"If you are out of social media you are definitely missing something crucial,” warns journalist, author and media entrepreneur Taneli Heikka. “But I would be careful not to extract social media out of the media as a whole, and think that just because you are on social media you'll be able to run a great campaign by itself."
The shift to social media has been led by voter action too — Facebook is used by nearly two million Finns, so ignoring it would not be sensible for any politician. This simply wasn’t a factor at the last election in 2007.
"First of all Facebook has come to Finland and to Finnish politicians, so I think that is the main channel they are using,” says Kari Haakana, Head of Services at YLE Internet. “The blogs are still there but they are not as important as Facebook."
Getting a Head Start
Blogs are still significant. Jussi Halla-Aho, a stern critic of immigration on the right fringe of the populist True Finns party, has built a strong following via his blog. Controversial statements made there have stirred fervent support, strong opposition — and even a conviction for 'disturbing religious peace' — all grist to a polarising populist’s mill.
Halla-Aho was an early adopter of new campaigning tools, and other politicians have used online communication in differing ways. Credibility is the holy grail of net evangelists and politicians alike, and it is important for politicians to develop a following early on. Any candidate looking for a last-minute boost from social media will be out of luck. For this campaigning method at least, it's too late to start now.
"I would say start early, not six months before the election but two years before elections so that they would not be seen as someone trying to get the maximum impact just before the elections," advises Haakana.
The most successful online campaigners have crossed over into the mainstream media. The debate on immigration was nurtured online on sites like Halla-Aho’s blog and the Homma forum, but it only really impacted policy once traditional media took notice. The tone of debate has been somewhat more aggressive than in offline discussion. That should change as online debate becomes more established, says Heikka.
Hate Speech: Just a Phase?
"It is inflammatory, it is shrill, and it is angry,” concedes Heikka. “There are negative things to it. There is hate speech, but I think this is a phase. We have to live with it; we just have to tolerate that for the moment."
Heikka co-wrote Quasi-Democracy: Finland’s Fall From the Cradle of Innovation to the Abyss of Stagnation, a book criticising the lack of accountability in Finnish politics, but is the online discussion — shrill, angry shouting and all — helping to open up the political space in Finland?
“Yes and no,” answers Heikka. "There is definitely a lot more political debate now than there was four years ago at the last election, but as to whether that has brought more accountability, I’m still quite sceptical. We’re still going to elections with the old political culture.
"I’ve described the situation as a tsunami without an earthquake — there’s a lot of debate, but there’s the old political culture. The political parties don’t really tell us their political agenda openly, they don’t bring it into the debate, and they don't tell us their preferred government partners. So people are not able to make really informed political decisions.”
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