Social media and youth political engagement within democracy.

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“…the whole point of social networking is not so much to send a message as to get one back. While it’s always nice to tell the world what you think, if you do it on a social technology platform, you are inviting others to join the conversation. The whole idea is to listen, to talk, to debate, to agree and disagree, to create communities of influence and practice, to share” (Stewart-Weeks 2009, in Grant, Moon & Grant 2010)


While Australia has seen a significant increase in social media use during campaigns in recent years, there is much evidence to suggest that, with a couple of exceptions, Australian politicians have not embraced social media effectively. Social media use by politicians did rise significantly between 2007 and 2010 elections, but much of the content produced was not interactive, rather, just a tool for self-promotion. While America has been more successful with attempts and campaigns using social media to engage and mobilize youth (and this may be due to a higher urgency to capture the youth vote, given voluntary voting), Australia is yet to see something of this scale.


Comparing the 2010 election to 2007, Macnamara & Kenning (2011) found that:


  • The total number of social media sites federal politicians used more than doubled.
  • The number of politicians using Facebook jumped from 8 to 146 (although this included use as both Facebook ‘profiles’ and the less interactive official ‘pages’.
  • Twitter, completely absent from 2007’s election, now had 92 politicians as users.
  • YouTube accounts also rose from 13 (in 2007) to 34 in 2010.

And, significantly:

  • Of the 2273 tweets posted on Twitter by federal politicians in the final 3 weeks of campaigning in 2010, 61% of these (1395 tweets) were posted by the ‘top 10’ politician tweeters (from a total of 92) (Macnamara & Kenning 2011, p. 12).


While both major parties were active on social media in 2007 and more so in 2010, the Labor party was more active and their “custom-built social media sites reflects an innovative approach to social media pioneered in Australian politics in the Kevin07 campaign” (Macnamara & Kenning 2011, p. 14). While politicians have been increasing their presence on social media, the majority of Australian politicians “used social media primarily for one-way transmission of political messages, rather than citizen engagement or listening to the electorate”(Macnamara & Kenning 2011, p. 16).


So, while Australian politicians have beginning to integrate social media into their efforts, it appears that the way it is being used is more comparable to traditional media platforms, often preventing comments or direct contact, rather than to the conventions of interactive, web 2.0 capabilities. Standout politicians on Twitter included Kevin Rudd (@KevinRuddPM), Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) and Joe Hockey (@JoeHockey), but a sample by Grant, Moon & Grant (2010) showed that the median number followed by a politician was 16, and the median number of followers was 8. While Labor (ALP) and Coalition tweeters were largely indistinguishable, the Greens party were more likely to produce retweets (although this was more often by other Greens members). Politicians were found to be “noisier than Australians in general on Twitter, though this is due more to broadcasting than conversing” (Grant, Moon & Grant 2010).


While most politicians lack any valuable social media presence, there are a few exceptions who present a more personal and relatable approach. Along with the standout example of Kevin Rudd with his Kevin07 campaign (also specifically targeting youth), Malcolm Turnbull’s Twitter also displays a more casual, personal interaction with others, such as in his ‘whimsical literary tweet’ in response to @rhysam ‘@turnbullmalcolm How bout a what would William Blake tweet? #wwwbt’



Australian youth are known for their reliance on and dominant use of social media. “Put simply, for young people social media is an indispensable part of everyday networked interaction, in every part of their lives i.e. Essential Media (2012) found that 97% of those under 25 use Facebook. This means young Australians have the highest use of social media in the world” (Chen & Vromen 2012). So, for politicians to engage youth and channel the youth vote, social media is definitely the most potentially effective method.





Initial ideas for this campaign…were to engage debate, to use the Web for propagating messages, to utilise it as the key route to youth, and to use it for highly efficient and cost-effective marketing. Ultimately, these goals transformed into components like the Kevin07 Website, the social networking spaces, in Facebook and elsewhere, the YouTube channel, and a variety of other online platforms – and they also enabled the campaign to do some slightly cheeky things which would not have worked in other media works.” (Snurb, 2008)


2007 saw the first efforts of social media to channel the youth vote in Kevin Rudd’s successful ‘Kevin07’ campaign. Kevin07 was a standout campaign on social media, and “in particular made major use of blogs, MySpace and YouTube” (Macnamara & Kenning 2011, p. 14).


