Hashtag politics: in search of youth engagement

Bec Fary / July 10, 2013 04:14 PM

Do followers and likes translate to political engagement? 

When former prime minister Julia Gillard announced the June 26 leadership ballot, she was critical of leadership speculation “nonsense”.

“Government is about purpose,” she told Sky News.

“It’s not about personalities. It’s about values and getting the big things done that the nation needs.”

After defeating Gillard for the Labor leadership, the newly reappointed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd agreed.

“Negative destructive personal politics has done much to bring dishonour to our parliament but done nothing to address the urgent challenges facing our country, our communities, our families,” he said.

In his first TV ad spot since the leadership spill, Rudd said he wants to “raise the standards” of political debate.

“I believe all Australians are sick and tired of negative politics,” he said in the ad, which first aired on Sunday. 

But now, as we wait to see whether the King of the Nerds gets stood up by Captain Negative at their National Press Club debate date tomorrow, I wonder: will it be policy debates or personality clashes on our minds when we take to the ballots later this year? 

 Revenge Of The Nerds By Matt Golding Via Smh

Image credit: Matt Golding via Sydney Morning Herald.

It feels like we’re closer to our politicians than ever before.

Yesterday’s announcement of Labor leadership voting reform means rank and file party members could be given a direct say in the ALP’s leadership. 

And with the growing participation of politicians on social media, voters are getting insight not just into politics but also their leaders’ private lives.

For some politicians, social media just provides more platforms to broadcast scripted messages. Others have taken to the ‘social’ side of social media with gusto, and with varying levels of success.

When Tony Abbott was elected as leader of the opposition in 2009, he immortalised his public image (and burned himself into our memory) with the now-infamous budgie smuggler appearance.

To his 140,603 followers, @TonyAbbottMHR mostly posts links to speeches and press releases.

He still managed to cause a Twitter storm yesterday.

Tony Abbott Pie Press Conference Photo Credit Jeremy Piper Via Daily Telegraph

Photo credit: Jeremy Piper via The Daily Telegraph

At a press conference at a pie factory in Sydney, Abbott told Guardian Australia journalist Bridie Jabour to “calm down” when she asked him about travel expenses.

She tweeted about the exchange, and #camldownbridie was soon trending. 

All i have to say is: Calmer than you are. #biglebowski #calmdownbridie

— Bridie Jabour (@bkjabour) July 9, 2013


The hashtag was tweeted nearly 2,000 times over the day, and the opposition leader even caught the attention of globally renowned handle @TheTweetOfGod:

 “Attention @TonyAbbottMHR: this is God. Calm down, sweetie,” God tweeted, although the original appears to have been removed. 

@KRuddMP is the clear winner when it comes to politicians on Twitter, with nearly 1.3 million followers.

This morning he posted a red-faced selfie on Instagram, complete with bloodied tissue, after cutting himself shaving.

KRudd Instagram

Photo credit: @KRuddMP on Instagram. 

“Note to self: when rushing out the door in the morning, make sure you take care with the razor. It is sharp," he wrote, and has since been retweeted 156 times.

Thanks to the frequency of his sometimes esoteric, always hilarious ‘Ruddisms’ like “fair shake of the sauce bottle” and “zib zab zob”, the PM that will perhaps always be remembered as ‘Kevin07’ is a popular source of soundbites, retweets, favourites and likes.

And although social media exposure can leave politicians open to ridicule, it gets people listening, watching and hashtagging.

In a piece called ‘The youth don’t care, but they should’, ABC reporter Julia Holman wrote “there’s not much political chatter happening all” amongst young people.

But according to our intern Kathleen Belsten, politically engaged young peopleare are “here in a different way”.

When Rudd took the leadership last month, he made an appeal to young Australians.

“Far too many of you have looked at our political system and the parliament in recent years and not liked or respected much of what you have seen,” he said.

“Well I understand why you have switched off.

“It’s hardly a surprise but I want to ask you to please come back and listen afresh.”

“It’s really important that we get you engaged, in any way we can. We need you. We need your energy. We need your ideas. We need your enthusiasm and we need you to support us in the great challenges that lie ahead for the country.”

And in a typically quotable Ruddism, the PM finished off with this:

“With your energy, we can start cooking with gas.”

In the latest Essential Vision poll, Kevin Rudd rated higher than his rivals on levels of honesty and trust.

When surveyed three days before Julia Gillard lost the Labor leadership clash, 30 percent of voters thought she was ‘trustworthy’ and ‘more honest than most politicians’.

Tony Abbott’s results were sitting on the same level of perceived honesty, while 32 percent of poll respondents thought they could trust him.

In comparison, less than two weeks after re-taking office, PM Kevin Rudd beat both Gillard and Abbott by more than 10 points; 42 percent of voters rated Rudd as trustworthy and 41 percent thought him more honest.

And perhaps most tellingly, 57 percent described Julia Gillard as ‘out of touch with ordinary people’ on June 23, while Rudd’s strike rate was 39 percent on the same marker.

It’s hard to judge whether social media engagement is reflected directly in the polls, but it’s hard to deny there’s a strong correlation.

@JuliaGillard’s last tweet was before the #Ruddslide, which saw an onslaught of #auspol Tweets. In case you missed it, take a look at the best tweets from the spill

“If social media is the new window to the nation's soul, voters prefer Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard at much higher rates than even the polls have revealed,” Paul Toohey wrote before the spill.

Throughout her time in office, Gillard faced criticisms on her appearance, gender, relationship status (and sometimes her policy).

Rudd is publicly attacking such “negative destructive personal politics”, but with the nation now watching him settle back into his old role, maybe his selfies will be as influential as his politics.

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