Every election in Australia generates a lot of interest in the role of social media in shaping the outcome of the contest.
Social media is of particular interest because it tends to be a more fluid media environment, spawning new services between electoral cycles, generating new communicative conventions, and subject to a shifting and dynamic userbase.
The concealed nature of the underlying algorithms that shape how we interact on social media also means that its effective political use is not obvious, giving rise to a host of social media experts and advisers with their own views about “what works” to “win”.
Since the last vote, TikTok has grown dramatically in the size of its audience with new communicative grammars and subcultural norms, while Facebook – still the social media market leader – continues to be shunned by younger users while becoming an increasingly core “mainstream” communication channel of parties and candidates.
In the 2019 election, political scientists identified social media as an important part of the campaigning strategy of political parties, candidates and advocacy organisations.
Writing in Gauja, et al.’s 2020 roundup of the last election Morrison’s Miracle, Andrea Carson and Lawrie Zion observed that the Liberal Party’s electoral success can be in part attributed to a much higher performance on Facebook than Labor, and that key minor parties – often limited in their capacity to obtain “free media” coverage via conventional news organisations – also focus on these platforms as key parts of their campaigning strategy.
Some readers will be aware of the successful series of cartoons produced by One Nation in the lead up to the election and the heavy investment of Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party on social media advertising.
Politics for the TikTok generation
One perennial question asked of political scientists is the role that new media is likely to “swing” the outcome of the vote. Social media is particularly of interest when thinking about younger voters (18-25 years) because of their comparative disengagement with “traditional” media channels that were once the mainstream of election campaigning – free-to-air television and newspapers.
The University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre has been doing a lot of work on news consumption over the last decade, with excellent annual research summaries. In their 2021 Digital News Report they reaffirm what we have seen developing for some time: that the primary source of news information for young people is social media.
This is not just a question of where younger people access information that might shape their vote, but also the content and nature of that information. The Research Centre observe that Generations Z and Y are less likely to attune to local news issues than Xers and Baby Boomers, and as a result are less likely to feel attachment to local areas.
This means that electorate-level campaigns by local candidates are less impactful on this group than national issues and issues that are particularly relevant to their generation. This encourages the use of “wide bore” online advertising strategies commonly associated with party machines.
Philippa Collin and Jane McCormack illustrate how aligning with these national and generational issues can work to mobilise young people. Writing in the Australian Politics and Policy Open Textbook, they identify issues like climate change as a key motivator for political action by younger people, reflecting that this group are twice as likely to identify as left-wing than older generations.
Paradoxically, in an age of “weak ties”, they highlight the role of local organisation among young people (face-to-face and through their social media) as powerful parts of this political mobilisation. This reflects Brian Loader et al’s notion of younger people as “networked citizens”.
The nature of political discourse on social media – punchier content that is often advocacy or opinion-based – appeals more to younger people due to their lower levels of commitment to more traditional notions of news as rendered from a neutral position with an impartial tone of voice.
Indeed, one of the reasons many surveys of younger people imply their news consumption is lower than it actually is is due to the fact that a lot of the political and policy-related information they receive does not look like news as understood by researchers aged in their 40s and 50s.
The incredible popularity of people like Jordan Shanks (“friendlyjordies”), with over 600,000 subscribers on YouTube alone, attests to an engagement by younger people in news and current affairs, but in a way not recognised by mainstream journalism as being part of their community.
The appeal of services like TikTok over Facebook do point to areas of appropriate concern in the age of misinformation and fake news.
Risks and rewards
While Facebook and Twitter have been at the forefront of public opprobrium about the death of truth and responded with measures like Facebook’s political advertising transparency tools (Google has its own system), TikTok’s ban on political advertising and its own transparency reports need improvement to prevent misuse, particularly among the notorious areas of paid influencers.
The risks here were illustrated by reports that a US-based advertising company working for the ALP had attempted to recruit social media influencers to criticise the government. In the last election, misinformation about “death taxes” that got a lot of traction in social media represents the risks we face in the era of freewheeling digital campaigning.
For campaigners, campaign managers, and campaign consultants – people who are largely well outside of the age range of Gen Z and Y – there are a number of lessons to be drawn about engaging with young people in the electoral context.
First, identifying the interests and concerns of young people cannot be taken for granted. Attempts by Labor in 2019 to mobilise younger voters around their seemingly natural concerns about housing prices was largely ineffective. This indicates limits in attempting to campaign online “top down”.
Second, as Loader, et al. point out, the younger generation are not adverse to interacting with politicians on social media, where done in a respectful manner that involves learning the norms and cultural practices of their online spaces.
This might point to a successful use of social media to engage with younger people in political dialogue, but that is different to engagement measures with machine politics.
Banner image: Flickr/Solen Feyissa