Vic election mobile sitesAt a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising, it’s easy to see the appeal of social media during an election campaign, with politicians eager to harness the votes of the nearly 10 million daily active Facebook users in Australia. To put it in perspective, both Denis Napthine and Daniel Andrews have more Facebook ‘likes’ than their Party has followers nationwide.

But does posting selfies, memes and listicles really change users’ minds and, more importantly, their votes?

Denis and Dan compared

Both candidates for Premier have websites fully accessible on mobile devices, but Daniel Andrews’ website more regularly updates the policy page while Denis Napthine’s policies are more completely laid out on the Victorian Liberal page.

Denis Napthine has slightly more Facebook followers and Twitter followers than Daniel Andrews (each increasing by about a thousand in the past week) but both use Facebook for the same kinds of posts: photos on the campaign trail with key messages and announcements or party-branded ‘shareable’ pictures. The same pattern holds for Twitter.

Both parties are using social media as another broadcast medium: neither demonstrably interacting more than the other with their followers. The only significant difference in engagement between the two is on their respective YouTube channels. The campaign advertisements posted on the Victorian Liberal channel have viewers in their thousands while videos on the Victorian Labor page only muster a few hundred views.


Vic candidates' Facebook compared


This social media behaviour is markedly tame compared with the antics of candidates in the latest US midterm elections who posted selfies, parody dance videos, listicles (online articles structured as illustrated lists) and hashtagged to their hearts’ content. The jury is still out on whether this digital engagement actually changed votes, however.

Research on social media is scarce, and with the rapid change in the technology sphere, it’s nearly out of date the moment it is published. There is also debate among media scholars about the transformative capacity of social media. Some argue that social media polarises users to form echo chambers, congregating only with like-minded participants and reinforcing their own views, while recent research showed little evidence of ideological segmentation in media use, reporting ‘very high levels of audience overlap’ supporting the theory of social media as a democratising force for people of all affiliations and backgrounds to come together.

The ’90-9-1’ principle of internet participation maintains that only one per cent of users are creators of original content, nine per cent occasionally comment, and the vast majority, 90 per cent, are largely inactive ‘lurkers.’ While they might not be using the medium to its full potential, lurking users are not completely passive.

Recent studies in the US show that Facebook is second only to television as the major source of political news during an election. Another US report from this month’s midterm elections found 41 per cent of respondents said ‘finding out about political news before other people do’ is a ‘major reason’ why they follow political figures on social media.

Lurkers are using social media as just another broadcast medium, and the key for political candidates is to reach this audience while minimising the cost so campaign coffers can be spent on ever more expensive traditional media.

Even though there are many bewitched by the seemingly boundless interactivity and potential of social media to engage with voters, election campaigns are conducted in the here and now. Here and now, most voters use social media as an on-demand information source, not as a place of participation.

As social mediums continue to refine their business models, it’s becoming more and more difficult for content creators to cut through the noise and reach their audience organically. Organic reach, or appearances of pages in fans’ newsfeeds, has fallen well into single digit percentages since Facebook algorithm changes were put in place early this year.  This means that if Daniel Andrews or Denis Napthine posts a happy snap from the campaign trail, there is less than a 10 per cent chance it will organically appear in someone’s newsfeed unless it is ‘promoted’ (paid for).

Even though promoting posts allows for geographic and demographic targeting, the best value is through organic and viral, or unpaid Facebook reach.

If parties want to maximise the shares, likes and chances their posts will make its way to users’ newsfeeds without having to pay to promote them, evidence suggests issues-oriented, non-partisan posts are more likely to be shared than traditional politically branded calls to action. Over one-in-four Facebook users in the US have hidden, blocked, defriended or stopped following someone based on disagreements over political posts.

Asking campaigners to replace party branding with issues may be a losing battle, but candidates, particularly left-wing candidates, could cut-through the noise by tapping into the nearly 60 per cent of ‘consistently liberal’ voters who follow issues-based pages on Facebook. The statistics may not be exactly the same as in the US, but the logic holds: liking, sharing and re-tweeting posts by groups and users with large, active follower bases targets politically active users far more effectively than crossing your fingers and hoping for retweets from the lurking majority.

Rather than trying to create it from scratch, candidates should cultivate social media influence by engaging existing influencers.

Oft-cited as the paragon of social media engagement or ‘clicktivism,’ many forget the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign also spent a whopping $235.9 million on traditional television advertising. The true lesson to learn from both Obama campaigns is the power of social media to organise community volunteers for more traditional approaches to voters. The Oxford Internet Institute found 60 per cent of those who had the highest ‘political efficacy,’ or belief they can influence political process, participated politically online. Social media can be a vital tool for engaging the politically active in traditional campaign activities.

On this score, both campaigns are making a concerted push to corral community volunteers to knock on doors and convince voters one at a time, and the Greens are capitalising on expertise from Adam Bandt’s successful federal campaign to arrange volunteer door-knocking training and expeditions.

Social media might not necessarily change votes on its own, but can highlight the pressing issues for the electorate so candidates can target their promises, and it can help parties organise, fundraise and mobilise for more effective grassroots campaigning.