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#ausvotes 2016: some early impressions

AAP/Lukas Coch

We’re now well into one of the longest Australian election campaigns in recent memory, and close enough to election date that we should expect the general public and not just the usual political junkies to begin engaging with the parties’ campaigns. Time, then, to examine how the parties are faring on social media to date.

We’re focussing here on Twitter, where we have been tracking the tweets posted by and @mentions (including retweets) directed at all the election candidates we have been able to identify to date. Because candidate nominations only closed on 9 June, with the major parties publishing their confirmed candidate lists somewhat earlier, our substantive tracking commenced on 25 May, with more minor party candidates added as their Twitter accounts are being identified. The focus of this first update, therefore, is especially on activities around Labor and Coalition candidates.

The overall patterns we have been able to observe to date largely reflect long-term trends in Australian political campaigning via Twitter. Candidates fielded by the Australian Labor Party have been more active in posting tweets by a very large margin: ALP accounts posted about twice as many tweets as Liberal and National Party accounts put together.

A substantial number of their posts were retweets, too: some 47% of their tweets were retweets, compared to under 44% and under 38% for Liberal and National accounts, respectively. So far this is a significantly greater percentage than in 2013, when about 38% of ALP and only 25% of Coalition tweets were retweets. While this indicates a more coordinated social media campaign on both sides of politics, and reflects perhaps also a tighter political situation where getting one’s message out through all channels is crucial, the relatively limited level of activity from Coalition accounts also points at a continuing ‘small target’ strategy that may not be all too well suited to 2016’s much tighter electoral race.

Tweets sent and received by candidate accounts since 25 May. Axel Bruns / QUT Digital Media Research Centre

The @mentions of candidates’ accounts, on the other hand, show a very substantial departure from, and reversal of, the 2013 picture. Coalition accounts are @mentioned and retweeted more often than ALP accounts by a factor of nearly two to one, while in 2013 ALP accounts led the Coalition by a ratio of only just over four to three. This could be read as an indication that the 2016 election is widely seen as the Coalition’s to lose: its outcome will largely be a verdict on the Abbott/Turnbull era, rather than a reflection on the performance of Bill Shorten’s opposition team – much as 2013 was arguably a Labor defeat more than a Coalition win.

However, also notable in this context is the comparatively substantial volume of retweets received by Labor accounts. At more than 17,000 since 25 May, ALP accounts have already received more than twice the number of retweets they gained in the entire 2013 campaign, while the Coalition’s 6,200 retweets to date still rank below its 2013 mark of 6,700 retweets. While in 2013, less than 3% of all tweets directed at ALP and Coalition were retweets, in 2016 more than 14% of all tweets mentioning ALP candidates are retweets.

Even if retweets do not always represent endorsements, it is clear from this pattern that in the Australian Twittersphere there is a much greater degree of engagement with, and even support for the tweets of the opposition party this year than there was for the opposition at the previous election.

Themes of Debate

It’s still too early for a detailed discussion of the major themes of the social media discussion around the candidates – we’ll need to do some more in-depth processing of the data to identify and group the relevant keywords and capture some of the unexpected themes that may arise from time to time. However, using a set of predesigned keyword collections relating to some of the defining topics in longer-term Australian political debate, we can at least begin to sketch out the themes that emerge as prominent so far.

This accounts for only one fifth of all the tweets posted by and directed at the candidates, because many such tweets do not contain any major keywords: they are posted in context, and may express agreement or disagreement with a previous statement without repeating the key points.

Key themes of tweets @mentioning candidate accounts since 25 May. Axel Bruns / QUT Digital Media Research Centre

Amongst those tweets that can be clearly associated with specific topics, just over one quarter focus on the environment. This is unsurprising given the recent coverage of a significant coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef, news reports about the Turnbull government’s intervention to redact warnings about the state of the reef from an UN report, and the ongoing controversy about devastating cuts to the CSIRO climate research teams.

