Can trending hashtags help candidates connect with voters?

HashtagsPoliticians, especially those in Brussels, are often accused of being entirely out of touch with voters, and – so the argument goes – this has contributed to public disengagement with politics.

Can trending hashtags help? Trends on Twitter offer clues as to topics that have captured the public’s interest, but when politicians use those hashtags does it help increase engagement and interest?

One measure of engagement and interest is the number of retweets. In one test we found that tweets using a trending hashtag were around twice as likely to be retweeted and the number of retweets would also increase.

Normally if a tweet is retweeted a large number of times then a politician will feel that their message is resonating with the public (either that, or they have made a terrible gaffe). Retweets are certainly a better way to judge popularity or agreement with a message than follower counts, for example. Increasingly, trends on Twitter are being used to identify the issues that matter to people and – therefore – the topics on which politician seek to engage.

We have carried out a limited case study to see whether candidates and voters are talking about the same issues by glancing through different 24-hour periods on the trends page of the ep2014tweets.eu site. On the left hand side of the page you have the most common topics addressed by candidates on that day, and on the right the most common topics related to the European Parliament elections.

See the visualisations at ep2014tweets.eu

With candidates focusing mainly on national issues, we have to drill down to the national level to start to see something really meaningful. If, for example, we look at French candidates and election-related tweets in French on 12 May we will find that ‘@MartinSchulz’ and the word ‘France’ are commonly used by both groups. However, beyond that there is little overlap between the two groups: candidates talk about the details of their campaigning, whereas voters discussing the election mainly share news articles.

One event, however, got candidates and voters speaking the same language: Eurovision (the song contest rather than tonight’s debate, unfortunately).

More than two million tweets were sent last weekend containing the word ‘Eurovision’ or one of the main event hashtags. Around one thousand of those tweets came from around 150 European Parliament candidates, with Green lead candidate Ska Keller, British Liberal Democrat Giles Goodall and Swedish Moderate Party candidate Fredrick Federley particularly active commentators. And having millions of people following the hashtag certainly helped their tweets – whether music- or politics-related – to reach a wider audience:

Candidate Followers Number of original Eurovision-related tweets % of tweets retweeted % of Eurovision-related tweets retweeted Average number of retweets Average number of retweets for Eurovision-related tweets
Ska Keller ~9,000 51 28.4% 64.5% 4.12 5.35
Giles Goodall ~2,000 57 37.5% 50.9% 9.86 10.9
Fredrick Federley ~22,500 115 15.0% 27.0% 3.63 4.19

As we can see, the percentage of tweets retweeted during the Eurovision Song Contest increased dramatically, as did the number of times a tweet was retweeted.

Yet did other viewers see it as an appropriate place to discuss the elections? Or, to put it another way, did the candidates successfully use the event to get people thinking about next week’s vote? Of the two million tweets, 3,000 mentioned the elections. And for those who did make the connection, there was one key message above all others: if you consider voting in Eurovision, you should certainly vote in the European elections.

Smart campaigners and politicians are using trending hashtags as a way to reach a broader audience and live TV is good opportunity to do so.

Does it show politicians to be in touch? Perhaps – although it doesn’t demonstrate that they ‘feel the pain’ of their constituents, it does at least show they know what people are interested in, and shows a more ‘human’ side.

And maybe – just maybe – a Eurovision voter will be, next week, a European elections voter.

Marek Zaremba-Pike

  • Jerry O Sullivan

    I enjoyed this informative article. Many thanks. Jerry