By Axel Bruns and Daniel Angus.
The 2020 Queensland state election takes place in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which poses new and unprecedented challenges for the campaigners. Even though the state has managed to suppress the transmission of the virus and has been able to relax the severe restrictions in place elsewhere in Australia and the world, candidates are still unlikely to engage in extensive doorknocking activities and other in-person campaigning that may pose a risk to the wider public and themselves.
And further, the pandemic also means that there will be a particularly large number of voters opting for early in-person or postal voting, in order to avoid getting caught up in COVID-unsafe throngs at the voting booths on election day. While normally, voters pay full attention to the election campaign only in the last week or two of campaigning, this time they may well do so some weeks earlier – and no amount of late campaigning will be able to sway them if they cast their votes early, of course. As a result, social media campaigning is likely to play an even greater role than it has already in previous state and federal elections.
As in previous elections, our team at the QUT Digital Media Research Centre will analyse the patterns of activity on social media during the state election campaign. We’ll focus especially on Facebook and Twitter as the major social media platforms, and in light of the growing evidence of mis- and disinformation campaigns on social media during the coronavirus pandemic will also pay particular attention to any signs of coordinated activity that seems designed to boost or attack specific candidates or parties.
The candidate rolls have yet to be finalised and there may be some further additions to these numbers, but as of now we have identified 132 election candidates with Twitter accounts, including 57 Labor candidates, 29 from the Liberal-National Party, 13 from the Queensland Greens, 10 from One Nation, and 23 minor party candidates and Independents. A greater number are on Facebook: of the 311 Facebook pages we have found, 82 belong to Labor, 80 to the LNP, 42 each to the Greens and One Nation, and 65 to minor party and Independent candidates.
For this first update, we’ll focus on Twitter. During these first days of the campaign, since Saturday, Labor and Greens candidates have been most active on the platform, followed by their Independent challengers; LNP candidates have tweeted relatively little so far. Perhaps as a result, but possibly also because of the substantial attention paid especially to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Health Minister Steven Miles as key decision-makers on pandemic mitigation policy, Labor candidates have also received the lion’s share of mentions and retweets so far: from Saturday to Thursday, we identified some 19,000 tweets addressing Labor candidates, compared to only 4,700 for LNP politicians.
Premier Palaszczuk leads both lists, with 88 tweets sent during this period, and 12,000 received; by contrast, Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington sent 8 tweets and received some 4,000 mentions and retweets. For both (and indeed for most major candidates), mentions far outnumber retweets, in fact: 14% of the tweets directed at Palaszczuk were retweets, and 6% of those received by Frecklington. This may be an indication of different levels of support for the two leaders, but in the present context the Premier’s numbers may also be inflated by Twitter users who are retweeting her latest COVID-19 announcements without necessarily supporting Labor’s policies. Indeed, state Health Minister and Deputy Premier Steven Miles also receives very substantial Twitter engagement, almost certainly due to his key role in managing the current crisis: at 5,800 tweets received (4% of them retweets), he is the other Labor politican to be tweeted at more than Frecklington.
While Labor candidates have managed to generate greater engagement than their LNP challengers, over time the pattern isn’t quite so stable. From midday on 5 October, and continuing to the evening of the following day, a substantial amount of tweeting was directed at LNP candidates; during this time, they received up to 60% of all tweets at candidates per hour. Examining the topics of these tweets, we found that preference deals and the LNP’s relationship with Clive Palmer dominate the discussion.
Looking more widely at the issues and topics that have been raised on Twitter throughout the entire week, we found that Labor were strongly challenged around what some see as an each-way bet on the coal and fossil fuel industry. Other topics that generated significant discussion included the ongoing NSW/Queensland border restrictions, which aligns with our findings above of the large number of tweets directed towards Health Minister Stephen Miles; the ghost of former LNP Premier Campbell Newman made an appearance in the context of warnings of cuts to frontline public service staff by Deb Frecklington, with a particular emphasis on health workers; and, there was discussion centred around key policy announcements such as investments in construction projects by Labor and the LNP, and in Bruce Highway upgrades by the LNP.
Looking directly at the topics that the candidates and parties tweeted we find that Labor focussed on their plans for economic stimulus and job creation beyond the pandemic and attacked the LNP over their record on cuts to essential services. The LNP have focussed on their own investments in construction and been involved in minor skirmishes with select Labor candidates. The Greens focussed on championing their policy of using mining royalties to fund new social services in the education, health and welfare sectors.
Finally, for what it’s worth: while the last weeks and months have provided plenty of evidence of coordinated mis- and disinformation campaigns related to the pandemic and other topics, in Australia and elsewhere in the world, so far we have seen no clear evidence of such activities on Twitter in the context of the Queensland state election.