Another big week in federal politics is underway, with the budget announced on Tuesday. Then, possibly this weekend, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will formally call a double-dissolution election for July 2.
While it is true that the official campaign does not begin until the governor-general issues the election writs, the mechanics of parties’ campaigns began months, even years, ago.
Political party operatives, staffers of politicians, and political organisations such as GetUp are flooding voters’ inboxes with emails about issues they want etched in voters’ minds by polling day.
In the digital age of election campaigning, party websites, direct email and social media provide faster, cheaper and more targeted means to reach voters than the old method of printed material sent out through the post.
How social media is shaping elections
Australian politicians, like their overseas counterparts, are bypassing traditional media and instagramming, tweeting and collecting friends and “likes” on Facebook to communicate their election messages. Candidates’ goals are two-fold: to raise their public profiles and to put vote-winning issues on the election agenda.
Australian political communication studies show that since Labor’s successful “Kevin 07” election campaign more MPs are using digital tools, with a 243% increase between 2007 and 2013.
Facebook, Twitter, direct email and politicians’ personal websites are the most used digital media platforms for communicating to voters. Politicians’ use of YouTube is rising too. Kevin Rudd received more than three million views from his 51 video postings during the 2013 campaign.
Political parties and organisations are also borrowing from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign playbook and using their websites and social media to raise campaign funds. In 2013, Labor raised more than A$800,000 in small donations through these targeted methods.
But is it an overstatement for some commentators to claim that 2016 will be the Facebook election?
Certainly social media can be a powerful and, at the same time, intimate form of communication. Who can forget Rudd’s shaving “selfie” to his 1.28 million followers that went viral in 2013?
Putting to one side the banality of the image, Rudd showed that he understood the power of digital media for getting noticed – particularly by harder-to-reach voters such as younger people, who use the internet more than any other media for accessing news stories.
A more sombre example of social media’s influence was then-Australian army chief David Morrison’s video message about respecting female officers. Viewed by more than 1.6 million people, Morrison’s message to soldiers to “get out” of the armed forces if they didn’t respect women later earned him the title of Australian of the Year and a reputation as a champion of women’s rights.
Social media also helps politicians project their image, character and values to voters. For example, Queensland LNP MP Wyatt Roy shared with his thousands of Facebook followers an adorable baby llama meme with the caption “Baby llama don’t need no drama”.
Not only was this a highly shareable picture, it told voters that Roy supports the ReachOut.com anti-suicide campaign. By linking himself to this group’s message, Roy projects a sense of who he is (character) and what he stands for (values) to younger voters.
Social media may be a cost-effective and fast way to reach voters. However, traditional media still plays a vital role of informing voters about election issues.
In a time of intense audience fragmentation, traditional media still commands large audiences. For instance, the night before parliament was recalled the ABC’s 7PM Sunday television news dedicated the first third of its bulletin to the upcoming election. More than one million viewers watched this coverage. And this editorial commitment from the ABC came at least 80 days from polling day.
Television is made for pictures. A good example was the heated dispute between Labor and the government over the future of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal that established a controversial national minimum pay rate for truck drivers. Televised news images of scores of angry owner-drivers with their big rigs circulating around Parliament House tells the story better than any parliamentary debate.
Meanwhile, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has also used the paid space of television to launch its counter-attack advertisements against the government’s push to restore the building industry watchdog. The union uses a shady-looking character standing over a hapless worker to claim in the ads that:
Workers will have less [sic] rights than an ice drug dealer.
Getting the message out through history
The use of old and new media platforms for political messaging makes more sense when we consider election campaign techniques as mapped over time by political scientist Pippa Norris. She identifies three distinct eras of political communication: the pre-modern, modern and post-modern campaign.
In terms of media, the pre-modern campaign existed before television. It relied on the oratory skill of politicians at town-hall meetings to convey election messages. Campaigning was concentrated within local communities. Local candidates engaged in political activities like rallies, doorstep canvassing, and party meetings.
The modern campaign captures the second half of the 20th century. Political parties centrally co-ordinated messages and conveyed them largely through the mass media of newspapers, television and radio. Successful politicians were those who mastered the soundbite.
The post-modern era adopts the grassroots communication of the pre-modern era, but also uses professional consultants on advertising, public opinion and political marketing to deliver messages throughout the election cycle. It is a highly sophisticated hybrid campaign.
A good example of the postmodern campaign was Labor’s victory in the 2014 Victorian election. It formed the Community Action Network. This attracted 5500 volunteers – many of whom were not party members – who between them made half a million phone calls and door-knocked more than 170,000 homes in critical marginal seats during the eight-week campaign.
The media team behind Labor leader Daniel Andrews also ensured he had more Facebook followers than any other Australian premier. It used this to send out thousands of messages.
Most studies find Australian politicians have yet to fully utilise social media to engage voters through conversations and genuine two-way flow of information between voter and politician. Politicians’ use of social media tends to be a one-way exchange, characterised by speaking rather than listening.
There are notable exceptions. Politicians who do interact with their constituents via social media rather than simply broadcasting messages include the recently sacked Geelong mayor Darryn Lyons, Rudd, and Turnbull. It is perhaps no coincidence that both Lyons and Turnbull had previous careers working in the mass media and therefore better understand what gets the media’s attention.
The real test for this year’s election will be how politicians keep the public interested in their political messages for eight weeks. Then again, the eight-week postmodern campaign, using a mix of old and new media, worked for Andrews.
This article has been co-published with ElectionWatch.unimelb.edu.au