Not the social media election you were looking for | acidlabs
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Not the social media election you were looking for

Not the social media election you were looking for

Ever since Barack Obama came to the US Presidency on the back of a grassroots campaign, a good proportion of which was activated via a thorough and well-executed social media campaign, various pundits have been breathlessly predicting that, in Australia, the election campaign currently underway would be the social media election.

Not least of all, I’ve been known to express the view that if social media could have an effect in an Australian election, it could be significant. After all, with over 9 million Australians using Facebook, and somewhere north of 1.1 million of us on Twitter (via ABC), social media is certainly mainstream in this country.

But it’s just not going to happen. At least not this time around.

I think there are three parts to the reason why.

First, despite the mainstream media merrily jumping in and running polls and trackers like the ABC’s Campaign Pulse, and parts of the ad, PR and digital industry running sites focussed keenly on social media activity around the election such as Amnesia Razorfish’s The Social Election and BuzzNumbers’ BuzzElection, the voter activation by social media phenomenon is just not happening. These sites, despite all the truly fascinating information they are surfacing up are, for this election, all very much a part of the massive echo chamber that is a self-absorbed hybrid of the social media gurus (something I have been accused more than once of being a part – happily accepted) and, as Jeff Waugh puts it so eloquently the politico-tragic-media-wonk-o-sphere™ (also something I am gladly a part of).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love all this stuff. I think the effort that has gone into all this tracking, monitoring and analysis is laudable. And I’m certainly watching it all and taking it all in. But I’m self-admittedly not your average voter.

I am yet to see any voter outside this hybrid circle have their political opinion swayed through social media. This isn’t tipping point stuff. The connectors, mavens and salesmen using social media aren’t connecting, mavening (is that a word?) and selling the vote-changing message. The average punter is still relying on the tabloids, commercial radio and mainstream evening news and current affairs for their political information. If social media was having a real effect in this country on the level of political debate, the argument over matters like the Internet filter would be done and dusted; we’ve been ranting for three years about it and there’s still widespread community ignorance.

Second, politicians aren’t really using social media effectively. There are a few well-known examples that have taken the time and effort to reach out and connect online (and offline, let it be said) with their constituencies, but for most politicians social tools are still new, somewhat misunderstood and not especially well utilised. Our Prime Minister, after all, has only been on Twitter a month (I don’t, by the way, expect her to do all her own tweeting, she has other priorities, even beyond the election).

Most politicians (and their party machinery and people), even if they are using social tools, aren’t especially effective. The message remains mostly broadcast, disconnected from the social media using constituency. It’s not surprising in this instance that voters aren’t relating to them and connecting to their issues. Do we all want to move forward with Julia on Twitter? I don’t think so.

Third, as a voting nation, we’re more than a little different to the USA. I’m no political scientist, but to my amateur (albeit politico-tragic-media-wonk) eyes, the Australian electorate is noticeably more disconnected from political issues in a vote-changing way than our friends in countries without compulsory suffrage. Here, for the vast majority of the electorate, it’s paying the mortgage and car loan, buying groceries and paying school fees that matters. Beyond that, it’s the race-to-the-bottom issues of leaky borders invaded by leaky boats and the reduction of tax that we care about. Big-picture, informed political view isn’t something that you’d ascribe to the majority of the population.

Yes, social media is seeing massive growth in this country. Yes, it is important in many people’s lives (including people that are very mainstream). But social media, as an influence on the average voter isn’t yet a major player in this country. For that to be the case, we need to see a widespread maturing of social media use at the political level and a concomitant rise in depth of interest in politics amongst the wider population.

Stephen Collins
  • Karalee
    Posted at 11:16h, 30 July Reply

    Hi Stephen,

    Great post, and I’m glad you have contributed to this discussion.

    I agree with your assertion that Political use of social media will not affect the 2010 Federal Election. It’s simply too late, and too disorganised for any party or candidate to galvanise meaningful support via social media.