Social policy – which covers topics such as health and education funding, the future of Medicare, and the implementation of the Gonski reforms, as well as the paid parental leave and national disability insurance schemes – runs a close second, at just under one quarter of al tweets with identifiable themes.

At some distance from these leading themes are discussions about the budget deficit and potential measures to address it, at less than 15% of all identifiably themes tweets; this theme also includes discussions about superannuation and the GST rate. At under 13%, the state of the National Broadband Network and Australian broadband policy more generally follows closely behind; this is unsurprising given Malcolm Turnbull’s close involvement with the NBN in recent years, and Labor’s perception that this represents one of its most popular initiatives.

Refugee policy appears yet further down the list, with less than 10% of all themed tweets. Notably, although this issue was thematised more strongly during the early days of our dataset, it has been pushed to the background more and more by other topics. This may indicate that Labor has – for the moment – succeeded in neutralising this issue, which is seen as one of its most crucial weaknesses. Discussion about threats from ISIS and other Islamist terror groups, finally, account for only 3% of all themed tweets. If the Coalition had hoped to highlight this issue as one of its areas of strength, then at least on Twitter it has failed to do so.

How the balance between these themes, with their respective opportunities and threats for the different parties, continues to shift during the remainder of the campaign may well provide us with an indication of the likely electoral perspectives for both camps, so we’ll continue to watch these trends closely over the coming weeks.

Postscript: The Political Reaction to the Orlando Attack

I write this in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attack by a single terrorist on an Orlando nightclub, which killed some 50 people. As civic and political leaders from around the world have reacted to this tragedy, so have Australia’s politicians – and their statements, and the social media response to these statements, are also evident in our data for the past day. While Australian electioneering and politicking must fade to insignificance in the face of a crime as devastating as this, I present some immediate observations about the Australian response here for the record.

From what we know so far, the nightclub targetted in Orlando was especially popular with the gay and lesbian community, and it therefore appears that this terrorist attack may also be understood as a hate crime. This has been a focus of many of the political statements made on Monday, and of the social media responses to these statements. On Monday, nearly 60% of all the tweets directed at political candidates that could be allocated to a given theme addressed LGBTQI matters, and especially same-sex marriage; in the period from 25 May to 12 June, meanwhile, only 3% of all tweets had done so.

The vast majority of these @mentions were directed at Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Of the more than 24,000 @mentions and retweets of candidate accounts made this Monday, Turnbull received almost exactly half; of these, in turn, a significant majority discuss LGBTQI rights and same-sex marriage.

If he does monitor his Twitter account himself, Turnbull will be very well aware of the fact that nearly 7,000 of the @mentions he received on Monday were as a result of the widespread retweeting of four tweets by singer Troye Sivan, who linked Turnbull’s statement of support for the Orlando victims with Australia’s continued stance against same-sex marriage. Each had received more than 1,800 retweets by midnight on Monday (and more since), with the following generating the most resonance:

A statement by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, by contrast, had received fewer than 250 retweets to date and has not attracted similar controversy:

Clearly this difference in responses is related to the distinctions between the Coalition’s and Labor’s stance towards same-sex marriage – and while this should not be the primary concern right now, the Orlando attack has the potential to restart the public debate in Australia about LGBTIQ rights. It is likely that Turnbull will continue to be pressed on the discrepancies between his personal support for marriage equality and his party’s more complicated position, which promises a referendum some time after the election. Labor, by contrast, may see this as an issue where its policy is more closely aligned with overall public sentiment – yet over the coming weeks, it must also avoid the perception that it is exploiting an unprecedented tragedy for political gain.

It is also unclear how much the sentiment expressed on Twitter about Turnbull’s statement reflects the wider public mood. Political analysts can be quick to declare unexpected events to be ‘gamechangers’ in an ongoing election campaign, but to do so in this case is inappropriate both because of this uncertainty, and – more importantly – because the horrific nature of the attack should give us pause for reflection before we return to the base political calculus of the current campaign.

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