Campaign reaches new digital heights

This year’s electoral campaign has seen political parties invest heavily in online campaigning, with Facebook being the main battleground

jurgen
Jurgen Balzan
6 June 2017, 8:30am
For the first time in nine years Labour leader Joseph Muscat found himself in the uncharted waters of having to react instead of calling the shots himself
For the first time in nine years Labour leader Joseph Muscat found himself in the uncharted waters of having to react instead of calling the shots himself
This year’s electoral campaign has seen political parties invest heavily in online campaigning, with Facebook being the main battleground. 

However, the two mainstream parties also invested heavily in more traditional mediums such as TV and erected hundreds of billboards and plastered their banners in every available space on the roads.

Online campaigning is not a new phenomenon. In 2013, Labour blitzed the net with ads, videos and banners popping up all over the place. 

However, unlike 2013, the PN has upped the game and while four years ago the party was completely absent online, this year it gave Labour a good run for its money and held a creative edge. 

For the first time in nine years Labour leader Joseph Muscat found himself in the uncharted waters of having to react instead of calling the shots himself. For most of the five-week campaign, the PN was dictating the agenda and Labour was forced on a number of occasions to react.

The sudden announcement of the snap election on 1 May might have caught the PN by surprise and it took the opposition a few days to get its campaign rolling.

While Labour’s billboards were erected a few hours after the announcement it took the PN a few days to unfurl its banners and launch its logo. 

Although both parties, especially Labour, were election-ready, the logos left much to be desired, with the visuals appearing hasty and sterile.

MZPN’s ‘Money Zombies’ allows people to catapult Panama hats at zombie versions of Joseph Muscat, Michelle Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri
MZPN’s ‘Money Zombies’ allows people to catapult Panama hats at zombie versions of Joseph Muscat, Michelle Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri
Admittedly Labour’s campaign was not as slick and expensive as in 2013 but it still outstripped the PN’s campaign in terms of billboards and newspaper adverts. 

The PN had some 65 billboards erected, a third of what Labour had. However, what the PN lacked in quantity was made up in quality, especially when compared to the moribund 2013 campaign.  

The PN’s new found creativity and freshness shone throughout its billboards, TV spots and online campaign. 

Finally, thanks to Panamagate, the PN found a rallying cry and rallied behind the theme of corruption, despite never providing conclusive evidence on the alleged ownership of a secret company in Panama by Muscat and his wife.

The PN did however present evidence on the alleged corruption involving Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and minister Konrad Mizzi and this strengthened the PN leader Simon Busuttil’s resolve and allowed him to take the moral high ground.  

Panamagate served as a catalyst for the PN’s renaissance with the party rediscovering its allure and once again became an electable party. The PN’s headquarters in Pieta once again became a beehive of activity and according to party officials who spoke to this newspaper, the enthusiasm was so high the PN had to turn back volunteers. 

Having to defend its corner, Labour had to play a balancing act between championing its impressive track record in civil liberties and economic management and fending off serious accusations of corruption. 

Labour’s overall campaign mainly targeted its core voters while trying to keep enough switchers within its ranks to maintain a comfortable advantage over the PN.

This was achieved by a combination of an underlying message of continuity through TV spots and billboards highlighting its achievements and proposals and a series of negative messages depicting the PN as a negative and fractious party. 

Labour held a steady lead in the polls as did Muscat in the trust ratings. This indicates that the PN’s negative campaign, in which it tried to convey the message that Muscat was politically responsible for the alleged corruption, did not inflict enough damage. 

The PN’s failure to close the gap in the polls is also down to its own shortcomings and Labour’s own negative campaign, symbolised by its ‘Chaos’ billboard, which portrayed Busuttil and the PN as unprepared and incapable to govern.

The digital duel 

FZL launched an animation which poked fun at Simon Busuttil’s refusal to publish invoices related to donations received from db Group
FZL launched an animation which poked fun at Simon Busuttil’s refusal to publish invoices related to donations received from db Group
The 2017 electoral campaign must go down as the first in which both Labour and the PN dedicated a huge chunk of their resources for online campaigning.

