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The Twitter Election? Not Likely.

There is much over-blown talk of new paradigms at the moment.

TwitterBefore the 43rd Parliament has even met, the new political paradigm has been shown to be illusory. Standard politics continues apace. An old-fashioned deal has delivered us a minority government. Interest groups and political participants have begun positioning themselves to extract maximum advantage from the new Parliament.

Far from the political process becoming more open and transparent, it is more likely that backroom intrigue will flourish. Intricate deal-making seems set to reach new heights of ingenuity. The numerical permutations and combinations in both houses guarantee that practitioners of the so-called old paradigm will be called upon to ensure that things do not fall apart.

Another paradigm that has failed to materialise is the one that was supposed to deliver a “Twitter election” and usher in a new democracy powered by “social media”. Instead, the golden age of 140-character political participation has been clubbed to death by the established media and all but ignored by the main political parties.

Social media has undoubtedly brought change to the way media organisations operate. But there is scant evidence that Australian political parties made any attempt to run an online campaign. There is even less evidence that the parties have utilised the internet to organise and motivate their supporters, let alone raise funds.

Some lobby groups such as Emily’s List and GetUp! have raised funds online through email campaigns. The latter is the most conspicuous political entity in Australia to take advantage of new technologies in its campaigns. Its email fundraising paid for the successful High Court action that overturned enrolment restrictions. Moreover, Getup! claims to have sent 50,000 SMS enrolment messages to its database of supporters when the August election was announced.

Amongst the mainstream parties, however, corporate and union donations constitute the bulk of money raised. The process is as opaque and obscure as ever. Organisationally, direct mail remains the most significant personal connection between parties and voters. Letterboxing, posters and billboards persist. Most of all, it is television that drives the political game. Getting the right images on the nightly news is paramount. In this, social media doesn’t yet rate in Australia.

In the United States, with its more decentralised system of primary elections and voluntary voting, mailing lists, blogs and online forums are more significant. The rise of the Tea Party movement derives in part from its ability to bypass traditional channels of communication.

Here, conservatives took advantage of email to lobby the rural independents during the recent electoral hiatus. Liberal Party members reportedly did the same during the Turnbull-Abbott confrontation over climate change policy last year. But this is little more than an extension of traditional letter-writing campaigns. It hardly amounts to a significant use of social media.

Proponents of a digital age of Pericles point to the possibilities of Twitter. After all, Kevin Rudd has over 940,000 followers. Malcolm Turnbull has over 31,000. The NSW Premier and Opposition Leader are both big users of Twitter, as is the South Australian Premier.

But these politicians are more the exception than the rule. All credit to them for utilising new technologies to engage with the electorate. Most politicians, however, are not on Twitter or Facebook. At best, most have a bog-standard website on which they post copies of party policies and speeches. Some, such as Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi have blogs which engender lively debate, but they are few and far between.

I’ve written previously on the missed opportunities in social media by Australia’s politicians. Of course, it is little wonder that so few politicians choose to engage in this way. Most have neither the time nor the resources to do it properly. Like a letter to a constituent, a tweet is forever, and requires some caution and consideration of its impact. The dangers inherent in social media are regularly highlighted.

So, where is the excitement about social media’s transformative effect coming from? Traditional media, of course.

Print, television and radio outlets have taken to Twitter like moths to a light. Open a Twitter account and you can soon be following the regular tweets of your favourite reporter or TV host. Many of them will keep you up-to-date with what’s coming up on their programs. They will give you links to their latest articles and columns.

And herein lies the key to understanding what Twitter really does. It is a powerful tool for driving traffic to other web properties. It is a means of getting more eye-balls to websites which need traffic to attract advertisers. It’s a means for companies and individuals to build a “brand”.

That’s why the media organisations and their staffs have colonised Twitter. They use it to tout their wares. For organisations that live or die on readership figures and advertising, the attraction is obvious.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not condemning Twitter. I spend a goodly amount of time on it. I have made offline friends through Twitter. It has brought me work. There is no question that it is a powerful social networking tool. All I’m saying is that it hasn’t yet impacted on the game of politics, let alone revolutionised it.

