Ever since Barack Obama came to the US Presidency on the back of a grassroots campaign, a good proportion of which was activated via a thorough and well-executed social media campaign, various pundits have been breathlessly predicting that, in Australia, the election campaign currently underway would be the social media election.
Not least of all, I’ve been known to express the view that if social media could have an effect in an Australian election, it could be significant. After all, with over 9 million Australians using Facebook, and somewhere north of 1.1 million of us on Twitter (via ABC), social media is certainly mainstream in this country.
But it’s just not going to happen. At least not this time around.
I think there are three parts to the reason why.
First, despite the mainstream media merrily jumping in and running polls and trackers like the ABC’s Campaign Pulse, and parts of the ad, PR and digital industry running sites focussed keenly on social media activity around the election such as Amnesia Razorfish’s The Social Election and BuzzNumbers’ BuzzElection, the voter activation by social media phenomenon is just not happening. These sites, despite all the truly fascinating information they are surfacing up are, for this election, all very much a part of the massive echo chamber that is a self-absorbed hybrid of the social media gurus (something I have been accused more than once of being a part — happily accepted) and, as Jeff Waugh puts it so eloquently the politico-tragic-media-wonk-o-sphere™ (also something I am gladly a part of).
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love all this stuff. I think the effort that has gone into all this tracking, monitoring and analysis is laudable. And I’m certainly watching it all and taking it all in. But I’m self-admittedly not your average voter.
I am yet to see any voter outside this hybrid circle have their political opinion swayed through social media. This isn’t tipping point stuff. The connectors, mavens and salesmen using social media aren’t connecting, mavening (is that a word?) and selling the vote-changing message. The average punter is still relying on the tabloids, commercial radio and mainstream evening news and current affairs for their political information. If social media was having a real effect in this country on the level of political debate, the argument over matters like the Internet filter would be done and dusted; we’ve been ranting for three years about it and there’s still widespread community ignorance.
Second, politicians aren’t really using social media effectively. There are a few well-known examples that have taken the time and effort to reach out and connect online (and offline, let it be said) with their constituencies, but for most politicians social tools are still new, somewhat misunderstood and not especially well utilised. Our Prime Minister, after all, has only been on Twitter a month (I don’t, by the way, expect her to do all her own tweeting, she has other priorities, even beyond the election).
Most politicians (and their party machinery and people), even if they are using social tools, aren’t especially effective. The message remains mostly broadcast, disconnected from the social media using constituency. It’s not surprising in this instance that voters aren’t relating to them and connecting to their issues. Do we all want to move forward with Julia on Twitter? I don’t think so.
Third, as a voting nation, we’re more than a little different to the USA. I’m no political scientist, but to my amateur (albeit politico-tragic-media-wonk) eyes, the Australian electorate is noticeably more disconnected from political issues in a vote-changing way than our friends in countries without compulsory suffrage. Here, for the vast majority of the electorate, it’s paying the mortgage and car loan, buying groceries and paying school fees that matters. Beyond that, it’s the race-to-the-bottom issues of leaky borders invaded by leaky boats and the reduction of tax that we care about. Big-picture, informed political view isn’t something that you’d ascribe to the majority of the population.
Yes, social media is seeing massive growth in this country. Yes, it is important in many people’s lives (including people that are very mainstream). But social media, as an influence on the average voter isn’t yet a major player in this country. For that to be the case, we need to see a widespread maturing of social media use at the political level and a concomitant rise in depth of interest in politics amongst the wider population.