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Social media and the election

I’m just back from a magical eight day tour of South Africa with a group of great American bloggers and South Africa’s own Nick Haralambous, one of the geniuses behind Zoopy, Africa’s YouTube. The idea was to create some interesting content about aspects of the country that often get missed by old media, and have it ripple through the blogosphere.

As you can see if you visit or (and keep visiting, because it’s taking time to get everything uploaded), we saw and did a lot in a very short space of time and met some really extraordinary people along the way. Standouts for me included Nkhesani Masilani, a geologist I spoke to 3.8km underground at Anglogold Ashanti’s Tau Tona mine; Elizly Steyn, the 28-year-old metallurgist from Springbok running the production side of things on De Beers astounding Peace in Africa mining ship; and Dr Adrian Tiplady, the astronomer, engineer and world class jazz musician — he plays with Manfred Mann — who is helping make sure South Africa wins the right to host the giant Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, the most ambitious undertaking of its kind ever.

So tight was the schedule — even when we were on the bus and not prostrate with exhaustion we were mostly tapping out posts on our laptops, editing video and sound or uploading photographs — that I didn’t read a newspaper or take in a news broadcast for almost the entire time we were on the road. I do not mean this as a criticism of the media, but boy, to experience South Africa for a week with media intake dialed back, and the political cacophony nothing more than background hiss, was a truly refreshing experience.

That said, politics was never very far from my mind. Here we were, a bunch of bloggers, geeks and media mavens, experimenting with social media as a means of changing the way people look at South Africa. How, we were asked, might a political party use the same tools to advance its cause? What did Barack Obama’s use of the web have to teach the ANC or Cope or the DA or the ID or the UDM or whoever?

Let’s first define what Obama did with the web and then look at its applicability in SA where internet penetration is lower and more skewed along lines of race and class.

What the web let Obama do was connect to his fans with an immediacy, intimacy and flexibility impossible before the advent of broadband and the proliferation of mobile devices accessible from the net 24/7. Once you put your particulars into the Obama campaign’s database, making a donation or simply registering through the campaign’s extremely user-friendly website, you were — to put it very simply — a real part of the Obama community to whatever extent you wanted to be. Via email, text messaging, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the main campaign site — whichever and in whatever combination you preferred — Obama and his top lieutenants would be keeping you regularly updated on how things we’re going, the viral message for the day and what you could do to help. Finding out where you could man a phone bank, go knock on doors, attend a rally or just get together with fellow supporters was a snap.

Also important was how the web made it possible to follow the candidate in an “unmediated” way — that is, without traditional media deciding for you what mattered or what it all meant. Many an evening during the campaign I would watch the day’s speeches and campaign appearances and debates on YouTube. For commentary, analysis and, not infrequently, really interesting actuality — for example, a recording of Bill Clinton calling his wife a much stronger person than Nelson Mandela — I’d turn to my favourites in blogosphere and to wherever they led me, which included, let it be said, worthwhile pieces from the old media I might otherwise have missed.

Given bandwidth limitations and lower levels of big-screen internet access, YouTube and Zoopy may not yet threaten television and radio as a source of information in the ongoing South African political contest, nor is Thought Leader likely right now (sadly) to have the impact of the Huffington Post. However, new media will still have a major influence on old media coverage. Zoopy is looking to cover the news and analogue media will risk losing the plot if they don’t subscribe to the Zoopy feed. One of the things the Huffington Post did was to enlist “civilians” who were not part of a candidates’ media entourage — “the boys on the bus” — to get out there on the trail with their notebooks and digital recorders and take down what was happening. It was one of these volunteers who recorded Obama’s controversial remarks about disaffected rural whites finding solace in their guns and religion. This model could serve South African democracy well.

It will be interesting to see how politicians who love to bash traditional media react when non-traditional media digitally records their mistakes and instantly uploaded to the blogosphere. I do worry that because the South African blogosphere has yet to become the most representative of places demographically, charges of racism may start to be levelled against new media (just as they have against the old). For that reason alone (but many others besides) I’d love to see this political season being used to empower scores of new “citizen journalists” to get out and record what’s going on around them and put it on the web. David Sasaki, one of the bloggers on our tour, is part of a global project that does just that. Last week he inspired me to put my video camera in the hands of a young man from the Braam Fischer section of Soweto, Lesego Mlambo, and have him interview us instead of us him. The results were wonderful.

But back to what the parties themselves can do to make the most of social media and the web. Obviously the basic tool in South Africa has to be the cellphone. What you need, more than anything else, are the cellphone numbers of as many of your supporters and potential supporters as you can lay your hands on, and their permission to send them messages, SMS or email. Which means you need to get people to call, SMS or email you (without withholding their numbers) and sign up to be part of your online community. It will also be useful to know where everyone is located and what contribution in kind or otherwise each is interested in making. It should be easy for anyone visiting a party’s website — which must be accessible in both big screen and mobile formats — to supply this information (along, if possible, with a donation). — Facebook for cellphones, essentially — is a tremendous tool in the SA context. Obama had more than 70 000 “followers” on Twitter to whom his campaign tweets (SMS-sized haikus) were delivered as SMS’s or via each follower’s individual page on the Twitter site. Parties need to open Twitter accounts (free, takes a couple of minutes online) and to encourage their supporters to do the same. Once signed up, supporters then need to go to the party’s Twitter page and click on “follow”. Thereafter, everything the party tweets will instantly show up on each follower’s Twitter page, accessible via web-enabled cellphone, and — this is important — the follower will be able to tell the party what he or she thinks.

(The one limitation for South African twitterers at the moment is that they cannot receive tweets as SMS messages because it is not economical for US-based Twitter to send SMS’s to South African phones. To receive tweets in SA you need to have one of the 15 million cellphones now said to be in use here that can access the web.)

The bottom line is that the mash-up of internet technology and the ubiquitous cellphone makes it possible for South African politicians to connect with their constituencies to a previously unthinkable degree; to mobilise them in strategic and tactical ways and to listen to what they are saying the better to craft appropriate messages and responses. Experience to date indicates that insurgents and underdogs have tended to be the biggest beneficiaries of social media. People interested in changing the status quo tend to understand this stuff better than incumbents.

Parting thought. Were I managing a campaign, I’d be looking for a really catchy theme song. I’d make sure all my supporters installed the tune as their cellphone ring tone, turned up high, and that they were always calling each other. The song would have a strong, distinctive beat which could be banged out recognisably on a car horn — like the first bar of Beethoven’s Fifth. Da-da-da-dummm. During rush hour at key moments in the campaign, I’d send out SMS’s and tweets asking everything to honk the rhythm. Just a thought. The possibilities are endless.