Australia's long, social election

Social media will play a big role in Australia's longest ever road to the federal election but are the pollies capable of using the medium effectively?

A typical election has more advertising and campaigning than most Australians can stomach, but it appears we may have to undo our belt buckles for what's headed our way in 2013. What's more this year's campaign is almost certain to be dissected by the public on the social media front. 

The record length of the federal election campaign means there is more time for politicians to gain leverage, to be more strategic and to potentially make more gaffes than ever before on social media.

Just how the pollies end up using social media for their purposes will be an important and entertaining part of the campaign trail.

The social media dimension to the elections isn't entirely a new phenomenon. The 2007 Australian election was when politicians really started getting their teeth into social media.

According to the ABC’s Lateline, 2007 saw the likes of Kevin Rudd really begin to tap into potential voters.

Rudd’s online campaign featured numerous Youtube videos, a Myspace page and a Twitter account all coordinated to cement the Kevin 07 line into voters’ minds.

In particular, he targeted social media savvy youth in an effort to win votes.

Watch Kevin Rudd’s Youtube campaign launch below.


But the social media game has changed:  it’s now much more than reaching out to a younger demographic on Youtube.

When asked about what types of social media might be used this time around, Dr Sean Rintel, lecturer in strategic communication at the University of Queensland, highlighted Twitter as an important tool for politicians.

He says that the fact that both major party leaders are prolific users of Twitter demonstrates this point.

Also worth remembering is that there are many more social media users today than there were in 2007, the user base has diversified and matured.

According to a report by Sensis, in 2012 on social media use, 49 per cent of people surveyed aged 60-64 use social networking sites. No wonder social media fast becoming an important weapon in the toolkit for most politicians.

How do politicians use social media?

Most politicians are using social media in some form, below are the figures from Small Multiples as of December 2012 on how the heavyweights measure up.

YouTube Views

  1. Kevin Rudd : 85,899
  2. Joe Hockey : 85,325
  3. Malcolm Turnbull : 82,915
  4. Michael Danby: 67,278
  5. Peter Slipper : 60,730
  6. Sarah Hanson-Young : 57,980

Facebook Likes

  1. Julia Gillard : 151,544
  2. Kevin Rudd : 71,728
  3. Tony Abbott : 27,645
  4. Malcolm Turnbull : 12,028
  5. Adam Bandt : 6,931

Tweets per day

  1. Craig Emerson : 40.7
  2. Mike Kelly 12.9
  3. Ed Husic : 10.8
  4. Ursula Stephens : 9.6
  5. Graham Perrett : 7.3
  6. Kevin Rudd : 4.6

Twitter followers

  1. Kevin Rudd : 1,182,499
  2. Julia Gillard : 327,426
  3. Malcolm Turnbull : 140,791
  4. Tony Abbott : 93,063
  5. Joe Hockey : 54,328
  6. Wayne Swann : 29,147

The report suggests that the amount of social media output doesn’t necessarily amount to a positive response of following or liking from the public.

Despite not being a candidate for Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd is still very dominant across Twitter, Facebook and Youtube after his efforts in the 2007 election and remaining popularity.

While the public watch to see what politicians do on social media this election, Rintel says that politicians are likely to be gazing back the other way as keeping an eye on public opinion and the online conversation will be just as crucial as influencing it.

We may even see the party’s strategist’s turn to social media analytics to measure sentiment and fine tune their message.

How representative are Tweeters?

A common criticism of social media audiences is that they are not representative of the public and not useful to target in a political campaign.

Rintel supports this notion to an extent, in that social media is not fully representative of the wider public.

However, he said that, “big social media stories are always going to get picked up more by traditional news sources”.

In this way, social media campaigns are not confined to the web, they have a much broader reach.

Lessons from the US election

Using social media to gauge public opinion is also a lesson Australian politicians can take from the last US election.

Republicans and democrats both used information available on social media to determine where clusters of supporters lived to determine where they should campaign.

This made door knocking more efficient and telecast speeches could be given in areas of known support.

Another lesson to be learnt from the US election is the damage a public gaffe can inflict.

During Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, the senator made an embarrassing public gaffe, dismissing 47 per cent of Americans who he claimed, “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it”.

The leaked video received scathing public comment on social media platforms.

The long road to September

The one inescapable feature of the 2013 election is that it’s long and the timeframe holds a few key implications for what a successful social media strategy will need to look like.

The extra time could be used by either party to be more strategic and in designing a lengthier campaign than in the past. 

According to Rintel, this could mean that the political party that can design the best long social media campaign could hold a critical edge.

“Now that we have the longer time table means they can plan more effectively with what they’re going to use,” Rintel says.

Of course, social media can be a double-edged sword and platforms like Twitter can become a merciless echo chamber for criticism. 

The extended time period for this election means that there is more time for a politician to make a mistake and more time for it to be turned into satire.

Whether it’s constructing a campaign or trying to pull off a PR recovery, a long election mean a lot of work ahead for the social media experts inhabiting both camps as Canberra.

Time for them to earn their keep.

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