It’s different this time. In South Africa’s last general election in 2009, 99% of people had never even heard of Twitter (only a handful of people in the county had accounts back then, and they hardly used them). This time round, millions are on Twitter. Over 5.5-million, in fact (according to the most recent study by World Wide Worx). By this stage, that number’s probably closer to 6-million… All tweeting, retweeting and consuming in real-time. Of course the US Presidential Election in 2012 gave the world a taste of all of this. Then, though, the combination of Twitter and TV was still in its infancy. South Africa’s last election — the municipal election in 2011 — was still too early. Plus, politicking and campaigning was very localised. In planning for Wednesday’s election, South African television news networks (and news websites) must’ve been salivating at the thought. Especially now that there are three (!) 24-hour news channels to fill. The complex process of audience interaction on broadcast television has been largely solved by Twitter. The paradigm has shifted completely – from tweeting about what’s on the news, to Twitter becoming news. What better (and cheaper) way to fill hours and hours of dead broadcast time than with presenters reading random tweets?
Websites have cottoned on, with single tweets becoming news stories in their own right. South Africa’s largest news site, News24, has become a pro at this. This site too. Twitter has afforded us the luxury of real-time coverage of political rallies, of debates, of campaigning… We can pick and choose. Not only from the politicians and their handlers, but top political writers too. The kind we could read every 24 hours, subbed-down to fill a hole between adverts, printed for eternity on newsprint. You know them… Stephen Grootes, Justice Malala, Ranjeni Munusamy. Now, with instant analysis. Distilled into 140 characters. Follow, unfollow, retweet, reply, engage.
Politicians have (sensibly) seized on the opportunity to engage with voters in a disintermediated way. The power of this, from a voter’s perspective, is really quite incredible. In Twitter ‘Town Halls’ (or ‘Q&As’, depending on the party), citizens from far flung corners of the country have been able to engage with political leaders and quiz them on anything and everything. That was simply inconceivable three or four years ago. The three largest parties, the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and upstart Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have drowned out nearly every other conversation on Twitter in recent weeks. The latter two have, perhaps, punched above their weight.