2022 Australian Federal Election: Update 2

By  Axel Bruns and Daniel Angus

As we flagged in our previous post, for the 2022 Australian federal election we are tracking social media engagement with the Twitter accounts as well as Facebook pages of federal election candidates. Our update last week focussed in part on reviewing the early patterns of engagement on Twitter, so this week we turn to Facebook. As one of the most widely used social media platforms in Australia, the patterns of activity and engagement here might provide a glimpse of broader electoral trends at this point in the campaign. Again, we’ll focus on a timeframe from 4 April onwards – one week before the election was officially called.

The first observation on Facebook is that Labor candidates are substantially more active than their opponents from the other parties; their more than 5,700 posts since 4 April exceed the posting by Liberal and Greens candidates combined (fig. 1). Contrary to what we observed for Twitter, however, where Liberal candidates are barely active at all, on Facebook they and their colleagues from the other Coalition parties do post considerably more often; the same is true also for candidates from One Nation. United Australia Party candidates, by contrast, appear to prefer Twitter as their social media platform of choice.

Fig. 1: Facebook posting activity and post types, aggregated by party, on 4-28 Apr. 2022.

There are also notable differences in posting style between the parties: candidates for Labor as well as the three Coalition parties predominantly embrace a highly visual campaigning style by posting photos and videos. Greens, One Nation, and Independent candidates post significantly more links to outside sources, by comparison. This may indicate a lower campaign budget for photographers and video production (though they still post substantial audiovisual content, too), but also shows a willingness to provide additional, external content for their followers – Greens candidates, for instance, actively linked to a wide range of news sources, to the Greens Party Website, and to enrolment information from the Australian Electoral Commission.

As on Twitter, however, such activity does not necessarily also translate directly into engagement by ordinary Facebook users. Here, as in other election campaigns, the two major candidates for the Prime Ministership command by far the greatest share of the attention. Posts on Scott Morrison’s and Anthony Albanese’s Facebook pages have received nearly 550,000 and 430,000 reactions to date, as well as a substantial number of comments and shares (fig. 2). There are some notable differences between the two men, however: while Morrison leads on reactions and comments, Albanese’s posts were shared over 5,000 times more often than the Prime Minister’s – and posts by other Labor candidates similarly received considerably more shares than those of their Liberal counterparts: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles received a very similar amount of reactions, for example, but Marles’s posts were shared more than three times as often as Frydenberg’s.

Fig. 2: Facebook engagement for the ten candidates with the most engagement, on 4-28 Apr. 2022.

Notable here is also the substantial volume of engagement – and especially of shares – received by Independent candidate Morgan Jones. While we show all Independents in teal for this election, Jonas is not one of the so-called ‘Teal Independents’ challenging major party candidates, but was initially endorsed by Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party before choosing to stand as an Independent. He gained social media notoriety in recent days especially for a fiery on-air clash with talk radio host Neil Mitchell, who challenged Jonas over his anti-vaccination views. The clash delivered a substantial boost in Facebook engagement for Jonas, as fig. 2 shows – but such engagement is likely to come from Facebook users well beyond his Flinders electorate, and may therefore not translate to electoral success on 21 May.

As we examine the engagement with these candidates, it is also useful to review the types of reactions they receive. Ignoring generic Facebook ‘Likes’, there are substantial differences in the more specific reactions directed at the candidates with the greatest engagement (fig. 3). Jonas, for example, receives a substantial number of ‘Angry’ reactions: these might indicate contempt for his anti-vaxx views, but also that followers are angry with Neil Mitchell on his behalf. Prime Minister Scott Morrison similarly receives a comparably large number of ‘Angry’ reactions, but curiously also a very substantial amount of ‘Haha’ responses. For Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, ‘Haha’ and especially ‘Angry’ are comparatively minor categories; in his case, the volume of ‘Care’ reactions is particularly notable, and almost certainly a result of his COVID-19 diagnosis on 21 April.

Fig. 3: Facebook reaction types for the ten candidates with the most reactions, on 4-28 Apr. 2022.

For almost all candidates, however, the ‘Love’ reaction clearly dominates. This points to the fact that the Facebook users engaging with the pages of Australian political candidates are usually most likely to be supporters of them and their parties already; only a minority of users visit those candidate pages to leave negative reactions, it seems.