A report on the social media activity of both parties carried out by technology company ICON shows that the PN had a slight edge in engaging with people on Facebook. 

The study shows that the PN was ahead of Labour in regard to social sentiment (calculated by dividing the number of likes by the number of posts made on Facebook), having almost a 20-point sentiment gap by the end of the campaign. 

ICON also carried out a qualitative analysis of both Joseph Muscat’s and Simon Busuttil’s Facebook pages to understand what kind of posts, uploads and messages, the two candidates promoted during the campaign. 

A quick glance at both pages, ICON said, reveals a very different method and style of communication between the two leaders.

Muscat’s Facebook page has double the number of followers Busuttil has (80,000 vs 41,000), the PN leader’s page saw a slightly larger increase in followers throughout the month of May.

“The highest amount of engagement received in one day was approximately 26,000 interactions on Joseph Muscat’s and approximately 20,000 interactions on Simon Busuttil’s. Although more engagement was recorded on Joseph Muscat’s page, the result of Simon Busutill’s page is significantly high, considering the smaller fan base. This shows that the content on these days was sponsored significantly, reached many people and was shared numerous times,” the report said. 

The majority of Muscat’s Facebook page consisted of proposals communicated via a variety of videos and posts in both English and Maltese. 

Muscat’s Facebook page was mainly used as a platform to promote his party’s proposals through videos and images, rather than as a personal channel.

Following claims of Russian interference in the election the social media sphere went into overdrive with many posting memes and images ridiculing the assertions
Following claims of Russian interference in the election the social media sphere went into overdrive with many posting memes and images ridiculing the assertions
This was in contrast with Busuttil’s page which was primarily used to give an insight into his own personal life and a glimpse of the events and meetings he was having on a daily basis. Two such videos featured among the top three most popular videos posted by Busuttil. 

While the page was also used to promote the Forza Nazzjonali’s electoral campaign message, I Choose Malta, Busuttil’s page added a human element to the campaign, with Busuttil finding time to answer questions sent in by people in Facebook live broadcasts.  

The report also noted that Busuttil’s choice of wording conveyed an element of hope while colourful pictures conveyed the idea of a celebration.

This election campaign was also the first time Facebook Live has been used and the analysis reveals that while no specific trends or patterns emerge, a look at the top three videos posted by both Muscat and Busuttil sheds some light on the phenomenon of engagement. 

The top videos were ranked on interactions (total likes, comments and shares) and not on video views.

Muscat’s top three videos posted between 1 May and 31 May include live streams of mass meetings. The second most popular video posted titled “The most important card” was posted on 31 May in reaction to a PN video on corruption. 

The youth sections of both major parties also played a central role in the online battle, with both Forum Żgħażagħ Laburisti (FZL) and Moviment Żgħażagħ Partit Nazzjonalista (MZPN) being engaged in an ongoing battle. 

However, official party content was complemented by videos and memes produced by social media aficionados who mocked Joseph Muscat, Simon Busuttil and other protagonists. 

MZPN were highly prolific in their online campaigning and their most memorable contribution must be the online game that poked fun at the Labour leadership.

Based on the popular Angry Birds franchise, the game – called ‘Money Zombies’ allows people to catapult Panama hats at zombie versions of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his crown-wearing wife Michelle, minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri. 

MZPN also produced a number of videos showing the hundreds of young people who thronged the PN mass meetings. 

PN-leaning social media buffs had a field day following claims that the Russian secret service was involved in the Egrant saga. 

On the other hand FZL focused on mobilising young people, organising weekly events which drew huge crowds in various localities. FZL’s Next 5 campaign highlighted the Labour administration’s achievements, especially in terms of civil liberties and the economic boom and urged young voters to vote for continuity. 

FZL also found time to deride PN leader Simon Busuttil in a series of animated videos and mocking the PN campaign by dubbing TV spots produced by the opposition.

jurgen
Jurgen Balzan joined MaltaToday in 2011, specialising in politics, foreig...