Will social media really decide the election?

Tony Abbott reportedly buying Twitter followers, Rudd flying in a team of social media experts - old world politicians are seemingly colliding with the world of social media. But translating tweets to votes won't be easy.

Graph for Will social media really decide the election?

It was the cut that stopped the nation.

With one nick of the razor and a quick happy snap with his smartphone, Kevin Rudd turned a rather mundane experience into a social media sensation.

The Instagramed photo of Rudd - and his barely bleeding cheek - ricocheted across social media, accumulating over 8000 likes, 295 retweets and went on to hijack the mainstream news agenda.

As bizarre as it sounds, Kevin Rudd’s shaving cut is a clear reminder of both the power and reach of social media. But by the same token, did it really do anything for Rudd popularity or his credibility as Prime Minister? Many just took to the internet to criticise his lack of grooming skills.

There is an unspoken disconnect between social media and politics. We know that in Australia, politics and policy is one of the most popular topics of discussion on these platforms. But what we don't know is whether all this chatter is actually changing opinions or just consolidating existing views.

It's a potent question, given that we're in the middle of election that is purportedly going to be heavily influenced by tweets and Facebook posts. 

Feeding the social sharks 

Over the past couple of weeks, the interplay between social media and the election has dominated the headlines. Tony Abbott's been accused of buying fake Twitter supporters, and Rudd has imported US president Barack Obama’s crack team of social media experts to hound his opponents with viral videos, and now, in perhaps the ultimate nod towards the apparent importance of these platforms, there's even talk of a second election debate over Facebook.  

Graph for Will social media really decide the election?

On the surface, it seems both sides of politics are treating social platforms as a key battle ground. But will conquering the Twittersphere really decide the election? Not likely. 

Rayid Ghani, the Obama 2012 campaign’s former chief scientist, says social media does have a role to play but it won't make or break a government.

Ghani should know, given his key role in harnessing new technologies - like social media - to help Barack Obama win his second term in office.

Rather perpetuate the hype around social media and campaigns, Ghani flatly rejects blanket statements like ‘Twitter will predict an election’ or ‘Facebook likes will lead to votes’.

“Technology is a supporting tool. It can make a good campaign better, but it can’t save a horribly run campaign with a bad candidate,”he says. 

Fact or fiction, a bit of both?

Funnily enough, this myth around social media foreshadowing an election result actually first arose during last year's US presidential race last year.

Analysis from Twitter, Facebook and even Google search analytics consistently suggested that Obama would win the election by a significant margin. They ultimately picked it: Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney with a four per cent swing toward the Democrats - a significant win for a re-election campaign in US politics.

The result may vindicate the importance of following social media sentiment just as closely as the polls. But, Ghani begs to differ.

“Technology makes a difference at the margins,” he says.

“Because we won by such a large margin, that points to a more substantial reason.”

That reason, he suggests, was Obama’s ability to inspire volunteers and push a data-powered targeted grassroots campaign. And unsurprisingly, he adds that the sheer number of gaffes and mistakes that his opponent, Mitt Romney, made really played into Obama’s hand.

With this strategy, social media worked more as a tool to mobilise those who already support the party to both donate and volunteer their time. On the flipside, it also was used to promote the mistakes of the opposing party.

From here, any efforts to reach out and and actively convince voters were targeted towards swing states and to those - according to the party’s analytics - that could be convinced, Ghani says.

Sound familiar?

Underneath all of Labor’s mass media policy announcements, they’ve been running a similar strategy.

Graph for Will social media really decide the election?

Graph for Will social media really decide the election?

Graph for Will social media really decide the election?

And in a dead giveaway, even the front page of Labor website is geared towards this volunteering mantra.

Graph for Will social media really decide the election?

Horses for courses

But the question is, will this strategy work in Australia? After all, we are a different country with a totally different political system.

Volunteering is ingrained into the US politics partly because of its non-compulsory voting rules. In order to win an election a party has to do three things: register voters, attain their support and then convince them to actually turn up to the polls. As Ghani explains, you need to generate a small army of volunteers and raise millions of dollars worth of donations to manage this process effectively.

“We spent about $1 billion on the campaign in the US, but a large part of that was for the first and the third tactic: getting them registered and getting them to go and vote," Ghani says. 

“Take out all that and you can do it cheaply.”

So, the good news is that in Australia mandatory voting means our political parties can comparatively campaign on the cheap. The trade-off, of course, is that they find it harder to nurture a culture of political participation. Not to discount the work of some political volunteers, but it’s still a fringe behaviour. Despite its efforts, its doubtful that Labor will be able to breed one by September 7. Though, time will tell.

This strategy to turn an especially devout part of any social media following into an army for a grassroots campaigners, according to Ghani, is the best bet for translating the potential of social media into an actual election result. This possibly highlights one avenue through which Rudd’s US social media experts have helped with the campaign.

The other of course, lies in 'shareable' political messaging plastered across Labor's Facebook page. 

Winning and losing on a tweet

There's no equation that can decipher what impact social media propaganda has on voters. Queensland University of Technology associate professor Axel Bruns says there might be an effect but not in the way you would expect. 

"Social media use may not win an election, but it has the potential to lose it," he says.

As seen with Romney during the US election, viral posts on Twitter and Facebook have the potential to amplify the impact of any slip of the tongue or an awkward photo. These kind of gaffes have always played a role in influencing votes, social media has simply made it harder for the political parties to bury them. 

Bruns also explains that social media gives both sides of politics the ability to wage quite negative online campaigns against their opponent without any backlash from voters. This is because, the people who are likely to share or like this kind of political advertising are likely to already support the party it promotes. 

However, measuring the actual impact of these posts is still sketchy at best. Bruns and his team are in the middle of an investigation into how social media impacts elections, and so far the “fast changing” nature of this technology has made it difficult to draw any concrete conclusions. 

For now, drawing definitive links from social media behaviour is more about trial and error and assumptions of impact and less about empirical evidence. By the time the next federal election rolls along in 2016, there will most likely be a new set of social tools that will look to dictate how campaigns are fought.

We won't know how it will work but we'll most likely call it a game-changer anyway.

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