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Social media: the true game changer during the elections?

While everyone was watching the TV debates, hoping for that one political game changer, the true game changer for communication professionals was right there under our noses: social media. They played a greater than ever role during these elections.

The use of social media is obviously not new: politicians already used these media frequently to reach potential voters during the 2012 elections. This year, however, it seems that they really made the difference. Smart campaign teams were roaming social media 24/7, with postings ready for any event or scenario.

GroenLinks, the progressive, left-wing major winner of the elections grew from 4 to 14 seats in Parliament, showing to what extent social media can make the difference: was its young leader, Jesse Klaver, initially dismissed on TV as a whippersnapper, on social media he soon found his target group. In an interview, Sybren Kooistra, the man behind most of the GroenLinks campaign, says: ‘Our Facebook messages reach a million voters in a good week. In terms of communication value, this is the equivalent of a large interview in a national newspaper.’

According to monitoring tool Obi4Wan, GroenLinks reached so many people on Twitter alone in the final four weeks to the elections that the PR value amounted to almost EUR 33 million, which is comparable to 3,200 articles of 40 x 190 mm in the largest Dutch national newspaper.

And, with its 871,000 daily users, Twitter is only a small fish compared to Facebook, where 7.5 million Dutch log in every day, claims Newcom. Many journalists are using it, however. It is ideal for politicians who wish to decide what they publish and when through their own channel. In this way, political parties can determine which picture they want to paint of themselves and which issues and questions they prefer to avoid. The journalists active on Twitter will then pick up on the content and bring it to the attention of the traditional media.

Politicians aiming to address voters directly are best off with an active campaign on Facebook. Research from newspaper NRC Handelsblad shows that the conservative-liberal VVD and GroenLinks were the major winners on Facebook in terms of range. They reached over 150,000 and 116,000 new people during their respective campaigns who left a like or a comment on their Facebook page. The social democrats of the PvdA followed with approximately 64,000 new people reached, immediately followed by right-wing parties PVV (Freedom Party) and Forum for Democracy with almost 62,000 Facebook users reached for the first time.

Range is no guarantee for seats, however, as has become clear. Who you reach is more important than the number of people that you reach. Fortunately, social media have made online campaigning much more effective: based on user profiles, a political party can perform highly targeted advertising among people with a certain background, domicile, level of education and age. Add to this the information from social media, someone's interests and preferences, and you are ready to start micro-targeting. A micro campaign allows for addressing specific voters personally with a relevant message. Through all the likes and comments thus received, you immediately reach their peers as well.


Emotion is the key word in social-media campaigning. Kooistra, who also participated in Obama's 2008 change campaign, managed to convey that same emotion of hope with the GroenLinks campaign. Similarly, the PVV is playing on emotions, successfully tapping into feelings of uncertainty and anxiety instead.

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GroenLinks tweets often feature the hashtag #voteforchange (Dutch: #stemvoorverandering), as well as words like self-confidence, freedom, empathy and tolerance.

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Tweets from PVV party leader Geert Wilders often include the more self-centred hashtag #votepvv (Dutch: #stempvv) and words like resistance, terrorist, closed borders, stop islam, scum and get out.

Whether or not you sympathise with the PVV, the emotion evoked by this party connects people and can be stronger than any other, more substantive message. This brings us to one of the pitfalls of social media: when emotions take over from facts and content, excess is just around the corner. Geert Wilders attacked D66 leader Alexander Pechtold on Twitter over a photo allegedly showing Pechtold demonstrating alongside Hamas supporters.

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The photo was edited, however. The original, without Pechtold in it, was taken in 2009, during a protest against the visit of Wilders to the United Kingdom for the screening of his film Fitna. And while Wilders dismissed the matter, accusing the media of having fallen for fake news and Pechtold of acting like a ‘drama queen’, his tweet seemed to have missed the mark substantially in the eyes of many voters.


Newcomer party Denk also confounded facts and fiction more than once during the campaign. This left-wing political party was even accusedof using internet trolls. Information from newspaper NRC Handelsblad suggested that at least twenty fake profiles on Twitter and Facebook were responsible for over 1,600 messages and more than 1,200 likes. These fake identities were allegedly used to make Denk look bigger than it really was and to influence public opinion.

The role of social media may have been larger than ever during these national elections. They have shown us politicians and their supporters at their most beautiful, but also at their ugliest sometimes. And with the discussions about the role of social media during elections and referenda still fresh in our memory, e.g. in the United States and the United Kingdom, I look forward to the elections about to take place in France and Germany. Something also tells me that the Dutch Christian Democratic Party, CDA, had better start thinking about a shorter slogan for the 2018 municipal elections as, seriously, #voorhetlanddatwedoorwillengeven (#forthecountrythatwewanttopasson) may not be the most convenient hashtag.

Margaux Smeets

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