    However, I do believe that social media for this Election, offers us a finger on the pulse of how people feel about candidates, parties, issues and the Election in general. As you identify, the usage rates for social media in Australia are significant, and by tapping into how people are feeling and sharing their views via Twitter, Facebook and other channels, one can reasonably assume the sentiment and topics are reflective of the wider voting public, no?

    That said, I’m still an optimist. I still believe we can affect change via social media (or at least, start the snowball) in the next 3 weeks. The caveat? We need to form a collective and lobby on the issues that *really* matter. Social media can offer a groundswell of community change this Election. The parties are listening (I know), so if the movement is large enough, it will impact.


    • Stephen Collins
      Posted at 11:20h, 30 July Reply

      I think you’re right about the pulse, but I remain concerned that the pulse is still the tragics like you and me.

      I believe the question remains, who is commenting on the election in social spaces? Because if it’s not a representative, broad cross section of society, rather than just the tragics, the sample is skewed.

      • Karalee
        Posted at 11:25h, 30 July Reply

        Agree entirely. It’s interesting, but the data is showing it’s not just the tragics and echo chamber. The average Australian is sharing their views (albeit, without hashtags etc ;))

        Will make this my next post for Monday and share the proof to this assertion!

        And I want to keep this discussion going – it’s such a topic of personal interest – but I also think the discussion can help social media (and #smeg’s) in general by understanding social media *is* more than just a marketing platform.


  • Erietta Sapounakis
    Posted at 11:28h, 30 July Reply

    Some interesting thoughts Trib. Seeing old footage of Paul Keating versus John Hewson on Gruen Transfer this week certainly made me nostalgic for an era where political debate actually occured. I’ve attended several politicians’s announcements in my time. What always stuck me was the breadth of policy discussed which was completely absent in the newspaper the next day that cherry picked the hot topic issues. There is obviously potential for politicians to use social media to illustrate the range of policy missed by mainstream news. But what can be done when the strategists and marketers are encouraging them to stay “on message”?

    In the absence of Julia and Tony using social media, it may be pertinent to look at who is. You sited 2 great examples. I would also add and and (from the good folks at open australia). While the politicians may be absent from the social media space the activists are not.

  • Jerry
    Posted at 14:22h, 30 July Reply

    I think this will be one of the fastest growing segments of growth in social media. Politics and the passions of it are perfect for a social media storm.

  • Dr Stephen Dann
    Posted at 15:05h, 30 July Reply

    I think the biggest barrier between social media and engagement from the political sphere (elected, elected in waiting and the campaigning) is the sheer accountability of talking to people directly, and without the safety net of a dozen proxies, minders, filters and control elements.
    Real life direct feedback tends to discourage those who planned on being unquestioned if not unquestionable. Those of us who open the gates to direct access also tend to hold ourselves a little more accountable for our actions.

    I know a good policy implementer back up in QLD who specifically points out that they’re a professional faceless bureaucrat who doesn’t think of the recipients of the policy outcomes as people, else they’d not be able to implement their policies and sleep at night. I fear this sense of detachment from the impacted is a feature sought out by the political class, and a hell of a lot harder to achieve when you’ve got a live channel broadcasting straight to you.

    Also, mavening is not a word.

  • Martin Pluss
    Posted at 22:37h, 30 July Reply

    Hi Stephen – not sure if you saw this post of mine

    The comments I got thorough Facebook were more interesting – Social Media reflects a perspective of who will win or shape it – not sure if it it is representative but it might be in the future.

    cheers Martin

  • Twitter has delivered for ‘traditional’ journalism « Prakkypedia
    Posted at 13:15h, 20 August Reply

    […] Stephen Collins pointed out (quite rightly) that “the average punter is still relying on the tabloids, commercial radio and mainstream evening news and current affairs for their political information”. News Limited said (probably with relief) that “it was touted as the Twitter election, but two-and-a-half weeks in it has become clear the new media is far from usurping the mainstream outlets for the political parties.” […]

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