A Soap Opera starring Social Media: Australian Politics under the Spotlight

Canberra’s revolving door did the rounds again last month with the ousting of now former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and surprise induction of Scott Morrison, aka ‘ScoMo’.

And while Australians everywhere became keyboard warriors, taking to social media to lament their political woes and brutalise the nation’s most powerful for playing their fifth game of musical chairs in just eight years, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe our endless tweeting, sharing, liking and commenting had a part to play in getting us to this point?

After all, the last Prime Minister to serve a full term was John Howard between 2004 and 2007. And while his popularity was falling, Facebook, MySpace, Youtube and Twitter were on the rise…

So maybe social media should shoulder some of the blame for Australia’s democratic disaster?

Social media is putting the ‘prez’ in politics

Flashback to 2007. K-Rudd’s on a mission to become the next Aussie PM, with an electoral campaign that plasters ‘Kevin07’ across Youtube, Facebook and MySpace and picks up our votes. Move over, boring and traditional John Howard, Ruddy’s in the driver’s seat and he’s taking us one step closer to the personalisation of Australian politics.



Kevin Rudd’s short-lived parliamentary power trip was much more than a cute rhyme and some Mandarin chat. It was a prime example of the way in which modern politics is becoming more presidentialised. Focussed on Prime Ministership rather than the cabinet as a whole, the growth in presidentialised politics has resulted in the uptake of candidates who possess electoral appeal, rather than the support of their parties. And if the drama of the last month doesn’t show that presidentialised politics is fo’ realz, I’m not sure what does.

But what does social media have to do with it, I hear you ask?

Social media is but one brick in the wall of this trend towards the centralisation of decision-making authority. Popular understanding of political power rests with the Prime Minister, which in turn reduces the space for other political actors to play. Think of the preferred PM polls we hear of every time an election begins to loom ominously in the distance.

In the 2007 election campaign, John Howard accounted for approximately 30% of mentions of Australian politicians in newspapers, radio and television, while Kevin Rudd made up over 40% of mentions of Australian politicians on Twitter alone. These stats tell the story of political discussion on social media, which focusses more so than traditional media on personalities, rather than policies or parties. It starts with the election of PM’s who win the hearts of the country, but not necessarily their own pollies. And it ends with their spectacular booting from the top job. Catchya K-Rudd.



We’re moving on from mainstream media

It’s no secret that Australians are closing the covers of their newspapers and turning to Facey and Insta for their daily dose of current affairs. But with 52% of us checking in on social media for our news, we’re not always going to the polls with a top-qual understanding of our pollies and their policies.

The news we’re now reading is filtered according to who we’re friends with. Social media connects people with similar interests, creating an echo chamber where online debate is inevitably partisan and prejudiced. We’re no longer exposed to a broad range of issues and arguments, which is dangerous to democracy, but also clouds our perspectives on the nation’s political climate (‘boom-tish’).

Additionally, the role of gatekeeper wasn’t advertised on Seek when social media came to the fore, so unlike newspapers, books, magazines and television, information posted on the platforms doesn’t have to pass filter and control mechanisms before any old wannabe journo hits ‘send’. Editing, validity checking, and information assessment – core components of ensuring the credibility of mainstream media, are nowhere to be seen on the socials. Which is why we end up with news faker than Kylie Jenner’s lips, like the story of Federal MP Anne Aly.



Our online voices are loud and clear, and pollies are listening

During her stint as Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh touted the benefits of social media for politicians, stating:

Engaging with the community online is a great way for me, as Premier, to get feedback on the decisions and actions of my government . . . Twitter in particular is a frank and spontaneous way for people to share their views and thoughts – it’s not filtered or tempered by second thoughts, it’s raw and immediate, and it’s 24/7 – Anna Bligh

There’s no doubt that through social media, politicians can now get to know their constituents quicker than the Honeybadger has been getting to know his bachelorettes. It provides new ways for them to shortcut the heavily mediated opportunities offered by mainstream media to seek real-time feedback on their ideas and policies. In fact, there’s now a bunch of government pen pushers performing jobs dedicated purely to monitoring social media and gauging the electorate’s reactions towards particular issues.

But perhaps we’ve now trained our politicians so well, that when we say ‘jump’ they say ‘how high.’ They’ve become so responsive to what we think, that parties are pushing our PM’s out the door the minute we give them a bit of backchat, instead of offering them a chance to turn things around. It’s the story of Julia Gillard, and the carbon tax that kept on giving.



Maybe it’s coincidence, or maybe there’s something in the theory that social media has had a role to play in the sad soap opera of Australian federal politics.

Either way, someone needs to turn off the tunes orchestrating this game of musical chairs.

Because the first time history repeats itself it’s tragedy, and the second time it’s farce. And the fourth time it’s a national disgrace.




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