Did Twitter ruin the election?

In the wake of a vague election result, Attorney-General George Brandis criticised social platforms such as Twitter for the “trivialisation of political discourse”. Dan Nolan argues that politicians are not only losing the media/PR war but only have themselves to blame. 

The election results had barely been tabulated — a major swing against the Coalition — when George Brandis QC blamed the outcome on Twitter.

Apparently, the disastrous campaign would have sailed through perfectly if wasn’t for those damned tweets.

Dan Nolan

It’s definitely not the first time we’ve heard that complaint around Twitter, #AusVotes or #AusPol — namely, that it’s a vapid, insular, leftist, virtue-signalling echo-chamber.

The days of old when a minister could call up a newspaper columnist and have a yarn in their ear about ‘what really needs doing’, are long gone. The way information is disseminated now happens much more in real time — on platforms just like Twitter. The traditional gatekeepers are dead and dying — the new ‘gatekeepers’ are more like aggregators, places like Buzzfeed or platforms like Twitter’s own Moments.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 8.35.50 amThey’re new outlets that understand the zeitgeist of the moment, rather than dictating to them how they should think or feel. It’s no longer Kerry O’Brien explaining the ins and outs of wonkish policy — the Libs even had a damn Snapchat election filter. This is not a new take, but it’s one that bears repeating.

But did Twitter really ruin the election?

Twitter absolutely can amplify trivialities (people voted for a dead gorilla, for fuck’s sake), but the social network generally reflects the mood of a technologically savvy and interested group of voters (which, in Australia, is damn near everyone). When it comes to what’s going on in the campaign, day-by-day, there are no alternative place to go — Twitter’s number one in real-time data, and when any news breaks it’s the only place worth being. If you want posts from your racist uncle about how halal is illegal, you go to Facebook. If you want news, analysis and jokes you go to Twitter.

Twitter during #AusVotes was an incredibly playful and humorous place, people trading jibes, memes freely flowing like the snags at the voting places and people using a cute bot — @auspolling (full disclosure, we built the critter) — to find where they could collect their democracy sausage.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 8.33.50 amThe first thing you’ll notice when you check into Twitter, at least in Australia, is it’s where journalists communicate and share stories.

It’s also where news breaks, from the Bataclan attacks in Paris to the Orlando shooting to Harambe the Gorilla; the news all broke on Twitter. The public’s no longer listening to media institutions curating their info for them, but letting social media orgs like Facebook own their feed or curating their own news on Twitter.

Trends ebb and flow with the current political reality, gaffes as they happen, a failed policy launch, or the latest photo of a politician holding up a sign with writing on it, allowing it to be memed in perpetuity.

Twitter isn’t the be-all and end-all of political conversation but it is a major player in that space now. The media landscape has changed, and it’s up to everyone involved — politicians, publications and the public alike — to keep up with it.

Brandis has hit upon a point, though; politics is verging on the trivial and the sensational, but that’s been happening for years.

In Australia, the vast majority of the democratic project is concluded and now we’re effectively in a managerial mode. There’s not much in terms of difference between the two major parties except for how that managerial tier of governance is structured, and how much of it is outsourced to either consulting companies or unions.

Politics and political speech, like media, are competing with vastly more interesting (and rewarding) forms of entertainment. Something that tends to lend to cutting through with individuals is having a cohesive argument that you stick to from the beginning of the campaign.

Another element rarely touched upon, people do want change for change’s sake. Both parties don’t really have extended bases anymore (alliance with capital seems to have ossified and union membership has drastically declined) – parties are fighting a PR war.

It’s basically what Daniel Boorstin’s book ‘The Image’ warned would be the most horrific outcomes of the intersection of PR and democracy, but there you go.

Blaming Twitter for the triviality of the election campaign is like blaming boomers for Brexit — it’s a suggestion that there is a disconnect between the political elite and the democratic populace.

The Australian electorate wasn’t just going to lie back and think of Malcolm. It’s becoming increasingly clear there was no plan or strategy other than celebrity. People have an affection for what’s authentic and what’s honest (or at least has some semblance of appearing to be).

Those parties and political operators who fail to grasp that will find themselves getting comprehensively dacked – 140 characters at a time.

Dan Nolan is co-founder and engineering lead at Aussie app development start-up Proxima


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