Every Australian federal election since Kevin ’07 has been hailed as an internet or social media election. The 2007 campaign was branded “the YouTube election” and “the Google election”, while the 2013 campaign was described as the “social media election”.
Now, no less than The Atlantic has warned Facebook could “tilt the 2016 election” for the US presidency.
So, are we seeing a Facebook election in Australia? Or at least a Facebook factor in the campaign? If so, what does Facebook tell us about our politicians and the state of our democracy?
The official Facebook page of the prime minister of Australia is simply headed “Malcolm Turnbull, politician”. The masthead is a photo of Turnbull surrounded by a group of young smiling children, with a small portrait photo inset. So far the page has more than 286,000 “likes” (not to be confused with likes of individual posts).
The official Facebook page of Bill Shorten has a masthead featuring a photo of Shorten surrounded by smiling young people, along with a small inset portrait photo. So far, the page has just 122,000 “likes” – less than half of Turnbull’s.
These statistics are telling. Despite all the hoo-ha about e-electioneering and the influence of social media, those who engaged with and liked Turnbull’s Facebook page represent just 1.7% of the 16,447,262 Australians who are eligible to vote. Shorten’s supporters on Facebook represent just 0.7% of the 16,447,262 Australians eligible to vote – not even 1% of eligible voters.
If this is representative of popular interest, it suggests that, from a quantitative perspective, Facebook is not likely to significantly influence the Australian federal election. It should be noted, though, that stories that are shared via Facebook can have a significant impact and reach undecided or disengaged voters.
The leaders’ pages do have readers who don’t bother to “like” the page. But that might be because they don’t actually like it. Either way, there is not a high volume of active engagement with our political leaders on Facebook.
On the day that the leaders’ Facebook pages were examined, the top of Turnbull’s page had a photo and story of Turnbull meeting girls playing in the Waverley girls’ netball competition in his electorate. This suggests an attempt to appeal to young people and parents of children. However, this was followed by 29 comments, most of which were critical of Turnbull and Liberal Party policies.
Then came a campaign slogan – a poster of a smiling Turnbull with the words “A plan” and an uneasy-looking Shorten with the words “A bill”.
Last election it was “stop the boats” that was repeated ad nauseam online and on TV. Do such slogans work? Judging by the response this one received, the answer is no. Another 996 comments followed the slogan, almost all negative.
Criticism on Turnbull’s Facebook page focused on the government’s economic decisions, accusations that he and the Liberal Party have lied on a number of issues, and criticisms of Turnbull as rich and out of touch with ordinary people.
Many comments were also along the lines of “they’re all the same” and “you can’t trust anyone”. This should serve as a warning for all politicians and political parties, supported by research that shows public trust is low and falling. Turnbull’s Facebook site reads as a homily on mistrust.
Preceding Turnbull’s post about girls’ netball were three posts on Thursday, May 12. One was about a small Mornington Peninsula brewery that has started exporting beer to China, which he seized upon as an example of his innovation narrative. The second was a message of congratulations to Maz and Rin Maslin on the birth of baby Violet, following the tragic loss of their three children when MH17 was shot down.
The third was a video of Turnbull lambasting Labor for threatening the block the Liberal plan for subsidised internships. Despite Turnbull’s staunch defence, the comments were critical. Some were quite personal. One called Turnbull an “idiot”.
Shorten’s Facebook page features a number of videos, with a focus on education in line with the Labor campaign strategy. Shorten is visually depicted in a number of photos with families. This indicates a Labor focus on human issues. Despite some efforts to humanise Turnbull, this stands in contrast with Turnbull’s primary focus on the economy, innovation (mainly associated with technology) and employment.
A further interesting feature of the content of Shorten’s Facebook page is that the majority of comments are positive and supportive. This could mean one of two things. One possibility is that the Labor Party is heavily moderating its leader’s Facebook page and removing negative comments. Turnbull’s social media policy may well be to leave negative comments online.
The other possibility is that Facebook is telling us something – that Shorten is gaining support, while Turnbull is disliked because of his private wealth and “upper-class” status.
If Facebook is a microcosm of wider electoral feeling, Turnbull has work to do. But the main message from Facebook is that, between them, the nation’s two main political leaders are “liked” online by less than 2.5% of eligible voters.