With the election out of the way, the Australian media is hunting for a single over-arching narrative to fit this result. But it’s a struggle, with results differing region by region and, indeed, electorate by electorate.
That’s because Australia has just had its first social media election. No longer is the debate shaped by the major parties into a narrative mediated through newspapers and broadcasting. It was an election where social media enabled profoundly different experiences, some of them shifting with deep ocean currents, others interacting with the visible media world.
Take death taxes: As The Australian reported a week out, it was all over Facebook, liked and shared from group to group, person to person. Facebook usage skews older. For plenty of these users, the death tax was the metaphor that gave understanding to the election. It was heavily promoted by all the extreme right-wing parties.
On social media the algorithm rewards extremism by pulling people’s attention from mainstream political parties, like the Liberal and National Parties, to more right-wing fringe parties like One Nation, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party.
It’s not political; it’s business in the attention economy. The algorithm works to keep you on their platform, by rewarding the increasingly shrill. So the right-wing parties are not only taking votes, they are influencing what Coalition voters think.
As Bernard Keane wrote in Crikey last week, the swing right in Queensland ran through the extreme parties to deliver the election to the Liberals. Same on social media where, Pauline Hanson’s Please Explain (the name of her official Facebook page) has 217,000 likes, providing a powerful base.
The death taxes scare reflected the above ground campaign. If you’re not paying much attention, capital gains tax, franking credits, negative gearing, death taxes… hard to tell the difference really. And the “retiree tax” framing? Could mean any or all of them.
It was denied by Labor and refuted by mainstream reporters. Yet people believe “facts” shared by friends or family long before the media, particularly when it confirms what they already think: Labor = higher taxes.
Through Twitter, social media kept governance and corruption alive, most effectively with the reporting on the government’s purchase of water rights. The results reestablished a hard truth for journalists and for the Twitterati: governance is a low order issue for most voters.
There is some evidence that social media activity by religious groups mobilised votes against Labor in western Sydney seats that voted against marriage equality. Much of the campaign in Chinese-Australian communities — fake and real — ran through WeChat.
Most disturbing is the anti-immigration and racist social media campaign circulating around Facebook, particularly driven by the extreme right-wing parties. Research by CrossCheck Australia found:
The lead up to the May 2019 election has been accompanied by a drip-feed of division strengthened through social media tactics. Among the most ugly: misleading content about Muslims.
Their analysis found that at the white ethno-nationalist end, much of this material was circulated by right-wing candidates (Hello, Fraser Anning) and by a network of right-wing groupings. Although this often bounced off events in the visible campaign (such as Labor’s increase in foreign aid) it was largely ignored by the mainstream media.
Similarly, the ABC report on WeChat demonstrated that resentment against refugees was weaponised against Labor within immigrant communities at the same time that anti-immigration themes were being circulated in less diverse regions.
Following the spectacular backfire in urban Australia of Morrison’s $180 million press conference on Christmas Island in February, the Coalition largely avoided the issue in public, other than the light touch dog whistle of “congestion-busting” infrastructure.
Yet, in the last weeks of the campaign, Google trends showed that “immigration” was near, or at, the top of Google searches, even as it was absent from the general media narrative.
There’s been mild self-congratulation among political elites and the media about Australia avoiding the ugly racism that marred populist elections in Europe and North America. A closer look at the campaign on social media suggests that it wasn’t absent. Just quiet.
How do you think the use of social media shaped the election? Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name if you would like to be considered for publication.