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The Great Migration of Politicians to the Internet

29 November 2017
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Victor Gotisan, media researcher

The great migration of politicians towards the online world has begun. What is the cause of this migration and why is Internet so important to them?

You do not necessarily need to be an expert to be able to answer this question.  Moldova is one of the 10 countries of the world that have the fastest Internet speed. According to the National Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Information Technology of the Republic of Moldova (NRAECIT), currently, about 80% of Moldovan households have access to cable and mobile Internet, and about 9 out of 10 Moldovans use the Internet on a daily basis. Also, the Internet (46%) is close to replace television (74%) and become the first source of information for media consumers. Speaking of social networking websites, because this is the issue we are discussing in this commentary, the latest figures show that about 1.3 million Moldovans have personal accounts on Odnoklassniki, and over 700 thousand on Facebook.

While Snegur and Lucinschi fought in newspapers and on the radio, and Voronin, Urechean, and “Vlads” [Vlad Filat and Vlad Plahotniuc] – a little later – fought on television, then Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu are now fighting mostly on Facebook and Odnoklassniki. The Internet has become a battlefield for politicians. Even though many will tell me that television is still (!) an important tool for politicians to build their image, the online space is becoming increasingly appealing to them. The presidential elections in the autumn of 2016 in Moldova have shown that an electoral contestant (Maia Sandu) that has no access to classical media (print press, radio, TV) can get a very big score (48%) with the help of the Internet (Facebook, mostly).
Quantity and/or Quality ... on Social Networks

Facebook, therefore, as mentioned above, is becoming one of the most important tools for promotion and PR. Moldovan politicians have understood this, and over the last few years most of them have become very active on this online platform. The rating of the most popular politicians now looks like this: Maia Sandu (133 thousand+), Renato Usatii (82 thousand +), Igor Dodon (81 thousand +), Vlad Plahotniuc (50 thousand +), Andrei Nastase (48 thousand +), Iurie Leanca (48 thousand +), Dorin Chirtoaca (45 thousand +), and Andrian Candu (25 thousand +).

The outline of the content used by a Moldovan politician on Facebook might look like this: text messages (almost all serious!), many messages of congratulation or opinions on events or initiatives, videos and photos, of course, and quite a lot of the latter (often out of context or meaning). That’s all. The creativity and presentation of messages and content is usually lacking. And it’s no secret that most of the personal accounts of politicians on social networks are managed by people or image companies employed to provide such services. The big disadvantage is that most of those who take care of politicians’ accounts do not know how to manage them. Almost all of them are used exclusively to make statements known, and the statements are quickly transformed into news reports and/or press releases.

One of the most innovative politicians on Facebook is Valeriu Ghiletchi (although he is not the most popular: 6.5 thousand +). He is not limiting himself to text messages or images (which is typical of all politicians), but he uploads quite a diverse content: live video streaming, contests, etc. Ghiletchi is also one of the few who personally manage their accounts on social networks and make the difference between the content published on their personal account (belonging to citizen Ghiletchi) and on official accounts (representing the politician Ghiletchi). It is not so, however with some Liberal Party leaders or politicians from the Democratic Party. Igor Dodon is one of the few politicians who post messages in social networks in both Russian and Romanian. Vlad Plahotniuc specializes in promoting the social activities of his Foundation, Renato Usatii is the leader of live streams, and Andrei Nastase is largely focused on covering the events he attends, accompanying his reports with photo galleries.

Just like other fields of activity (things, events, people, etc.), social networks in Moldova have been given a geopolitical connotation. While the main vector on Facebook is pro-western, then Odnoklassniki is marked by the pro-eastern vector. This platform – Odnoklassniki – is much less used by politicians to develop their image and political capital (with some exceptions, of course), even though it is almost twice as popular among Internet users in Moldova (see figures above).The list of politicians leading on Odnoklassniki is slightly different than on Facebook. First here is Igor Dodon (29.9 thousand participants), followed by Andrei Nastase (4.1 thousand +), Vlad Plahotniuc (3.65 thousand +), and Maia Sandu (2.2 thousand +).

Elements of manipulation of facts and information through social networks, launched and distributed by politicians, are not something new in Moldova. Here is a recent example: the “primus inter pares” of Moldovan politics was bragging about his “success” a while ago, claiming he contributed to the unblocking of Moldovan exports to the Russian Federation, which have allegedly increased 3-4 times in the last year. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) had another opinion, backed by official figures. On the other hand, Igor Dodon is one of the few who respond to those who comment on their texts and messages. It is hard to say whether he does it himself, but the intention to engage in debates is a factor that certainly matters; at least, it pleases potential voters, which are taken into account this way. (...)

The most important (not necessarily in a positive context) power or quality of the Internet is the speed at which information can be distributed (i.e. accessibility). At the same time, the Internet is the most effective means of deciphering fake and manipulative information. The truth and the right answer are just one click away, especially now that there is a variety of resources and fact-checking platforms. Here is just one simple example, perhaps the most popular in this area –, developed by Funky Citizens, the first and best quality fact-checking site in Romania. (...)

Note (for politicians!): The Internet is just the technology or the tool that allows you to reach people. The important thing is the content and the ability to use it. This is what will make the difference. And yes, online manipulation and propaganda will lose importance, because the Internet also offers the fastest tool to check information. 
The article was published within the Advocacy Campaigns Aimed at Improving Transparency of Media Ownership, Access to Information and promotion of EU values  and integration project, implemented by the IJC, which is, in its turn, part of the Moldova Partnerships for Sustainable Civil Society project, implemented by FHI 360.
This article is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content are the responsibility of author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.