Social media sites and Māori political engagement

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Joanne Waitoa

A Massey University master’s student is investigating the role of social media sites in encouraging political participation and engagement among Māori.

Joanne Waitoa (Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu) is examining the Mana Party’s Facebook pages – Mana ki Manawatū, Mana Wairarapa and Mana Rangatahi (youth), and the effectiveness of the party’s social media campaign during the 2011 general election.

“I wanted to explore how social media sites can be culturally safe spaces for encouraging indigenous development and engagement with the political system,” she explains.

The research is timely now as more people think and talk about politics with the July 24 deadline for Māori voters to decide whether they want to be on the Maori electoral roll – their last opportunity for five more years – and the recent Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election, she says.

In New Zealand voter turnout for Māori is consistently lower than non-Māori for various reasons but partially because Māori often feel their concerns are not adequately represented by those in parliament and political parties are out of touch with the people, Ms Waitoa says. However, social media is an opportunity for parties connect, especially with younger Māori voters.

It is a topic that first captured her attention during the last election. “I noticed a lot of people saying they 'weren't political' but then commenting online about GST increases, petrol prices, crime or education stories, all of which are political issues,” she says.

Articles, petitions, and invitations to protest events on the issues were coming up on her Facebook newsfeed. “It made me wonder about the potential for social media to raise awareness for those who didn't consider themselves to be political and didn't engage with traditional media, but who might be influenced by discussions that come up in their Facebook newsfeeds through friends or whānau.”

For her research, she interviewed the party’s president and page administrators on their objectives, and 12 subscribers on their engagement, to evaluate the effectiveness of the social media campaign.

The Masterton-based student says the party saw social media as an inexpensive tool that worked well when organising events or communicating with youth. But it tended to exclude kaumatua (elders) who were less likely to use it.

Facebook users agreed they were exposed to information via the pages they would not have otherwise seen, such as articles or petition sites. “For some this led to changes in thinking and raised awareness of issues. For many this lead to offline action, for example attending a hui or hikoi,” Ms Waitoa says.

The development studies student also explored how social media fits with traditional Māori customs and values. Whanaungatanga (relationships/networking), the option of using Te Reo Māori in forums and the opportunity for many opinions to be shared similar to on a marae were examples of alignment with tikanga (correct custom). But that it is not kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face) interaction, is difficult to determine authenticity of information and cultural misappropriation were in factors in opposition with this approach.

Ms Waitoa, who will finish her thesis in November, says the research aims to explain the opportunities as well as how to mitigate any negative aspects of social media. Once a framework is created it could be template for any strategy to engage respectfully with indigenous people.

“This research is important because very little has been written on the topic and new media is a real opportunity for Māori development as well as indigenous people in general."

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