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Ideas for Australia: Beyond the abuse, social media has improved public political debate

Social media provides a way of answering back, and an alternative source of material, ideas and priorities. shutterstock

The Conversation has asked 20 academics to examine the big ideas facing Australia for the 2016 federal election and beyond. The 20-piece series examines, among others, the state of democracy, health, education, environment, equality, freedom of speech, federation and economic reform.

Social media is having a significant impact on the way we conduct and talk about politics – not all of it bad.

While a stereotype has developed of social media as a place where vulgar abuse overwhelms respectful debate, the overall picture is more nuanced and positive.

Let’s deal with the vulgar abuse first. Without doubt, this reached its nadir in Australia during the 2010 federal election that resulted in a hung parliament and a minority government led by Julia Gillard.

In the lead-up to that election and throughout the following three years, what passed for political debate on social media in Australia was disfigured by extremely abusive language and images that were frankly pornographic, directed almost exclusively at Gillard.

However, during the same election, another side to the use of social media for political purposes was on display.

This took the form of a research project called Citizens’ Agenda, designed and conducted by the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne School of Government.

The project grew out of the ideas of Jay Rosen, a journalism academic at New York University. He had argued that journalists could contribute to what he called “civic journalism” by asking voters to name the issues they wanted the election to be about, rather than simply who they would vote for.

To do this, the Citizens’ Agenda team turned to social media. Through a crowd-sourcing outfit called OurSay, voters in ten electorates were invited via an online forum to nominate issues they wanted the candidates in those seats to talk about.

The three most-popular questions were then put to the candidates at town-hall-style meetings in those electorates during the election campaign. Local newspapers were invited to attend and cover the event.

Among the findings was that while most participants in the online forums were under 30 years of age, most of the town-hall meeting participants were over 30 – mostly well over 30.

So from this limited study it seems that online political activism – what some call clicktivism – does not translate into real-world political activism. Less surprisingly, it revealed a generational divide over the use of social media.

A further finding was that while to some extent the issues that voters wanted candidates talking about, such as asylum seekers, had received a lot of media attention, other issues that were receiving no public attention also came up.

The most notable of these related to mental health: recognition of it, impact on employment, need for programs of assistance, use of certain therapies. Even though both major parties had substantial mental-health policies, the issue had received next to no media attention.

So the research revealed issues that were flying beneath the media radar and consequently not figuring in public debate.

What this research also showed was that while social media can be used to engage people politically, it tends to attract the already engaged rather than mobilise those with no prior interest.

A further question, then, is what contribution does social media make to political discussion?

There is an important development here: the very fact that something is trending on Facebook or other social media now makes it a story in its own right and provides the professional media with a reason to pick it up and amplify it. In other words, trending has added a new element to the long-established news value called “fame” — a story is bigger if it happens to someone famous than if the same thing happens to a regular citizen. Trending is fame by internet replication.

This in turn creates a big incentive for those involved in campaigning to create material that is likely to trend. That is typically going to involve creating something witty, clever or revelatory. But while the distribution is free, the risks can be costly.

For instance, the 2016 federal election campaign had not even officially begun before Malcolm Turnbull’s election slogan “Continuity and Change” was widely ridiculed. It echoed almost to the word the slogan adopted by the writers of the US political satire Veep because it was the most vapid they could think of.

That trended all right, but not to Turnbull’s advantage.

Trivial? Perhaps, but does it not contribute to political debate in two substantive ways? First, by engaging in political discussion – perhaps fleetingly – all those who enjoy schadenfreude on a grand scale. Second, by telling us something about the competence of the Turnbull campaign machine. Did no-one think to Google the phrase before unleashing it?

The incident also showed that social media can be a bottom-up driver of what is politically salient. The public and the media are no longer entirely captives of what top-down media minders want them to think about. Social media provides a way of answering back, and an alternative source of material, ideas and priorities.

This is surely healthy for democracy. It adds pressure to the lives of politicians and of journalists covering them, but it also means that the engaged citizen can trespass upon the old clubbiness between the two.

These developments may turn out to be the early signs of a new set of communication dynamics in democratic politics.

In these new dynamics, social media becomes an agent of news-making that the professional media, adapting long-established news values, recognises as legitimate. A new symbiosis appears. News is no longer “made” just by professional journalistic gatekeepers, although they retain a duty to accuracy and fairness, but the use of social media dramatically expands the polity’s news-making capacity and feeds into the total supply of news that the professionals can harvest.

Politicians seek to exploit social media but in doing so open themselves up to a degree of direct public accountability that they have not previously experienced.

Because social media is open to all, it broadens and intensifies public scrutiny of all in public life, including politicians and professional media.

The digital revolution is in its juvenile stage. Excesses are to be expected. The coarse vulgarities once heard only in the confines of a rough pub are now broadcast to the world.

Yet as with civilised society generally, so with this. Norms of civilised discourse may be expected to assert themselves and, when they do, political debate is likely to be enriched by the reach and diversity made possible by the new technology.

You can read other articles in the series here.

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