight them where they think we’re strongest, where they admit the terrain suits us. Nothing else makes sense.
Still postponing an answer to the question of which of the up to date online techniques would work best in Ireland, which countries we should take our lead from, consider instead some of the things fighting an election campaign on the internet would do.
- Here come the cavalry. The big one is that it would provide a way in for those professionals mentioned earlier: the ones who need to stay in the shadows. The people with media and social media skills, the meme warriors, the organisers and managers. In an internet driven campaign they could contribute without having to identify themselves. Whether that’s by being part of some candidates back room team or else by running loosely affiliated accounts and pages supporting them.Organisation mightn’t be one of our strengths but being a focus for organic anonymous support that ends up dominating the debate – that is certainly something we’ve been able to do. Online support for a number of our candidates seems like something that is bound to happen whether anyone calls for it or not. The talent can come on board without having to be formally organised by anyone. The internet support will be there. What’s needed is a candidate ready to buy in, signal that they’re up for it and keep giving those meme factories the kind of content they can use.For those ready to organise more formally, and work with a candidate in a more structured way, running a candidate’s internet campaign obviously doesn’t require showing up at a rally, going door to door or giving interviews. You don’t have to show your face. All the work is done behind the scenes. The technical innovation, the online promotion, tailoring the message, even the cute hoor electoral tricks can all be done without a risk to your day job.It would be hard to overstate the importance of finally being able to tap this resource and have access to the people with management experience and the know how to build successful organisations. A team of digital Brian Codys and data whisperers. The sky’s the limit.
There are a number of other things that would just happen as a side effect of a successful online effort.
- Professional organisation. Whatever organisation that comes together for an election campaign would be more professional, focused and technically capable than anything we’ve had up til now. That organisation and its loosely affiliated social media accounts might endure beyond an election; they obviously would if the candidate was successful.
- Local groups coalescing. Up to now this has, of necessity, been a localised, organic movement. We were fighting a guerilla campaign. Fighting elections at a European or Dail constituency level would naturally bring those local groups together. From Mullingar to Buncrana to Cootehill to Castlebar, groups would have a reason to work together in the European elections. Finglas, Ballymun and Santry would have a reason to be fighting the same General Election campaign. It goes without saying that that cooperation would be greatly facilitated by it being an internet led campaign.
- Sorting good candidates from bad. This assembled (and distributed) talent with its IT, social media and managerial skills would need a candidate. But not as much as a prospective candidate would need them. Not every candidate would be a natural fit for this. You’re looking for someone who would be willing to put themselves in the hands of people who knew what they were doing. A lot of trust would be required. You want someone who knows enough to know what they don’t know. And ready to listen to the people who do. And respond to it and play up to it. That sounds more like a Malachy figure than a Hermann.Election campaigning will sort out the candidates who can work with a backroom team or a collection of online accounts from those who can’t. Tallaght Councillor Paddy Honohan for example: not just got kicked out of Sinn Fein (twice) but had his whole team kicked out with him. Have they access to the skills being discussed here? If they do we’ll probably be hearing from Paddy Honohan on a bigger stage than Tallaght South.The list of possibles includes FG and FF backbenchers, Senators and Councillors. People like Cllr. Ger Carthy fronting the protest in Rosslare. Carol Nolan types. It could be anyone – it could be someone still below the radar. Someone capable of surfing this kind of wave.
- Learning to communicate with voters. This is probably the best thing fighting an election would do for us. Looking for votes means that a campaign and the people supporting it online would have to put out a message that actually communicates with the middle ground. That’s who you have to talk to. For a bunch of would be populists we spend a worrying amount of time talking to ourselves. You don’t get to call anyone a sheep when you’re fighting an election. We behave as if we were still the tiny minority we were during lockdown. To be popular we have to first think of ourselves as being popular and address the public as if we are all on the same side – we are. You put yourself in their shoes. It’s about them not us. That would take some getting used to but without it you’ll be lucky to poll above 1%.We have the communication skills. Over the next few months they will be getting redirected away from running Justin Barrett parody accounts and making Trump fan videos. We might get to see sock puppet Facebook pages and TV debate segments reedited for TikTok instead. And Insta posts that “Malachy was fr fr no cap bussin on Prime Time.” OK, not the last bit, there are limits.
- Having a metric for success. Another benefit of running a political campaign might come from the opinion polls. You get to keep score, obviously. You get to keep track of how well or badly you’re doing. It lends discipline, it lends focus. It’s by no means guaranteed to happen but there is also the convulsive effect that some actual polling success would have on us. And the scare it would give others. Especially since that success would be coming from things we were doing on what the establishment sees as the dangerous and uncontrollable internet. The panic that could be engendered by even minor early success in the opinion polls if it was coming from something novel and online. Wild surmising that we might be a phenomenon that could change political campaigning, barbarians at the gate, etc. etc.(Not to end on a downer but things have to work out better than what happened the last time people of our persuasion attempted an online strategy. The Pro-life side in the Repeal Referendum decided to wait until the last two weeks of the campaign to buy Facebook and Twitter ads. That was the big plan, they told everyone well in advance that was going to be the big plan and then acted surprised when the time came that Facebook and Twitter had been got to and wouldn’t sell them any ads. And no plan B. ♫ Things can only get better ♫ )
And now to finally answer the question posed above – which of the online campaign strategies that have been tried elsewhere should we adopt here, which of them is best suited to political campaigning in Ireland? What’s going to deliver results and make everyone look again at how elections are fought in this country.
Don’t ask me. That’s a question, the question, for the talented amateurs and professionals who would be coming on board and making the running on these campaigns. They have the skill sets. The whole point of them being there is that they need to be given their head. Given time to fail and try again. It requires trust. And candidates willing to trust them to that extent.
The opportunity is there. The people with the skills are there. The barriers that have held them back from participating do not exist in this case. The internet is the principal, maybe the only, advantage we have over our opponents. The elections give us something to focus on and a way to measure our progress from poll to poll as well as obliging us to tailor our message in a way that reaches the middle ground.
Who knows whether it will happen. But there is no avoiding just how big an opportunity this is.