When Kevin Rudd and his people burst forth with their “Kevin ’07” election slogan nine years ago, social media was seen primarily as a dramatic symbol of generational change: Rudd was the future; John Howard was the past.
In this election, social media has been integral to all political communication strategies and has had a profound effect on political journalistic practice.
What has happened? One factor stands out: the transformation of Facebook and Twitter from platforms focused mainly on personal information to platforms focused mainly on public news.
Instead of asking its followers “What are you doing?” Twitter began to ask, “What’s happening?” That was in 2009.
Since then, political parties and candidates have used social media extensively to connect directly with voters, bypassing the professional media.
Given voters’ low level of trust in the media, that is attractive to both parties, since it removes the journalistic gatekeeper. But it also removes journalistic scrutiny.
And rather than relying on conventional media releases and media conferences, politicians are increasingly using social media, particularly Twitter, to break news and provide comment.
This has created among professional journalists a growing dependency on social media. Anyone reporting the election simply has to take notice of what is happening on social media in order to keep up.
On top of that, voters are using social media to participate in their own way – commenting, ridiculing, generating their own political content. This is an additional fount of potential news.
The fact that something is trending on social media has become news in its own right.
“Going viral” has become a news value. Something becomes news merely by virtue of the fact that goes viral, regardless of its substantive content.
Yet in turn, social media depends heavily on professional mainstream media for its fodder. For all their newsroom cutbacks, it is the newspapers that still inject the largest amount of fresh material into the daily news cycle. It is still the mainstream media, especially television, that carry the bulk of the political advertising.
So, in this election, a defining characteristic of the media coverage has been the expansion of the symbiosis between social and mainstream media.
It has shown up in multiple ways, such as the use of social media by political parties as one of the main ways in which they have disseminated information and comment – not just to the mainstream media but directly to voters.
It is also demonstrated by the way journalists in mainstream media have interrogated social media for news content, and the way voters themselves have generated content that has then been picked up by mainstream media.
Nothing illustrates all this better than the case of the Liberals’ “fake tradie” television advertisement. It featured a middle-aged, fairly prosperous-looking man in a clean orange hi-vis vest sitting outside a worksite cradling a blue ceramic coffee mug and talking about how Bill Shorten’s “war on the banks” would eventually lead to people like him being out of work.
The Twittersphere lit up with ridicule. The ad acquired its own Twitter handle. The man’s metal bracelet, flash watch, loose-fitting vest and ceramic mug were all highlighted as items that would not be suitable for, or permissible on, a work site. A meme appeared featuring Malcolm Turnbull in a clean hi-vis top, saying “How do you do, fellow tradies?”
The mainstream media took it up as an embarrassment to the Liberals, but then discovered that the man was indeed a tradesman, specifically a welder, and they then staked out his home in Sydney.
This case also illustrates some of the risks for professional journalism arising from the social media symbiosis.
First, verification. The media failed to take the time or trouble to verify whether the man was a tradesman before lampooning the ad.
Second, when the Daily Mail did so, and it turned out that he was not a fake after all, vast media resources were devoted to staking out his home for what was, in the end, a piece of transitory trivia.
Yet this interdependency seems here to stay, and in fact a healthy democracy needs it.
A wholly social media debate would mean a fragmenting of the national conversation and a narrowing of perspectives as like-minded participants talked among themselves – what is being called the “echo-chamber” effect.
Technology and changed media habits mean we are not going back to the days when professional media gatekeepers controlled the information available for public debate. Yet mainstream media do the vital job of providing us with a pool of shared information on which the whole community can base a common conversation.
So both are needed, and the interaction is likely to mature with time.
Meanwhile, in other respects the election coverage was tiresomely ritualised.
News Corp played its assigned part of shamelessly cheerleading for the conservative side. Fairfax, in its more self-conscious way, felt obliged to provide some counterweight on the progressive side. The ABC was studiously even-handed – which is probably why it continues to be by far the most trusted media organisation in the country.
The National Press Club put on a leaders’ debate that even had the moderator, Chris Uhlmann, bored.
The nightly television bulletins presented a relentless series of set pieces – hard hats, those orange vests, hospital wards, classrooms – and the repetition ad nauseam of party messages, bereft of analysis or context.
For all its tedium, however, the campaign was, with a single exception, peaceful. The exception was where race and religion were the driving forces.
This was the subject of one of the most insightful pieces of media coverage of the entire election, John Safran’s The Goddamn Election! on SBS TV. It explored the extraordinary, often baffling, alliances that have sprung up involving fundamentalist Christians, Zionists, neo-Nazis, anti-Islamic groups, white supremacists and homophobes.
Fundamentalist Christians fearing an Islamic takeover of Australia make common cause with Islam over opposition to homosexuality; Jews and neo-Nazis make common cause over opposition to Islam. The politics of hate.
This fuelled ugly street violence of the kind that is generally absent from Australian politics. It happened on the fringe and stayed on the fringe, but was a reminder that peaceful processes of political change are not to be taken for granted.
Authors: Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne