Two more weeks to go – the end of the 2022 Australian federal election campaign is in sight. As we approach the finish line, the key themes and patterns of the campaign are gradually becoming clearer, too, so in this week’s update on our continuing analysis of the social media campaign we’ll focus in part on the key themes of the social media debate, too. (Our previous posts in this series are here: Update 1; Update 2.)
As in the past we are interested in modelling what major topics have dominated online spaces. We use a variety of topic modelling tools here in the DMRC, but for this analysis we will use Leximancer, and bigram analysis which are well suited to studying short social media utterances. Leximancer is a graphical topic modelling toolkit that reads over an input text to discover latent word groupings and associations. Groups of words that tend to occur frequently, and are strongly collocated within individual utterances (e.g. climate change action, aged care workers), are profiled and used as the basis for a variety of interpretive outputs including concept maps, ranked lists, and more. Bigrams are calculated using a custom python script to count all pairs of words that appear in these social media texts.
For the topic analysis we focus on three datasets, spanning the first half of the campaign, these are:
- all Facebook posts made to candidate pages (excluding ads);
- all tweets sent from candidate accounts; and
- all tweets that mention or reply to a candidate.
For Facebook we focus on the major parties and a small group of larger third parties. For these the top concepts cover the usual mixture of aspirational nationhood statements, but also tie into the specific policy areas that these parties believe will resonate with the public.
Fig. 1: the Leximancer concept map detailing the major emergent concepts from all candidates, with selected parties projected onto the map according to their proximity to these concepts via their own posting activity.
Labor have locked onto aged care (related concepts: aged, care, crisis, better, future, residents, workers). Their framing is an interesting two-fold strategy, highlighting the significant and well-known issues in the aged care sector while framing their approach to this vexed issue through closer attention to staffing conditions to improve care delivery.
The Coalition are doubling down on the economy (related concepts: economy, businesses, million, funding, future, jobs, plan, tax) as their number one issue. While this analysis didn’t include ads, only organic posts, it is noteworthy that the organic activity and messaging from candidates is in line with their advertising strategy, which also focusses strongly on the economy.
The Greens have focussed on climate change (related concepts: climate, change, action, crisis), but unlike the major parties the emergent topics suggest that they have also posted more diverse content on a broader suite of policies including housing, health, and tax policy. High-ranked concepts also include direct political references such as ‘vote’, ‘senate’, and ‘power’, which relate to their ambition to seek the balance of power in the house and senate.
The various Independent candidates have tended to focus strongly on climate change and local representation and voice (related concepts: climate, change, action, community, issues, region). The focus by Independents on local issues is not surprising, but the strong focus on climate change confirms that these candidates are seeking to attract voters who are tired of the intransigence of the government towards climate change policy. In key inner-city seats this is making for some significantly close campaigns in ordinarily blue-ribbon seats.
The tweet data from candidates follows much of what we find for Facebook, with some additional active language around directly referencing ‘your vote’. Our Facebook data collection relies on Crowdtangle, which means we do not have access to comments, but with the tweets directed towards candidates on Twitter we can get a glimpse of the electorate’s own voice.
Fig. 2: the Leximancer concept map detailing the major emergent concepts on Twitter, directed towards candidates.
For tweets directed towards candidates there are some clear messages that emerge. There is a strong positive tone of support directed towards Labor, some of it picking up on key campaign messages such as those regarding support for aged care workers, and future directions under a changed government. In contrast, the tone towards the incumbent Coalition is one of scorn, with accusations of corruption, lies, and lack of action on climate change.
Specific issues such as the Coalition’s failures regarding defence policy in the Pacific and increasingly tense relationship with China have also drawn ire. If one were to break down the mood of this collection of tweets in a single image it would be of burning torches and pitchforks at the ready.
There is a notably different pattern in the secondary hashtags that are used by and directed at candidates on Twitter, however. Ignoring the several variations on standing generic hashtags like #auspol and #ausvotes, the topic-specific hashtags used around the candidates of each party focus more strongly on the political contest than the policy content. Coalition candidates in general, and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in particular, are confronted especially with the ‘teal Independent’ challenge they now face: #kooyongvotes, #kooyong, and #mon4kooyong are all prominent, while #alboforpm and #federalicac also feature.
Labor candidates encounter a more mixed reception: while #alboforpm and #albo4pm are well represented, #gutlessalbo and #meangirls represent more critical voices, and #hometobilo addresses the unresolved conflicts in Labor’s stance on refugee policy.
