+61 7 3221 6711  +61 7 3229 8704  info@bbscommunications.com.au

A little bird told me: the federal election on Twitter

by Frances Manfield

US President Barack Obama has more than 35 million followers on Twitter and the social media skill of his campaign team is credited with winning Obama his second term in the White House.

In comparison, Australia’s politicians have been late adopters of social media platforms in general and are still yet to fully take advantage of the benefits and capacity Twitter has to mobilise a population.Twitter in particular is a platform that offers access:  access to voters without a gatekeeper in the form of privately-owned newspapers and editors who have agendas based on the need to sell advertising and move a product.

Often dismissed by the ‘elder statesmen’ of mainstream  media as nothing but a narcissistic mouthpiece of the Left, that viewpoint fails to take into consideration the potential that Twitter has to act as a forum for open discussion and debate.

Extremist views are undoubtedly present on Twitter, but research reveals a not insignificant number of users who could be classed as ‘swinging voters’ – the moderate users who may not tweet as often but do engage in discussion. These are the people who politicians dream of having access to, and more and more of them join Twitter every day. Politicians ignore Twitter at their own peril.

Kevin Rudd has made a significant push to capture the ‘youth vote’ and that is reflected in his Twitter campaign strategy. Political disengagement by young people is an issue in Australia, and together they represent a significant percentage of the population – win them over and maybe you will win an ‘unwinnable’ election.

This echoes the trend of Australian politics becoming more ‘presidential’ in nature, with entire campaigns focused on people rather than a party and its policies. Personality is a focus of the 2013 campaign, reflected in the personal attack strategies embraced by both sides.

Previous election campaigns in Australia have taught us that personal smear campaigns are considered distasteful by most people, and the shift to personal attacks from real policy debates is frustrating for many. Twitter provides a platform for voters not just to air their political views, but engage in open discussion about campaign tactics themselves. The upside for the political parties is a unique opportunity to monitor these discussions and consider any campaign adjustments accordingly.

The message to Australian politicians is this: engagement on Twitter does not necessarily mean that you have to respond to every person who directs a tweet at you, but do not discount the value of this medium as a platform for debate and an opportunity to monitor sentiment.

There is no doubt that the presence of digital media staff assigned to a campaign and embedded within politicians’ offices is growing. From having one volunteer assigned to manage a Twitter feed just a few years ago, we are now starting to see whole teams of people hired to strategise and implement Twitter campaigns.

Rudd has imported the American digital media strategist who was behind Obama’s most recent campaign.  Rudd may not be Obama, but the fact that his social media guru is Down Under, may be a sign of the times and a signal for the future.