With every recent election, in Australia as well as elsewhere, parties and politicians are adding further to their arsenal of digital campaigning tools.
In the 2010 federal election campaign, my colleagues and I tracked the use of Twitter for political communication and debate through a major research project at QUT. It wasn’t quite a Twitter election, but we did see substantial use of social media during the campaign and a major spike in activities especially on election night, as Australia collectively tried to make sense of the result.
Some nineteen months later, social media have become even further embedded in the election strategies of major and minor parties. Over the course of the Queensland election, we tracked eighty Twitter accounts belonging to MPs and candidates. This sizeable number likely points to directives issued by the respective campaign headquarters in order to get as many candidates as possible tweeting.
Not that this is necessarily a good idea: reading tweets by a candidate who really doesn’t understand the medium, and isn’t interested in being there, can also act as a voter turnoff.
Rating the candidates
It’s less than surprising that of the candidates whose Twitter accounts we tracked, quite a few had neither sent any tweets during the campaign, nor received more than a handful of mentions. Two politicians – one from Labor and one from the Liberal National Party (LNP) – had even set their accounts to “private”, meaning that they had to approve you first before you could follow them. Not exactly reaching out to the electorate, then.
It’s a different story at the pointy end of the leaderboard, of course. While for rank and file candidates, the campaign strategists are probably happy as long as there are no major social media missteps, the party leaders are forced to develop a stronger presence here as well. This means tweeting regularly, and in a way that conveys some actual personality, rather than just posting press releases and having staffers take care of responses.
Here, we’ve seen some significant differences in campaigning styles emerge over the past few weeks.
Premier Anna Bligh (@TheQldPremier) and Deputy Premier Andrew Fraser (@AndrewFraserMP), as well as Campbell Newman’s direct opponent Kate Jones (@katejonesmp) in the Ashgrove electorate, have been substantially more active than their LNP counterparts. Newman (@Campbell_Newman), parliamentary opposition leader Jeff Seeney (not on Twitter) and deputy opposition leader Tim Nicholls (@TimNichollsMP) have been far less enthusiastic in their tweeting. The same is true for the respective party accounts @QLDLabor and @LNPQLD.
Just take the graph below, which shows the cumulative number of tweets posted from the accounts of Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman since the end of January (when the “phoney campaign” began).
The output from Bligh (and her staff) is substantial and consistent; her activity even ramps up another notch as the election proper is called on 19 February.
Newman’s tweeting is far more limited, and somewhat erratic: there are several periods (just before the election is called, and again in early March) where his output flatlines – no new tweets for several days.
For a party leader in the midst of a campaign, this is unusual, to say the least. At least as strange was Newman’s “real Julia” moment on 5 March, when for a period of several days he also ran a separate, “personal” account, @CD_Track, which ultimately produced only ten tweets before the experiment was terminated.
Standing (apparently) for “Can Do on Track”, @CD_Track must have been a media advisor’s nightmare: it presented the potential of a major candidate going rogue, diluting the message. No wonder it didn’t last long.
A question of style
We can also notice some obvious differences in tweeting style between the two leaders.
Some two-thirds of Bligh’s tweets are @replies: responses (including manual retweets) to public questions and other messages directed at her (and if we can trust that only tweets signed “Prem_Team” originate from her staffers, most of those responses were written by Bligh herself).
For Newman, just over half of his tweets are @replies - and it is notable that the majority of those replies were sent during the early stages of the campaign. In recent weeks, since the @CD_Track incident, @replies have almost disappeared from his tweet stream.
The remainder of their messages, for both leaders, are original tweets: campaign announcements and other statements which originate from them.
It’s tempting, of course, to correlate these tweeting styles with the candidates’ personality traits - after all, the (apparently) more unmediated display of personality which it enables is one of the reasons that Twitter and other social media are now growing in importance during election campaigns. But then, we also need to keep in mind that who really tweets on behalf of our politicians remains unclear, in spite of their protestations.
Does it matter?
Whether any of this really makes any difference remains to be seen, of course. Given the trends shown in recent opinion polls, it’s likely that Bligh’s or Newman’s performance on Twitter and in other social media spaces will at best be a very minor factor in the election outcome: a fraction of percentage points here, a fraction there.
At this point in the history of social media, such tools are unlikely to win an election for anyone (but they might lose it, if something goes very badly wrong). As a medium, social media are not central enough yet to compete with print or broadcast in informing the electorate’s opinion of their politicians.
Reading the tea leaves
But can overall Twitter activity around the election serve as a guide to the likely outcome? The graph below shows the cumulative number of @mentions (@replies or manual retweets) of the two leaders’ accounts since the end of January, and (since late February) we’re seeing Campbell Newman pull well clear of Anna Bligh. For all of the Premier’s engagement of fellow users, Twitter users now talk to, at, and about her opponent much more.
This certainly seems to match the polls, which also indicate a substantial lead for the LNP over Labor. But of course, talking about a politician does not necessarily translate to voting for them. During the 2010 federal campaign, for example, we found Twitter users discussing Tony Abbott more frequently than Julia Gillard - especially since his mid-campaign declaration on the 7.30 Report that while not a “tech-head”, he opposed the NBN.
In an election as tight as the 2010 one, the percentage points which Abbott lost with the technophile community that night may well have been important in influencing the final outcome of the vote.
In the landslide climate which currently prevails in Queensland, however, the difference in attention now bestowed on Newman and Bligh is more likely to be a first sign of the public scrutiny which the prospective election winner will face after the weekend.