Will Twitter sway elections in Australia?

Politicians still learning the best social strategy.

Social media is expected to play a significant role in political messaging leading up to the federal election on 14 September. However, finding an effective social strategy may be no easy task.

Monash University professor Andy Ruddock told Computerworld Australia that social media will play a bigger part in this election than in previous years, but that “most politicians are still trying to figure out what social media is for.”

Social media and the Web have become “integral to business and political life,” IBRS analyst Guy Cranswick said.

“All of the politicians have got Twitter accounts” and their tweets frequently become the subject of news stories, he said. “The digital maturity has increased enormously in the last 10years.”

Ruddock said the “game changer” was US President Barack Obama, who in the 2008 election successfully used social media to build a relationship with his constituents. His opponent John McCain saw social media as “just another means for getting information out to the public,” and proceeded to lose the election, Ruddock said.

McCain didn’t realise that social media is about listening in addition to talking, and he’s not the only politician to have made that error, Ruddock said. Not long ago, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was only following about 16 people on Twitter, he said. Abbott has since increased the amount dramatically, to more than 32,000. In Australia, Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull “seems to exemplify what is possible,” Cranswick said. “Turnbull has been quite effective at expressing his own voice within the fold of the Liberal policy machine.”

Turnbull’s recent tweet lashing out at Rupert Murdoch about Fox News’ position on gun control “got picked up around this country and I think it even got some play out in the United States,” he said.

However, Cranswick said he’s still not entirely sure that social media has the same reach and impact of television or radio.

“There’s a media echo that goes on about some of the stuff that’s said, but it’s unlikely to have as much impact as a speech or TV appearance, he said. Politicians’ social strategy may be to “say something which they hope will be noticed by the radio or print press,” he said.

Ruddock said “the really important thing to understand is that social media are absolutely vital, but they’re absolutely vital as part of a communications mix.”

“It’s about trying to relate to the public on a number of levels: information, persuasion, empathy and entertainment,” he said. “Those dynamics have been around for a long while.”

Preventing political gaffes on Twitter could be a major part of political parties’ social media strategies. Cranswick said he wouldn’t be surprised if “every tweet is moderated ... to make sure that an unknown backbencher doesn’t say something sexist or racist or just plain daft.”

Ruddock agreed: “It isn’t just Tony Abbott and [Prime Minister] Julia Gillard worrying about what what they’re going to say on Twitter, but it’s also about what their MPs are going to say.”

In the UK during the Olympics last year, a Conservative MP tweeted that the opening ceremony was left-wing rubbish, Ruddock said. “That was very embarrassing for David Cameron,” the prime minister and leader of the Conservative party.

However, Ruddock said that while “it’s really easy to be critical” of how politicians use social media, “when you get down to trying to develop policies around using social media, it’s just a really difficult thing to do.”

Social media may have more impact in the US election where voting is voluntary and there are no limits on campaign funding, Cranswick said. American candidates use social as part of their push to rally supporters to vote and get them to donate to the campaign.

In Australia, social media might have more impact in swing areas where it’s not already clear which party will win the seat, the analyst said.

“It might work on some of those seats for some of those members to be saying certain things to be preaching to the choir or even to be antagonising the opposition, but I don’t believe social media per se or even any media works to swing elections perhaps as it might have done a long time ago.”

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

Tags Federal ElectionTony AbbottAustraliapoliticianstwitterJulia Gillardsocial mediaBarack ObamaFacebookpoliticsMalcolm Turnbull

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