Hashtags around the Independent candidates are more strongly supportive, with #kooyongvotes, #goldsteinvotes, and #mackellarvotes (and related hashtags) all prominent. #independentsday also appears, as does #climateactionnow, in reflection of the ‘teal Independents’ links with initiatives calling for more action on climate change.
Labor and Coalition candidates alike, however (though not the Independents or minor parties), are also being targetted by a curious hashtag campaign in support of greater skilled migration. Appearing to originate at least in part from Pakistan, hashtags like #476visa and #visa476grants are addressing major government and opposition candidates to highlight long visa wait times especially for skilled engineers.
Overall engagement patterns
Updating the observations of general social media engagement around the candidates that we introduced in our past two updates (Update 1 covered Twitter; Update 2 covered Facebook), the overall patterns continue to hold. On Twitter, Coalition candidates simply fail to find any endorsement from retweets (fig. 3): while Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg receive the second and third highest levels of engagement overall, after Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, fewer than 1% of those tweets are retweets. Albanese’s percentage of retweets received (11%) is still low compared to Independent candidates like Monique Ryan (22%) or Zoe Daniel (26%), but the difference between him and his fellow Labor candidates on the one hand, and their Coalition counterparts on the other, is nonetheless striking.
Fig. 3: Twitter engagement for the ten candidates with the most engagement, on 4 Apr. to 5 May 2022.
Similar patterns are evident on Facebook, too, and have remained consistent from previous weeks (fig. 4). Here, Morrison does beat Albanese on reactions and comments for his posts, yet Albanese is well ahead on shares: his posts were shared on to their own networks by ordinary Facebook users nearly 25,000 times to date, while Morrison received only 18,000 shares. The on-sharing of Frydenberg’s posts is similarly paltry, when compared with candidates who received similar numbers of reactions or comments.
Fig. 4: Facebook engagement for the ten candidates with the most engagement, on 4 Apr. to 5 May 2022.
The battle for Kooyong
Indeed, the increasingly bitter fight between Frydenberg and his Independent challenger Monique Ryan in the Kooyong electorate is worth a closer look in this week’s update. On Twitter, the volume of mentions of Frydenberg’s and Ryan’s accounts has been substantial since 25 April, to the point that Frydenberg’s account has been mentioned more often on Twitter since then than even Scott Morrison’s (fig. 5).
Fig. 5: Twitter engagement per day for the six candidates with the most engagement, on 4 Apr. to 5 May 2022.
Behind this increased focus on Frydenberg and Ryan is the dispute over the Kooyong candidates’ debate: the Treasurer pulled out of a local candidates’ forum in favour of a debate to be hosted by Channel Nine at a venue outside the electorate, which Ryan rejected in turn. A direct debate between the two was eventually hosted by Sky News, in Hawthorn. Such animus between the contestants clearly drew attention to both, though it seems likely that the lesser-known Independent would benefit more from this free publicity than the already well-established Treasurer.
Such increased attention will shift the election outcome in Kooyong only if it comes from local electors, however. Notably, on Facebook (which because of its platform structure will often represent a more local engagement with candidate pages) Frydenberg’s page continues to receive substantively more engagement than Ryan’s.
We’ve explored the world of advertising in the federal election campaign to date – from the well-organised to the weird and the plain obnoxious – in our recent article for The Conversation. As we enter the final weeks of the campaign, expect the online advertising to go into overdrive, too – in fact, that process appears to have begun already, as our PoliDashboard project in collaboration with the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University shows (fig. 6).
Fig. 6: PoliDashboard chart of Liberal Party advertising spend, on 4 Apr. to 5 May 2022.
Since 3 May, the Liberal Party campaign HQ alone seems to have launched more than 1,300 individual ads in the $0-$99 cost range. Launching so many small ads in such a short time may well indicate the start of a highly microtargetted campaign – see if you spot any of them in your own Facebook feeds, or click through from the PoliDashboard itself to see some of them in the Facebook Ad Library.
In terms of themes contained in the ads themselves, in the last few weeks the parties have focussed on boosting their own brands (Labor, Liberal, United Australia Party, Greens) significantly in these ads. Interestingly, it’s Labor who are mentioning ‘Scott Morrison’ more than the Liberal Party, who are instead preferring the term ‘Morrison Government’. Both Liberal and Labor are pushing hard on ‘Jobs’, ‘Health’, and ‘Lies’; Labor are focussed more on ‘Medicare’, while the Liberal party focusses on ‘Economy’.
This last week has seen ad spends on Facebook start to nudge up towards $100k per day for the major parties, so expect to see more ads as we near the conclusion of the campaign. And remember, only two more weeks of this to go!