Viewed at the party level, these patterns hold, too. Grouping together ‘Care’, ‘Haha’, ‘Love’, ‘Thankful’, and ‘Wow’ as broadly positive reactions, and ‘Angry’ and ‘Sad’ as broadly negative, all parties receive a substantially larger percentage of positive than negative reactions (fig. 4). There are subtle differences, however: some 25% of all reactions to Greens posts are positive by this measure, while the same is true only for 12% of all reactions to Liberal National Party posts. Even if followers are generally well disposed towards the candidates, then, their level of outright enthusiasm can vary substantially.

Fig. 4: Facebook engagement patterns, aggregated by party, on 4-28 Apr. 2022.

But more significant differences emerge between the different forms of engagement that Facebook provides. Compared to the relative volume of reactions that their posts have generated, Liberal Party candidates receive notably more comments, while they lag behind substantially on sharing; the same is true, at much lower volume, for Liberal National Party candidates (but not for their National Party colleagues). In other words, Facebook users are disproportionately active at commenting on Liberal and LNP candidate posts – yet those users also unusually reluctant to share those posts with their own personal networks. Labor (as well as Independent, Greens, and One Nation) posts are getting shared much more freely. (As we’ve already seen in fig. 2, this also holds at an individual level for the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader.)

Notably, these patterns broadly align with what we saw last week in our Twitter data, too: Coalition candidates are still receiving virtually no retweets so far, while nearly 20% of all tweets engaging with Labor and Greens candidates, and nearly 30% of all tweets engaging with Independents, are retweets, amplifying their messages. The reluctance to assist Coalition candidates in promoting their campaign messages is somewhat less pronounced on Facebook, but it is clearly evident here, too.

Such patterns are unevenly distributed across the eight states and territories, however. A breakdown of engagement patterns across the states represented by each House and Senate candidate shows a number of local specificities (fig. 5). New South Wales should be treated as something of an outlier in this analysis, as both the Prime Minister’s and the Opposition Leader’s electorate are located here and both men receive an outsized amount of engagement compared to other candidates; the overrepresentation of their engagement patterns in NSW also reinforces the substantial number of comments in comparison to shares that Morrison’s posts have received to date.

Fig. 5: Facebook engagement patterns, aggregated by state and party, on 4-28 Apr. 2022.

In Victoria, Labor candidates are far more clearly ahead on all counts – and especially when it comes to the on-sharing of their posts through ordinary Facebook users’ networks. This is notable especially in light of the fact that Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s electorate of Kooyong is located here, where he is fighting a strong challenge from Independent candidate Monique Ryan; his and his Liberal colleagues’ messaging, however, is not receiving substantial endorsement from ordinary Facebook users. (The significant volume of engagement with Independent candidates in Victoria that fig. 5 shows is largely caused by Morgan Jonas’s newfound notoriety, however, and only secondarily by engagement with Monique Ryan’s campaign.)

Queensland, by contrast, is living up to its status as a crucial battleground state so far. Here, the local Coalition offshoot – the Liberal National Party – and the Labor Party are almost even on reactions, while the LNP is ahead on comments and Labor on shares, matching national patterns on those metrics. At a much lower volume of overall engagement, Western Australia produces similar patterns. In South Australia, on the other hand, engagement around Liberal candidates appears exceptionally quiet while Labor is well ahead on all metrics – possibly as a result of the Liberals’ crushing state election defeat just one month ago, and of the substantial upheaval in the Liberal state party organisation resulting from it.

These state and territory patterns seem to align well with current perceptions about general public opinion across the country; we found similar alignment across regions in our analysis of Facebook engagement during the 2020 Queensland state election. It would be tempting to anticipate Victoria and South Australia breaking strongly for Labor, with Queensland and Western Australia in the balance and New South Wales potentially throwing up some surprises, as we approach election day – but of course it is impossible to predict election results purely from patterns of activity on social media, even if those patterns offer some pointers towards the overall mood of the electorate. With another three weeks to go in the campaign, at any rate, there is still plenty of time for either side of politics to derail their opponents’ campaign – or their own.