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By Leia ReidJan 24
Social media lore tells us that left of centre parties dominate politics online, but largely gone are the days where those voicing opinions online are by nature more socially liberal – if that was ever true.
Examination of last year’s presidential battle in the United States revealed significant support for the Republican candidate, underscoring the importance of rightwing voices on such platforms.
This is the foreword from the report: AusVotes 2013 – Australia’s Federal Election and Social Media.
The presentation of the data is available here.
In Australia in 2013 the issues that dominate the electoral landscape may be the same as those that ordinarily elicit passion online: broadband provision, rights for asylum seekers, environment science. Whether or not we identify the majority of all online users as politically left, it may be the case that the issues specific to this election are those that Labor sympathisers online are more likely to consider important.
There may be a huge constituency of Coalition voters that considers broadband to be a non-priority, for example, but these people are unlikely to voice such thoughts online.
This study of all online debate about the forthcoming election in Australia reveals that nearly two-thirds of voters voicing opinions on social media platforms in the country plan to vote for the Labor Party, with this being a few percentage points higher among females. The hard metrics tell us little about the everyday decisions that underpin voter behaviour, however.
Many online are unsure of the soul of ALP, or where it lies ideologically. They are confused by a party that has recently installed a new leader and redesigned the process by which this leader is elected. They are similarly confounded by actions that widen the rights of gay people at home whilst policies are implemented that seemingly remove rights from asylum seekers destined for the northern coast.
In short, the votes of a litany of social media users may be heading to the Greens or others to the left of Labor because of a perceived lurch to the right at the top of the party. With approval of the ALP seemingly suffering again following the post-Rudd bounce, these issues could be crucial.
If recent events have changed perceptions of the ALP online, then the Coalition suffers from more a deeply ingrained reputation. Being typecast as the nasty party, in league with big business and “Luddite” in nature, means the L-NP possibly starts on the back foot in online debate.
This is not to say, however, that policy is not discussed. More social media users prefer Labor based on economic or immigration-oriented issues than do the L-NP, although these divides are relatively narrow in comparison to party preferences in areas such as broadband, climate change and education. The apparent absence of policy may, though, be critical. The policy vacuum observation has stuck to the Coalition, and underscores the views of a range of online contributors pledging to vote elsewhere.
The reputation of the party’s leader online is also damaging. Tony Abbott is flogged as a bully in many corners of Australian social media debate and is often usurped by Malcolm Turnbull in the fantasies of even Liberal voters. Australians castigated Kevin Rudd online after changes to asylum seeker legislation but he still outpolled Tony Abbott. This, more than anything else, highlights the contempt in which the opposition leader is held on social media, whether deserved or not.
Heavy doses of morality also infuse the debate. Legislation on asylum seekers not only bewildered would-be Labor voters but also “shamed” all Australians, according to the views of online users. Added to a campaign ad that may, or may not have, intended to mock a minister’s stutter and an online electorate already appalled by years of perceived misogyny towards former PM Julia Gillard, many online believe that laws governing ‘boatpeople’ served to drag Australian politics further “into the gutter”.
The tone of the campaign in general was not lost on users either. Both sides regularly accused the other of negative politics (a huge majority of the debate was accusatory, rather than supportive) and an early prime ministerial ad promised to “raise the standards”. That the latter chiefly drew derision and finger pointing speaks volumes.
The study looks at attitudes towards the parties, their leaders and the big electoral issues that were expressed online in July, but stands for a greater area of the electoral landscape. The psychology and the hopes and fears of voters differ little whether the conversations are happening on social media platforms or over the kitchen table. Understanding how voters form opinions more generally will unlock thousands of votes in September.