Facebook debate: Great for politicians but more of the same for voters

By Erin Mathews. Election Watch journalist

Australia’s first Facebook leaders' debate was sold as many of Malcolm Turnbull’s favourite things - innovative, agile, exciting.  But the adjective that viewers are more likely to take away from it is awkward.

For 60 minutes, the debate between the Prime Minister and Opposition leader Bill Shorten was streamed live on news.com.au’s Facebook page and broadcast on ABC 24 and Sky. It was deliberately cultivated as more relaxed than a traditional National Press Club affair – leaders sat on comfy-looking chairs at Facebook's Sydney headquarters and News Corp columnist Joe Hildebrand was the everyman moderator, facilitating questions posted by Facebook users and the small live audience.

Did it work?

Facebook claims that there were 160,000 views of the debate by 8:15 AEST Friday evening, with a total reach of 1.6 million, and the social media giant says that figure grows with every passing hour as people catch up online. “If those figures are correct, even if they’re only half correct, it shows that the debate has reached a lot more people than it normally would,” says Dr Andrea Carson, a University of Melbourne lecturer in media and politics.

“Political science research shows, particularly coming out of America, that the value of leaders' debates is that immediately afterwards, it increases the public’s knowledge of election issues. If the debate reached as many people as is claimed by Facebook then it would seem that this also is having that long tail effect of being able to reach people. It gets people talking about the debate, gets them talking about issues and gets them thinking about how they might vote. And that increases democratic engagement, which is a good thing to have in the last two weeks of an election.”

A win for politicians

The most heavily publicised way to watch the debate was via news.com.au’s Facebook feed, as the news website was the official partner to the event. But, as the real-time counter on the stream showed, viewership peaked at a paltry 13,500.

Graph of debate viewers on the news.com.au Facebook stream

Dr Carson says although the streaming numbers were low, this debate was a potential goldmine for politicians because it was accessible via many different mediums and channels. 

"Audiences are very much fragmented here, unlike when you watch a debate on the ABC, for example. The beauty of it being fragmented is that you’re reaching different types of audiences rather than a demographic that’s quite similar, which is what happens with an ABC debate. There’s a value there for democratic engagement if you’re reaching different audiences through different mediums such as Twitter feeds, ABC 24, Sky, news.com.au – they’re vastly different demographics. I would imagine Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten were reaching people they hadn’t been reaching before through that long tail effect.”

What did voters get out of it?

When it comes to the content of what was discussed, the questions were a great representation of issues that affect voters. From the first blunt "why should I trust any politician?” to mental health funding, housing affordability, climate change, the topics canvassed were relevant and diverse. The answers offered by the leaders kept to script.

A question on the NBN provoked both leaders into life, with Shorten cleverly calling for Facebook viewers to press the ‘Like’ button if they’d prefer a full fibre network to the Coalition’s fibre and copper solution. The internet duly responded. Viewers of the online stream had great fun pointing out the irony of Turnbull defending his NBN plan while live streams faltered across the country:

You have to wonder why it happened this way at all. As ALP advertising guru Dee Madigan pointed out:

A lesson in looking awkward

Despite his promise to make the election entertaining, moderator Joe Hildebrand looked distinctly uncomfortable with his role as Chief-getting-the-Prime-Minister-to-be-quiet-person, employing lines like “thanks Prime Minister, we are over time already - what a surprise” and “we really are running behind, I know its an important issue but we can’t talk about everything forever."

And unfortunately we will never be able to forget the toe-curlingly painful moment Joe Hildebrand spent too long joking about how men don’t know what sanitary products are.

Joe Hildebrand wonders why he agreed to this

But Hildebrand’s awkwardness was outshone by that of both leaders. Turnbull spoke somewhat naturally and at times passionately, but often the 90-second clock ran down before he’d found his point. Shorten struggled to shake the demeanour that he’d learnt his answers by rote. As Malcolm Farr, news.com.au’s National Political Editor, put it in the post-debate commentary, “Bill Shorten was sort of like he’d just found out he was on the wrong train home.”

Bill Shorten during debate

Peak Awkward came after the final handshake, when Shorten declared he’d be hanging around for a chat with the marginal seat voters and Turnbull stood frozen to the spot staring at the crowd. You can almost see the thought bubble, “does that mean I have to stay too?”

Awkward ending to debate

Was it innovative, agile and exciting?

“I think it was a little overhyped about how innovative this would be,” says Dr Carson. “The innovation was being able to reach different audiences but the format wasn’t all that innovative, it was what we’ve seen before with town hall debates. I like that format, that’s a good way of broadening it out and making it beyond the gatekeepers, but they didn’t make use of the fact it was live and interactive – they had Joe Hildebrand reading out the questions rather than using a video of the questioner. They still had intermediaries in place. They could have made more of the format by using the technology to its full effect.”

“They also could have engaged the audience a lot more in the newsfeed, rather than just having the comments come up. If you watched Twitter during the debate, it did much better than the news.com.au Facebook stream by having a lot more GIFs and moving images and linking it to other ideas.”

We give top marks for this suggestion:

And this:

Who won?

The 30 voters in the room gave the debate overwhelmningly to the Opposition leader.

17-7 in the room gave the debate to Bill Shorten

“We should really take the result with a grain of salt,” says Dr Carson. “There were only 30 people in the audience, you can’t really call who the winner was with only 30 people. And I dare say that even though Galaxy chose them and there were a few marginal seats represented there, it certainly wasn’t a representative sample.”

Make your own decision - watch the full debate here:

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