As a result of clever campaigning and work through social and online media, Kevin Rudd was victorious, with “more than 50 per cent of the youth vote” (Holman, 2013). Kevin Rudd had established for himself a personality online and a reputation that had captured the youth vote successfully, by establishing an image of himself as a daggy, relatable character. Although this type of character would by no means appeal to all youth, let alone all demographics, it revealed a clever campaign that garnered enough attention and traction to succeed.






Although 2013 did not have the novelty of the Kevin07 campaign, it saw a more effective and extensive use of social media surrounding Rudd and the Labor party. Whilst ‘Kevin13’ does not possess the same ring as its 2007 counterpart, this election still provides valuable evidence of politicians interacting and channelling youth through social media.

Rudd’s hiring of some of Obama’s digital campaign team (as well as his son) is a good indication of the perceived youth vote at stake for the election by Labor. With youth “[m]aking up about 30% of the electorate, but not oriented in any persistent ideological direction, young people remain untapped as a political resource” (Walsh & Black 2013). With an additional (generally youth-friendly) focus on support for same-sex marriage, the campaign featured some key moments of clever social media campaigning use, for example:


Rudd’s support for gay rights on Q&A:



Rudd’s powerful speech on his support for same-sex marriage, which broadcast – on traditional media – on ABC’s Q&A, was posted on Rudd’s YouTube page, and “reached more than 2.3 million views in four days”, becoming the “most-watched YouTube clip of the campaign” (Waters 2013).



‘Abbott’s Internet’:



‘Abbott’s Internet’ was posted through one of the Labor party’s more discreet accounts, ‘Reality Check’, that, with minimal branding, simply read on their account: ‘The facts you need to know about Tony Abbott’s negative cuts agenda and Kevin Rudd’s positive plans.’ “Labor launched an alternative social media presence during the campaign under the banner ‘Reality Check’, with minimal Labor branding, through which they fed more creative (and often more negative) posts.” (Waters 2013)


Rudd’s AMA on Reddit:


k rudd ama reddit


Taking a leaf out of Obama’s book, Rudd also appeared on an ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) on social media site Reddit. With Reddit’s largest demographic being 18-29 year old males (Smith 2014), Rudd strived to answer as many questions as he could in the allotted hour. While this stunt revealed Labor’s new youth mental health policy, it didn’t uncover anything ground-breaking, but Rudd “received 9573 comments and earned him kudos for effort from social media experts” (Waters 2013). He also notably conversed with one youth who gave him the nickname ‘Rudd dog’, which gained some attention.




Rudd’s campaigning, which was a common subject of many online news sources, pointed to a rise in youth enrolment in the week of his return to power (22,000 people enrolled in a week, compared with the average 8,000). While that doesn’t indicate necessarily positive support for Rudd, it was highlighted that “Kevin Rudd is very good at making people feel they are meaningfully engaged with politics” (Holman 2013). It was speculated that “Obama’s social media big guns will likely give Rudd an edge with young Australians; something he’s worked hard to build since before the ‘07 election” (Mulholland 2013), and asserted that “Rudd is trying to grab the youth vote, but it’s the way he’s going about it that really sets him apart…[capturing] and [holding] the attention of youth through social media”. (Johanson 2013)



Just like the Australian business community, Rudd has increasingly used social media to show he is just an “ordinary” guy and to build his image as the dorky, yet endearing fatherly figure. Whether cool or on the level of a daggy dad joke, Rudd’s recent shaving cut selfie showed an acute understanding of the power of social media for creating a personal brand”. (Mulholland 2013)


“…it’s one of Rudd’s frequent attempts to position himself as human, like the rest of us, prone to mistakes. Just as Australian men nick themselves shaving, so does their PM. He’s just a regular guy”. (Johanson 2013)


While Rudd was unsuccessful in re-election, his social media tactics were notable for their clever focus and applicability to youth online.