To be sure, political coverage by the media has been influenced by social media. Some journalists are crowd sourcing their questions. These people understand that the sun is going down on the days of the passive audience. On the other hand, lazy journalists have merely grouped Google, Twitter and Facebook as prime sources of easy “research”.

Twitter has had profound effects on the daily work of some people in the media. It is undoubtedly the most rapid means of disseminating breaking news that we have yet seen. But speed should not be confused with political impact.

Look at what happened when the Turnbull and Rudd dumpings took place. I watched both events unfold on Twitter and the cacophony of activity was truly exciting.

However, it was also chaotic and confused. Gossip was retailed as news. Most discussion derived from television coverage and consisted of not much more than commentary on the television commentary, laced with humour, sloganeering, informed and ill-informed political observations. Lots of noise, not much signal.

What happened politically as a consequence of this supposedly powerful new social media? Precisely nothing. The Liberal and Labor parties behaved as political parties always have. They plotted in secret. They leaked occasionally. They controlled the game. The ballot results were sent by SMS to journalists minutes before the official announcements. Those journalists told their television audiences or tweeted it to their followers. We could delude ourselves that we were there as events unfolded. Fun, yes. Significant, no.

On the weekend prior to Abbott’s election as leader, Joe Hockey was the favourite to win. Next to no-one saw that Turnbull was fighting a ferocious campaign which he nearly won. Absolutely no-one saw Abbott coming up the middle. Few in the media wrote of Hockey’s disappointing campaign and woeful tactics. Traditional media’s colonisation of Twitter ensured that social media also failed the test of shedding light on events.

When Gillard toppled Rudd, the story was broken in a very traditional way on ABC television news. For several hours that June night, Twitter was ablaze with speculation and rumour, much of it wrong. At the caucus meeting the following morning, a Labor MP sent a text message to a journalist who duly tweeted the outcome.

And that was it. Social media told us of a political outcome several minutes earlier than would once have been the case. But we are yet to hear the full story of what really happened. Roll out the new paradigm!

During the recent election campaign, many journalists tweeted from the Gillard and Abbott campaign buses. Those of us who followed the campaign closely as part of our work were grateful for advance notification of when the leaders were going to speak to the cameras. We may even have chuckled at the world-weary journalistic jokes and guffawed at the happy snaps they uploaded.

But was it revelatory? Was the veil lifted? Not on your life. All we got was a look at political leaders and reporters operating in a bubble, divorced from everyday existence.

A blogger, GrogsGamut, ruffled those media feathers during the election campaign with an impassioned and vitriolic attack on the lack of media coverage of issues and policy.

Along with a mysterious Twitter user called GhostWhoVotes, who regularly leaked details of opinion polls, Grog’s intervention was one of the few moments when social media played a role in the campaign. Even then, it affected the media more than it impacted on the political process.

Certainly, there are thousands of people talking about Australian politics on Twitter. There are a number of highly skilled policy and electoral analysts who conduct civilised conversations with their followers. Television programs such as QandA are assailed by thousands of tweets each week.

But most of this takes place in an echo chamber where people seek out those of like mind and reinforce one another’s opinions. It’s a place that Joe Hockey complained about on the weekend, describing it as a place where “the anonymous commentary is often banal, nasty and meaningless”.

The day may come when social media reshapes politics in Australia, when “citizen journalism” shares a table with the mainstream media and ordinary voters can engage with their chosen representatives.

More likely, though, current trends will continue.

The established media, seeking to survive the decline of printed platforms, will tighten its grip on new media and maintain its dominance of the social and political agenda.

In time, Australian politicians will no doubt learn from their international counterparts how to make use of social media.

But a new paradigm? No, power renews and rebuilds itself by absorbing the new and shaping it to serve unbending purposes.

The wishful thinkers who see social media as the dawn of a golden democratic age would do better to consider who is manipulating whom.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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