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The Danish Facebook Election

BY Antonella Napolitano | Wednesday, September 14 2011

Danish elections are set on September 15th. At Nordic Techpolitics communication consultant Anna Ebbesen explained how Facebook became crucial for political campaign and for citizens.
A Media Studies graduate and a political communication expert, Ebbesen is moving to the US where she will build a communication campaign for Ashoka - Innovators for the public. She blogs at Digitale Tanker and you can follow her on Twitter: @annaebbesen.

Anna Ebbesen
The Danish election in 2011 sets itself apart from the previous elections as the first election in the age of Social Media. Back in 2007 Facebook was still in its infancy in Denmark – with a low amount of users and little professional usage. In 2011, the election is now wired.
Facebook is one of the Danes’ favorite sites - 2.4 million have a profile on the social platform. As a consequence everyone who wants the attention of the Danes is on there too. Even the politicians.

Safety in Numbers: a Danish Attitude Going Wired
Here in Denmark, we can have elections with a 21 day-notice. An election term in Denmark is 4 years maximum, but since the prime minister can call an election whenever he feels like it, a full term is rare. Why not keep the element of surprise? He (we haven't had a "she" yet) must give the public a minimum of 21 days notice, which usually limits the election campaign to 21 days. In general TV channels aren't allowed to air political commercials. The only exception is on the program "Meet the Parties” where the parties can show their election video as a part of their presentation.

We Danes are a nation of associations. We create groups to make our lives easier - to organize football, to have an antenna on our apartment blocks, to run the apartment building itself, to meet up with peers and so on. The focus on the individual in modern culture has weakened the need to join such groups - people choose the gym over the team sport - but it's still very much a part of our identity and culture.

We keep our politics and our religion in the closet. Or at least we used to. Integration of other nationalities with a more outspoken relationship with their God, and a general move toward a more outspoken way of creating one’s modern identity have changed this.

We are wired. In 2009 86 %.of us have a computer in our home, 83% have access to the web and 76 % have broadband. In addition to all those Facebookers, 28.000 are active on Twitter and Danes run 75.000 active blogs posting 4.5 times each in average a day.

And we vote. In 2007 86.6% of the eligible electorate turned out to vote. For the past 20 elections a turnout of 80-90% have been the norm.

How are Danes using the web to relate to the election?
We've waited almost the full 4 years since the last election, during which the media drove Danes mad with their constant speculation about when the prime minister would call the election. As a consequence people in droves turned to the web and started making satirical jokes about their politicians.

Tumblr rose to fame as the place for single purpose blogs like the "der bliver aldrig valg. Ever"-Tumblr blog (roughly translated to: "There will never be an election. Ever").   The blog shows odd images of our prime minister, with the phrase “there will never be an election ever” juxtaposed on top of it. It's simple, it's fun and people enjoyed participating with their own one-liners, as well as sharing and commenting on Facebook.

On YouTube you’ll find loads of self produced jokes but also lots of simple videos of Danish politicians trying to speak English, which the Danes have found quite amusing.

The tweeterati have filled their streams with conversation about the election as well. The hashtag #fv2011 quickly rose as the center of the conversation on the otherwise widespread #dkpol (Danish Politics).

But Facebook is at the center of all of this. It’s where the videos make it big, where the blogs get traffic and where people discuss politics and the media coverage in general. For the first time, it seems like politics is out in the open – so much so, that people are now complaining about their Facebook news feeds being too political.

What are the politicians doing online?
The politicians are all trying to be personal and act normal on Facebook, thereby building a closer relationship with their voters. Some are trying to build a grassroots movement via mobile apps/sites (Social Democrats, Venstre, Social Liberals) and via Facebook (Social Democrats, Social Liberals Socialistic Folk Party) – the Social Democrats being the only one with a fully-fledged mobile app for canvassing.
Everyone is trying to reach out and connect via their websites and YouTube, and since many of the local candidates now have their sites on Facebook, they’ve gained a real audience and potential base of followers, something they never achieved with their websites.

Some have used social media to hold meetings.
Helle Thorning Schmidt from the Social Democrats (who's running to become the first female Prime Minister) invited her Facebook friends to ask questions via chat at a specific time and date, with an overwhelming response. Meanwhile, the lesser-known Social Democrat, Benny Engelbrecht, hosted weekly meetings via live webfeed on his blog promoted via Facebook. For the lesser-known candidates videos are still very popular: make a controversial one, and big media will play your video on national television. Facebook though doesn’t work as a proper campaign tool for the extremely popular or interesting candidates, since the site isn’t geared for anything but a few comments and some positive feedback.

What about the old media?
Well… the big media have mainly misused social media to run after the Danes, asking questions about what they want, in a somewhat desperate attempt to cling on to their role as the mediator of politics. A role they still hold – and master – in print, radio and sometimes on television. The best thing big media have done online is to let journalists liveblog, produce quality content webTV clips, spend resources on different fact-checking tools and initiatives and run interactive tests to match people to parties.
During the last election a majority of the Danes took one of those tests based on people values and views, to be "reassured" of their political views..

Interestingly enough, 10% of the Danes say that they get information about the election on social media. It wasn’t an option last time, so it’s quite a huge jump in media share, which should get editors to rethink their current presence and usage of social media platform.
What will the number look like next time? 76% state they get their info from television, while 53% claim internet sites are their primary source overtaking the printed newspaper in third place with 48%.
Hopefully this digital success won’t fool the editors of the online newssites into thinking they’ve found the right formula. They still need to include the new digital tools for reporting, instead of halfheartedly attach them to their existing platforms.

Will Facebook determine the election, then?
An election campaign is still about policy, personality and strategy. If you fail in any of those three areas, you can’t win.
Social media has the highest impact when the candidates use them like normal people would do, and their organization use them as tools for enhancing a positive engagement with the voters. Popularity on Facebook doesn’t guarantee a victory - and ”likes” isn’t the same as a vote. In fact too much attention on Facebook can be hard to handle for the bigger parties, especially on a platform that’s created for a few comments and not active engagement from thousands of Danes (people spent an unprecedented amount of time commenting and posting constantly on the top politicians Facebook Pages).

On the social platforms the Conservatives would be the biggest loser together with the Christian Democrats, whereas the Social Liberals, Enhedslisten and Liberal Alliance would be the winners. In the big leagues, it’s a tie between the two biggest parties where many lesser-known candidates as well as the two party leaders have used social media to rally their base.

The Social Democrats, though, would win that race, considering what they’ve leveraged via their applications on Facebook and smartphones. They actually succeded in building a grassroots movement: engaging people is still the killer app.