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Covering the election beyond our memes: what role for visual politics and social media?

More visual coverage of the campaign means more material that is shareable and alterable. AAP/Lukas Coch

Covering the election beyond our memes: what role for visual politics and social media?

More visual coverage of the campaign means more material that is shareable and alterable. AAP/Lukas Coch

Staffers for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton recently asked for an unflattering photo of him at a press conference, already posted and noticed online, to be taken down by the reporter who posted it.

The response to this request didn’t go down as hoped. Instead of removing the photo, the request amplified attention. It encouraged more sharing and, especially, creative re-interpretations of Dutton.

Dutton fell foul of the “Streisand effect”. This is when an attempt to get online content removed has the opposite effect.

Increasing use

The visual is powerful within social media content. For politics, it allows additional commentary, more detail, and humour. Dutton’s moment in the shadows is just one fleeting example in a long series of visual and irreverent political coverage on social media, whether sharing unadulterated content or offering new interpretations.

Take, for example, Bill Shorten’s “mullet”; or responses to the redesigned $5 note; Woolworths’ accidental, ill-advised “Fresh In Our Memories” meme generator; when Tony Abbott bit into a raw, whole onion; when Kevin Rudd shared a photo after cutting himself while shaving; or the many #libspill memes and their offshoots like #PutOutYourOnions.

Social media and politics have been entwined for a long time, especially in Australia. Twitter in particular was a key resource for covering the first Rudd/Gillard spill in 2010. Since then, the likes of #ausvotes, #auspol and #qanda have become regular markers for political topics and commentary – civil or otherwise.

Politics also emerges within everyday content, in response to issues, events and experiences beyond just what is happening in parliament. Regardless of social media’s impact upon election results, Australians are using everyday platforms and apps – including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat and more – for covering and commenting on news and politics.

The visual is especially important here. The likes of Facebook and Twitter have provided more support for different image and video forms.

Consider how the election was announced on social media. Rather than live tweeting through text updates, with occasional photos, rolling coverage was provided through live streams on Periscope and Facebook Live, augmented by rapidly edited and shared video clips, Vine loops and animated GIFs embedded into tweets, posts and live blogs.

Technical support for visual content has meant that broadcasters and media producers can take advantage of their content and tailor it for these formats. The ABC, for example, uses Vine and GIFs in addition to video in its news updates on social media, as well as in its articles on its website.

Visual content also offers extra appeal in the quest for clicks, likes and other audience reach and engagement metrics.

What to expect from this campaign

As the election campaign unfolds, the political will feature in everyday and visual social media in many ways.

Press conferences, campaign stops and more will be livestreamed. User profile pictures may support particular parties. Stats and policy proposals will be condensed into infographics. Breaking news and anything unusual will get turned into GIFs, memes, punning hashtags and more.

This is in addition to the traditional visual – cartoons, ads, pamphlets and campaign footage – also being shared online.

This election promises further acceleration of the cycles of coverage and response (and outrage, mockery, intrigue, interest and distraction). More visual coverage of the campaign means more material that is shareable and alterable.

The presence of digitally and politically literate social media users with the means and abilities to create and remix content – encouraged and inspired by the likes of BuzzFeed and Junkee – means that anything happening during the campaign is a potential candidate for attention, for analysis and commentary, and for new memes.

This trend is not unique to Australian politics. In the US, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is offering regular fodder for GIFs, memes and more.

This acceleration is also reflected in the broader presentation of politics and news on social media. Political coverage gets framed through listicles and clickbait headlines. Immediate coverage, “hot takes” and irreverent responses are rapidly posted alongside investigative and in-depth reports.

Social media – for better or worse – will feature extensive and immediate coverage of the election – be it considered analyses, pithy remarks and amusing one-liners, partisan messages, memes, hashtag hijacking, live reporting, offensive and antagonistic posts, flame wars or abuse.

It’s not all going to be funny, or pretty, or coherent, or acceptable, or right. But there’s going to be a lot of it. With visuals.