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#ausvotes: a final update from the social media hustings

AAP/Lukas Coch

As we conclude this very lengthy Australian election campaign, let us review how the candidates fared on Twitter these past two weeks. Our research tracks all tweets directed at or posted by the candidates’ Twitter accounts. This provides a more comprehensive picture than the comparatively more self-selecting election- and politics-related hashtags #ausvotes and #auspol.

The mid-campaign update that I posted a fortnight ago pointed to a number of clear differences between the major parties: ALP accounts were considerably more active than Coalition accounts, but Coalition accounts received a considerably greater volume of mentions than those of Labor candidates. In turn, however, ALP politicians were significantly more likely to see their posts retweeted. Much of the discussion on Twitter, in other words, was about the Coalition – and while there wasn’t a great deal of outright endorsement for either side of politics, the support that we did see is more likely to be directed towards ALP candidates.

That picture is virtually unchanged for the period of 17 to 30 June, during which we gathered nearly 400,000 tweets directed at the candidates. Indeed, the gap in @mentions received that existed between Coalition and Labor has opened slightly further still; proportionally, the past two weeks have seen even more discussion about Malcolm Turnbull and his team, while the total volume of tweets directed at Bill Shorten and his colleagues has remained steady.

Tweets sent and received by candidate accounts, 16-30 June. Axel Bruns / QUT Digital Media Research Centre

The analysis for this fortnight also reveals a substantial amount of tweeting activity by Greens candidates; they tweeted a great deal more than their Coalition counterparts during this time. This did not translate into a large response from ordinary Twitter users, however: the popular discussion of this election remains concentrated on the traditional major parties. (This might give pause to those who claim that the Australian Twittersphere is simply some kind of leftist echo chamber.)

Although total tweeting activity shows a relatively steady environment, the past fortnight has seen some notable shifts in the focus of discussion. In my previous update I already noted the strong response to the Orlando massacre, and the links that Australian Twitter users began to draw almost immediately between this attack and the domestic political debate about same-sex marriage. For a few days after Orlando, this topic dominated the tweets directed at election candidates, and more tweets about the proposed marriage equality referendum have continued to be posted in subsequent days than before the attack.

Key themes of tweets @mentioning candidate accounts, 16-30 June. Axel Bruns / QUT Digital Media Research Centre

The UK’s Brexit referendum has generated a similar, but significantly smaller spike in activity, but appears to have had a somewhat less lasting effect. It is likely, however, that the increase in budget-related discussion in recent days is also related to this topic: quite possibly, the focus has shifted from the immediate implications of a Brexit for Australia to a more general discussion of Australian economic policy in a post-Brexit environment.

The most substantial increase in volume over the past fortnight is for health-related discussions, however. This clearly shows the impact of Labor’s campaign messaging around Medicare. The raw numbers cannot tell us whether that campaign is going to shift Australians’ voting intentions, of course – but clearly the campaign has succeeded in boosting public discussion about health policy, at least on Twitter.

Top Tweets of the Past Fortnight

The most prominent tweets of this period tell a more detailed story, and point to some of the voter sentiment underlying these shifts in attention. Comedian Charlie Pickering’s tweet to Malcolm Turnbull, linking the Brexit and same-sex marriage referenda, was the most retweeted message on 24 June:

Two days later, with the economic disruptions likely to be caused by the Brexit vote becoming more evident, the debate had returned to the question of which party was better equipped to manage the economy. On 26 June, former Treasurer Wayne Swan’s defence of his legacy was the most retweeted post:

The final days of the campaign document the shift in focus towards health policy. In the context of relatively limited retweets for candidates of either major party, it is notable that on 28 and 30 June, Labor messages were most retweeted. On 28 June, Tanya Plibersek’s appearance on the ABC’s Q&A received some additional attention on Twitter:

On 30 June, her colleague Stephen Jones continued the scare campaign, and received the greatest number of retweets as a result:

Pro-Coalition sentiment is comparatively absent from this: while Coalition politicians posted messages promoting their policies, they received comparatively few endorsements in return. Most prominent amongst these was Malcolm Turnbull’s post on 30 June – the only time that he appeared in the top five most retweeted messages over the past fortnight:

Whether such late shifts in attention can still have any measurable impact on the election outcome, given that a substantial number of Australian will already have cast early and postal votes, will perhaps become evident on Saturday night.

But – especially after two months of campaigning, and with the finish in sight – some of the greatest retweeting activity was directed at the comedic interventions in the campaign. And who else but SBS’s Lee Lin Chin should have the last word, with the most shared post of 27 June:

Surely that’s a policy we can all support.

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