A need to be heard
Kevin Rudd's Kevin07, Barack Obama's Change08, Justin Trudeau's #RealChange, Donald Trump's #LockHerUp, and Hillary Clinton's #IMWithHer dominated social media during their respective campaigns.
Those, along with the Australian 2016 Federal election, have been dubbed "Facebook elections", and are shining examples of how politicians use social media to dominate the water cooler with key messaging.
Facebook has more than 1.7 billion active users globally while Twitter has 313 million monthly active users, thus making these (and other) social media platforms attractive for election juggernauts. Facebook alone has around 15 million users in Australia, which is 62.5% of the Australian population.
Election candidates need the attention of voters, and social media is an avenue to a large captive audience.
What politicians are allowed to say
Candidates, it would seem, can say almost anything.
In Australia, there are no specific constraints on what election candidates are allowed to post. However, defamation laws apply to all social media users. Posts that are slanderous and libellous can be contenders for defamation claims.
Statistics show social media has overtaken traditional news platforms as people's preferred source of information and news - 62% of United States adults and 52% Australians get their news from social media. In January 2016, 44% of United States adults learnt about the presidential election from social media.
Posts which have shown high engagement and interactivity are those which are policy-focussed and issue-based, but personal connection has also proven a good strategy to connect with voters.
Prime ministers like Australia's Malcolm Turnbull and Canada's Justin Trudeau regularly post family pictures and references to their wives. Turnbull's Christmas post in 2016 was one of his most-liked posts with 14,000 reactions.
Conversely, social media has been host to attacks against rival candidates. On June 10, 2016, Donald Trump tweeted "Obama just endorsed Crooked Hillary. He wants four more years of Obama—but nobody else does!" Hillary Clinton responded to Trump's antics by tweeting "Delete your account."
Obama just endorsed Crooked Hillary. He wants four more years of Obama—but nobody else does!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 9, 2016
This sort of political scuffle is not new, although it is now played out on a larger, more easily accessible platform.
Social media guidelines for candidates
In Australia, there aren't any – aside from legal requirements which apply to all social media users.
In the absence of a dedicated social media policy/guide for candidates, one school of thought calls for the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to write one.
Legislation stipulates a three-day media blackout on all TV and radio broadcasts, which restricts political advertising. This does not apply to social media.
The nuances of social media interaction are vastly different over other forms of media. In New Zealand there are strict social media guidelines.
In Australia and in the absence of official guidelines, advisers including myself are suggesting that candidates do the following:
- Grow your supporter base on social media and regularly interact with them.
- Posts on social media must be creative, interesting, informative and usually with some call to action.
- Don't just post textual information but enrich it with pictures, graphics and videos to appeal to a variety of voters and to engage with them effectively.
- Sometimes discussion on social media posts can be negative and it is important to stop when it is becoming unproductive. Don't feed the trolls.
- Social media posts containing electoral matter must be authorised.
- Paid, sponsored or promoted posts should be treated as an electoral advertisement and an authorisation statement should be included.
Finally, candidates are being told to check with their party to ensure social media posts are compliant with any internal guidelines that might exist.
The benefits of social media for election candidates
Social media has become important to any election strategy. Posts are a connection to candidates' personal world, the way they think, their agendas, and what they're doing.
They allow the public to pass judgement, good or bad.
There are also cost benefits. Social media allows candidates to reach 1000 people for as little as a few dollars. Broadcast and print rates vary, but can be more than 10 times the amount.
How candidates use social media data
All major political parties are pulling data from candidates' social media pages. They analyse key trends such as interactivity with voters, gender, age groups, popularity and political preferences.
Popularity of a candidate's posts can be gauged by looking at likes, shares and retweets. Replies to a candidate's post can shed light on whether an issue needs attention, and can be a valuable insight into public sentiment.
It is also helpful when fighting smear campaigns, and in the most successful cases, helps voters warm to candidates.
On the flipside, a glut of negative posts can frustrate an audience. Consider the supporters of Hillary Clinton who were regularly subjected to posts about Donald Trump.
Beware the trolls, those posting cynical or inflammatory posts. US research found that 84% of social media users say things about politics that they would never say in person. Half of the users felt political conversations on social media are angrier, less respectful and less civil than other topics.
Disinformation can be damaging for candidates. Social media provides a healthy platform for debate, but it is often marred with negative comments and libellous posts.
- Dr Ritesh Chugh is a senior lecturer in the School of Engineering & Technology at the Melbourne campus of Central Queensland University. He was actively involved in consulting local government candidates on social media issues in the recent local government elections in his electorate. His research interests include social media and knowledge management.