Politics as usual? Ailing parties fail to get to grips with social media

Senator John Faulkner’s call for political parties to re-engage with Australians through social media is laudable, but his own efforts illustrate how much politicians have to learn. Facebook/John Faulkner, CC BY-SA

After his speech about party renewal last week, I went to Labor Senator John Faulkner’s Facebook page. It has about 2700 likes. The page features links to speeches and pictures of events that Faulkner has been to, including meeting US President Barack Obama and a charity event for Alzheimer’s. But in reality it’s being used as just another medium to “broadcast” political messages and statements.

There is no evidence that John Faulkner himself uses the page - it says it’s managed by his office. There is no interaction at all with the people who have taken time to comment on the page. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the way social media works.

Social media provides an everyday horizontal network between a group of connected individuals; it’s meant to be an informal space to interact and engage. Increasingly, ordinary citizens want to see that politicians are ordinary like them, just community members who happen to be politicians. They want politicians to be authentic and are sceptical if they see staff posting on their behalf.

Social media is a primary source of source

I recently completed a project, The Civic Network, in collaboration with USA and UK-based colleagues, Michael Xenos and Brian Loader. Our project examined how young people use social media for political engagement. We were especially interested in whether social media was making it easier for a broader range of young people to express themselves and take action on politics.

Facebook has become ubiquitous for young people. About 90% of those aged 16-29 in each country have a Facebook page. Young people also learn about politics and major news events on Facebook rather than via traditional news outlets. That is, 65% of young Australians hear about major news events first on Facebook, before any other media outlet, and a majority regularly follow links to news stories from Facebook.

Our research suggests that we need to take Facebook much more seriously as a space where young people - purposefully or incidentally - engage with politics, with their networks of friends and family. Furthermore, contrary to popular speculation, this does not lead to an echo chamber of hearing only one-sided views. A majority of young Australians say they learn from Facebook friends who have different political views from theirs.

Many of our research participants believe that “liking” is an important way of showing symbolic support for political issues they and their friends care about. They are more likely to do this than to comment on posts about politics, which was just over a third in Australia and UK and 40% in the US.

Old politics is for old media

In qualitative online discussions we asked young people what they thought about posting on politics on social media and to explain the reluctance to make comments. One of the main reasons they are reluctant to comment on politics is that it could lead to conflict: they are wary of disagreement, arguments and offending someone.

This means that young people in general equate politics with conflict that is best avoided. Some said they thought that political conversations were better done face-to-face. Those who weren’t actively engaged in politics really wanted social media to be kept as just a social space for family and friends.

However, some of our young participants were optimistic about engagement with politics through social media platforms. One young woman stated:

I do think it is good. Many people my age have switched off the traditional media and it is rare to meet somebody who regularly watches the news or reads a newspaper. It is therefore important to spark their engagement in other ways. If they are actively reading, engaging and being informed by conversations on social media sites, then it creates a more informed public.

We also asked them whether they thought politicians should use social media more. Most thought it was a good idea as politicians should be available to be asked questions publicly and needed to be responsive to people, demonstrating that they listened to their views. They thought it was a way that politicians could focus on sharing information and policy, especially for young people who weren’t watching the news.

For example, one person said:

I think it’s a good thing our society is moving online and politicians are usually older people and it’s good to seem making an effort to stay up to date with technology and younger people who popularly use social media.

Some suggested that more interaction should become a normalised practice for politicians:

I think politicians using Facebook or Twitter is a good thing, as it allows them to interact with a younger audience on a more regular basis. However, I think that politicians need to use these social networks better, for example, perhaps doing weekly question and answer posts submitted from users.

While some scoffed, Kevin Rudd’s ‘shaving cut’ selfie suited social media’s more personal political culture. Facebook/Kevin Rudd, CC BY

Many also thought it could help show politicians were normal people, especially if their messages were positive and genuine. In a discussion about Kevin Rudd’s use of a selfie after cutting himself shaving during the 2013 election campaign, one young man said: “I think it’s funny, and it shows that Kevin Rudd has a humorous side to him and can be taken as not just a politician who’s always serious."

But some were concerned that politicians wouldn’t be authentic and that their staff would write the messages, not them. Part of authentic engagement was about being positive, not mired in adversarial and partisan conflict. For example, one woman said that politicians needed to “post relevant pieces of information that are interesting to people, without tearing to shreds the opposition”.

In the end, this is the difficult challenge for politics and politicians. Politics is about contestations over power, resources and decision-making. Debate and conflict are core. Young people’s everyday social media use is often about positive affirmation, liking posts and engaging on issues that matter to them.

The reconciliation of these two spaces is increasingly important if we want to reverse democratic disengagement. It will require a new form of interaction that cannot be politics as usual.