a phone with the facebook icon surrounded by $$ signs
Nearly everyone’s on Facebook – so local election candidates are too (Image: Archi Banal)

Local Elections 2022October 7, 2022

What impact does Facebook have on local elections?

a phone with the facebook icon surrounded by $$ signs
Nearly everyone’s on Facebook – so local election candidates are too (Image: Archi Banal)

Candidates use Facebook and its powerful advertising tools to get their message out there and communicate with potential voters. But what guidance do they receive about social media once they’re elected?

There’s no shortage of headlines about local election candidates and Facebook. In Wellington, a regional council candidate used Facebook to encourage someone to stab Porirua mayor Anita Baker in the back. In Palmerston North, a fire-eating (literally) and anti-vax candidate was questioned over the three active accounts he manages, one of which is full of conspiracy content. In Christchurch, Voices for Freedom-aligned council candidate Sally Cogle was found to have posted conspiracy theories on a Facebook page called … wait for it … Notsally Notcogle. 

It’s not all conspiracy theories and threats of violence: the Facebook activity of election candidates is often banal, but equally telling. A poke around in Facebook’s ad library, for instance, reveals that Auckland mayoral candidate Wayne Brown’s paid advertising is for the eyes of over-35-year-olds only. Porirua candidate David Turner gave the impression of having forgotten to switch between accounts – comments on his Facebook page reveal him asking and answering his own comments beneath some of his posts (when The Spinoff asked him about this, Turner said that questions were posted by a member of his team on behalf of somebody without a Facebook account).

While tech headlines focus on Facebook’s loss of users and revenue to upstart platform TikTok, it’s still massive business; the majority of New Zealanders use Facebook at least once a week. The Spinoff spoke to local election candidates across the country about how – and why – Facebook has been part of their campaigning. 

Many local election candidates use Facebook – how does it shape their politics? (Photo: Getty Images)

Why use Facebook? 

“Facebook is particularly valuable for local elections because of its interactive nature, the ability to talk back – you can pick up on what issues are resonating,” says Tim Hurdle, campaign manager for Auckland mayoral candidate Wayne Brown, who keeps a close eye on what posts and language Facebook users respond to, both for the Brown campaign and mayoral opponents.

The ability to hear directly from voters is an appealing reason to use Facebook, agreed candidate David Turner, running for council in Porirua where budgets are smaller but social media is nonetheless a key tool. “It’s a place to get to know people’s concerns and answer questions,” he told The Spinoff, adding that he has mainly used “organic” (unpaid) posts to reach voters.

A second-time council candidate for the Hamilton West ward, Louise Hutt says that “everyone and their mum has Facebook”, meaning that despite her ethical qualms about contributing to the company’s bottom line, it’s been a part of her campaigning. Hutt prefers Twitter, the platform of “nerds and journalists”, but uses Facebook to make her reach broader. Hutt also uses community Facebook groups to listen to her community and shape her policy, such as using a Hamilton cycling group to inform how she tells people about her cycleway policy.

“The impact of Facebook can be pretty intense. I’m trying to keep my campaign low budget and it was a good choice to be on Facebook,” says Neeta Shetty, a candidate running for mayor and councillor in Queenstown. She’s found that the platform is good for small-scale targeting of ads and hearing from community members. 

But a Facebook presence can expose candidates to the negative side of relatively unregulated low-consequence free speech; candidates The Spinoff spoke to said that while interactions were mostly positive, they had also encountered abuse on the platform. “[Facebook] can be a dangerous and harmful place,” said Hutt, adding that candidates being targeted on social media meant that capable people might not want to run for local government. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)

While it’s useful for media to note controversial or concerning content on candidate Facebook pages, Shetty suggests that there’s perhaps also a Streisand effect: with candidates holding controversial or conspiratorial Facebook pages receive more attention for their Facebook activity than those with less extreme views. “You see a lot of people on Facebook ‘mudslinging’,” she says. “But many candidates also struggle to get exposure.”

Additionally, the demographics of Facebook users are a reminder that not all it’s not the only platform in town. While younger people spend more time on social media as a whole, audiences on Facebook specifically tend to be older and more rural. Voter trends roughly align with this; the people most likely to vote are older too. For the Wayne Brown campaign, targeting only older Aucklanders on Facebook made sense. “We’re targeting a particular demographic because they’re more likely to vote,” says Hurdle, Brown’s campaign manager. 

For candidates, this means that a presence on Facebook should be coupled with doorknocking, hoardings, and events to reach all potential voters. “A Facebook post allows you to discuss more issues than [a hoarding],” says Hutt. 

louise huttt a brunette white woman with a bike and a pink jacket stands in front of a train
Candidate Louise Hutt says that Facebook’s advertising targeting has helped her campaigning. (Photo: Supplied)

The role of advertising 

Much of a politician’s ability to reach people on Facebook – particularly undecided voters not already on board with their policies or who know the candidate personally – will be determined by their advertising, the Facebook views they pay for. As a transparency measure, Facebook’s ad library can be informative, a way to tell which messages politicians are sending to different demographics. 

