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Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty

Caution ahead: Retail politics supercharged by power of social media

Everyone’s desperate to push the right buttons, and digital tools can make it much easier.

“National hates gangs.”

That blunt three-word declaration stood out – as it was intended to – in reports about the party’s recent social services discussion document, which promised National would crack down on gangs, and require gang members to prove they don’t have illegal income or assets before receiving a benefit. Further details of that and other measures can be expected in the “Gang Plan” the party will release next year.

Along with standing up for mother-hood and apple pie, being anti-gang would hardly seem a contentious position. Putting the usefulness of “hate” to one side, the gangs’ role in the explosion of methamphetamine use alone makes them pretty easy to dislike. And no matter who is in government, our police routinely devote vast resources to battling their criminal activities.

But “National hates gangs” sounds more like something you’d see scrawled on a wall than included in an otherwise sober policy paper.  

Police minister Stuart Nash called National’s announcement “desperate political grandstanding”, but with an election round the corner you can be sure “National hates gangs” wasn’t pulled out of thin air. Have its strategists and pollsters picked up on a growing antipathy in the wider public due to the effects of that meth epidemic?

Law and order – and gangs, in particular – have long been low-hanging fruit for parties in Opposition. In this case, however, as with the Iwi-Kiwi billboards of the Don Brash era, a minimum of words has been employed to hammer home a simple – and simplistic – idea.

Beneficiaries were another customary target identified in National’s proposals, which floated the prospect of a sanction for parents on benefits who don’t immunise their children, and a time-limit on the dole for under 25s. No new wham-bam slogan was coined for this crackdown, though, with a reliance instead on those hoary old favourites “firm but fair” and “a hand-up and not a hand-out”, accompanied by Bridges’ unsurprising desire that young beneficiaries should not be “sitting at home on the PlayStation and smoking pot”. Good to have that cleared up.

If National seems to be wielding a variety of blunt instruments, Labour hardly raised the bar with a corny video, released and promoted on social media around the same time, to mark two years in government. It extols the supposed “progress” made, and has Labour’s main promotional asset – Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – well to the fore, rubbing shoulders with a gaggle of kids in one shot and French president Emmanuel Macron in another. An accompanying list outlined nearly 150 “achievements”, supposedly “just a selection” of what might have been claimed. (And, no, KiwiBuild didn’t make the cut.) 


Trite posturing. Dumbed-down messaging. Cheesiness. Showboating. Perhaps we should file it all under the concept of “retail politics”, as favoured by New Zealand First’s Shane Jones, who more often than most is called on to explain his freewheeling antics.

The usual definition is merely about campaigning in person, but for Jones “retail politics” apparently helps excuse all sorts of attention-seeking and unabashed salesmanship. As he told the Listener last year: “You’re in the business of generating visibility and attention, as a retail politician.”

Read more: Could Shane Jones be the next NZ First leader? |  Is Minister Shane Jones a bit of a joke or just an ordinary bloke?

Jones and others might have been encouraged by the success of Donald Trump in the US and Boris Johnson in the UK. All politics involves sales, in a way, in the promotion of a candidate or party’s ideas and credentials. But if Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, epitomised the kind of smooth salesmanship that at least pays lip service to the highest ideals, Trump and Johnson are shameless hucksters of the lowest order.

Their willingness to take the low road, whether in language, tactics or personal behaviour isn’t original. History has plenty of examples of unsavoury blow-hard populists.

But, like actual retail, the political version is being transformed by technology. The posturing and polarisation seems to have been supercharged by the power of social media and digital campaigning.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced – via a series of tweets, naturally – that the platform was banning all political advertising. Photo/Getty
As it happens, a couple of Kiwi 20-somethings turn out to be at the cutting edge of digital messaging in political campaigns. 

Former Young Nats Sean Topham and Ben Guerin are reported to be running the digital media strategy for the Johnson campaign ahead of the UK election on 12 December, having won plaudits for helping win Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party a surprise victory in the Australian election earlier this year.

Their agency, Topham Guerin, which has also worked on successful campaigns at state level in Australia, and on National’s 2017 campaign on this side of the Tasman, provided the Morrison organisation with a stream of digital messaging on social media and through email marketing, producing videos and graphics to suit platforms and audiences.

A range of analytics tools was used to track online activity “to ensure we were getting our content in front of the right audience at the right time”, Topham told the New Zealand Herald. “Then we’d work to optimise that content and target it throughout the campaign based on quantitative and qualitative feedback on how it was performing.” Fears about how digital tools might be misused in the political sphere won expert vindication of the highest order at the end of October, when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced – via a series of tweets, naturally – that the platform was banning all political advertising. “While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect millions of lives,” Dorsey said.

The Twitter move contrasted strikingly with Facebook, which defends running paid political ads – even false ones – on the grounds of free speech.

Online political advertising, Dorsey said, brought “entirely new challenges to civic discourse”, including “machine learning-based optimisation of messaging”, “micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes”.

But are the dangers the same in a small, in-your-face democracy like ours?

Minister of Justice Andrew Little recently revealed plans to combat misinformation and manipulation in any campaigns leading up to referendums at next year’s election on legalising recreational cannabis, and potentially, voluntary euthanasia.

A special team in the Ministry of Justice will direct people to impartial information and guard against attempts to deliberately mislead the public.

Little said the government would be “looking out carefully” for suggestions social media or other platforms were being used to mislead people, as had happened in campaigns overseas.

The election itself – and the digital teams within parties big and small – will apparently go without such scrutiny. Perhaps Little hopes they will all keep each other on the straight and narrow.

To be fair, the referendums have the potential to be quite enough of a nightmare for the civil servants called upon to police debates without being drawn into them. To adjudicate in battles between political parties over what kind of information might be deemed misleading sounds like the job from hell.

One thing for voters, at least, to watch out for might be content that looks surprisingly gaudy or poorly designed. The Morrison campaign reportedly churned our purposely unsophisticated content it called “boomer memes”, often tying into something from popular culture, such as Game of Thrones. 

This kind of content will be shared by those who agree with the messaging it contains, but potentially also by opponents mocking the corniness of the presentation. In the digital world, anything that extends the reach of your message seems to be a victory. The sloganeering could be in Comic Sans, but there will be nothing unsophisticated about the way that reach and impact is being measured.

Should “National hates gangs” be seen in a similar light? If the digital tools tell National campaigners it strikes a chord, they won’t be worried if some of us think it sounds like juvenile bluster. 

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.