Several candidates walked The Spinoff through the process they use to set up and book advertisements. First, a politician has to verify their page with hard ID, like a passport. This can take a while; Hutt and Shetty both said that Facebook didn’t initially recognise or process their verifications. 

Once a page is verified, a candidate can promote their posts more widely with an ad. Politicians can drop a pin on a map or type postcode numbers in, to ensure that advertisements are only seen by those who are in the area where they’re campaigning, as well as targeting by age, gender, or other interests. Then the platform will show the advertisement to users, depending on how much you’ve spent. 

To candidates, the ability to target Facebook advertising according to user demographics and interests means that a single advertisement can reach more people who are likely to vote for them than expensive billboards or more broad radio, print, and digital advertising. Hutt, who ran for Hamilton mayor and councillor in 2019, says that the targeting measures have improved over time. “I spent about $5,000 on Facebook last time [in 2019]; this year I’ve spent a lot less, but been more strategic.”

How effective is Facebook advertising? In the race for the Auckland mayoralty, undoubtedly the local election campaign with the highest budgets, frontrunner Efeso Collins has spent $5,972 on Facebook advertising in the last 7 days, while “third horse” Craig Lord has spent $4,077 (as of 2 October, the most recent date with updated data). Candidate Wayne Brown, meanwhile, has focused on print and digital ads in the news media, appearing on Stuff and the New Zealand Herald this week while running only one active Facebook ad.

While this amount of money is a small fraction of overall campaign spend, it does guarantee eyeballs: Max Harris, a spokesperson for the Collins campaign, told The Spinoff that a quarter of a million people had seen their Facebook posts over the past week. “Facebook is filling a gap left by the lack of local democracy reporting in Auckland,” said Harris, in a statement to The Spinoff. But the true test of effectiveness remains undetermined. “The key question is whether positive engagement on Facebook translates into actual votes… which will only be clear once the campaign is over.”

four people sitting in a row, white woman, white man in suit, brown woman in heels and blazer, bald white man in jeans.
Queenstown mayoral candidate Neeta Shetty (second from right) with competitors Olivia Wensley, Glyn Lewers, and Jon Mitchell. (Image: Shanti Mathias)

For Queenstown candidate Shetty, Facebook advertising has helped her reach voters living in Wānaka and more rural parts of the district, beyond her immediate community in Queenstown. “It gave me a lot of exposure to places beyond Queenstown. I didn’t want to focus too much on Facebook but it has been useful,” she told The Spinoff. Shetty has only spent a few hundred dollars on Facebook advertising for her campaign. 

While Facebook can’t guarantee that advertising spend will lead to votes (although they have created an option to make it easier for users to not see political ads), the platform says that election transparency is very important to them. “We hold ads about social issues, elections or politics to a higher standard, including requiring advertisers to be authorised and by placing them in our publicly available ad library,” said Nick McDonnell, Meta’s head of policy for Australia and New Zealand in a statement to The Spinoff. Meta did not answer specific questions about how or whether they are monitoring the Facebook activity of 2022 local election candidates in Aotearoa, but provided a link to their generic resources for local government.

After the election

While spending on Facebook advertising will largely end once approximately half of local government candidates finish tomorrow without a new job, Facebook-based communication and controversy isn’t confined to elections. The previous term of local government has seen multiple councils, including Hamilton and Nelson, face code of conduct complaints over elected members’ use of Facebook, while other elected members have encountered abuse on Facebook and other social media platforms. Candidates say that council codes of conducts and Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) training and inductions for new elected members should incorporate guidelines for using Facebook. 

A September 2021 LGNZ report to the minister of local government noted “a lack of adequate guidance for member’s behaviour on social media” and said that expectations for elected member’s behaviour should be consistent on and offline. In response to feedback, the template code of conduct provided to councils to adapt and adopt for their own use has been updated for the upcoming term to include provisions for use of social media. This template code states that members’ activity on Facebook should be “open and transparent” unless the member is encountering abuse. 

While initial induction processes for elected members focus on the nuts and bolts of good governance, LGNZ confirmed to The Spinoff that future training modules would include best practice for use of social media, developing skills for communicating effectively with the public. “Social media can be a powerful platform, but we do acknowledge that across the motu there are varying levels of confidence and ability when using it,” said LGNZ chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene.

“We should be helping the public to understand how powerful local government is and what it does,” says Hutt. On a good day, Facebook’s longer post length, commenting features, and geography specific ad targeting can achieve that. “That’s the blue-sky hope,” Hutt says. “It doesn’t always happen.”

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