As the election campaign hits the home straight, we’ve made a final update to our list of the candidate accounts tracked in our Twitter and Facebook analysis, with a particular emphasis on including all Senators and Senate candidates. This week we focus on thematic trends in the content that has been circulating both from and towards candidates online, as well as the general engagement and activity patterns we see online. We aren’t going to look at advertising in any detail this week; however, for those interested Dan gave an update on some of that work for the Briefing podcast this week.
Let’s start by looking back at what the major themes and topics of discussion have been since early April. For this we are going to focus our attention on Twitter, mostly as this provides us the ability to look at user-generated content directed towards candidates, in addition to what the candidates themselves have been saying.
To analyse the campaign themes, we use the same methods we outlined last week, combining Leximancer concept analysis with frequent bigrams (two-word pairs) and Latent Dirichlet Analysis.
Messaging from the Candidates
Looking first at the candidates, taking into consideration also that some parties are tweeting with higher frequency, we see that the candidates and parties themselves feature prominently in their messaging, through both self and other messaging (fig. 1). Labor Party candidates mention “Scott Morrison” significantly more than “Anthony Albanese”, and vice versa Liberal Party candidates mention “Anthony Albanese” more than “Scott Morrison”. These references naturally feature through pot shots at party leadership across the political divide, while candidates tend to frame their own leaders through explicit connection to their political aspiration “Morrison Government” and “Albanese Labor Government”.
Fig. 1: Top bigrams in Tweets from political candidates on Twitter, aggregated by party
On issues of policy, climate change is prominent for all parties except for the Liberal and National Parties who have avoided talking about this substantial and pressing existential issue throughout their campaign. That the Coalition is avoiding this issue not surprising given that it is a source of significant internal party tension, and that their woeful record on this issue is placing pressure on traditionally safe inner-city Liberal seats where ‘teal’ Independents and the Greens offer credible alternatives.
On the topic of the Independents and minor parties like the Greens, there is a significant push on topics surrounding balance of power, and a rejection of the major parties, placing themselves in a position to pick up protest votes from disgruntled voters.
While much of this messaging has remained consistent throughout the campaign, issues relating to cost of living, and in particular interest rates have featured late in the campaign (fig 2). While the Coalition have framed much of their online advertising campaign through the lens of the economy, this may have begun to backfire given the interest rate rise decision mid-way through the campaign. Labor in particular have strongly focussed on interest rates, cost of living pressure, and wage stagnation in these last two weeks.
Fig. 2: Change in prominence of bigrams throughout the campaign for all major and a selection of minor party and independent candidates
Messaging Directed towards the Candidates
Turning now away from the candidates, and looking at how everyday users of Twitter are engaging back towards them, we see some similarity in the key messages being discussed. The candidates themselves are prominent in this messaging, with a significant volume of activity directed at the personality and personal appeal (or lack thereof) of key candidates. Most of this is focussed on the leaders and senior ministers, but we also see a high degree of conversation regarding seats being taken on by the ‘teal’ Independents such as Monique Ryan and Zali Steggall (fig. 3).
Fig. 3: Leximancer concept map of major concepts directed at candidates by ordinary Twitter users
Beyond discussion of the candidates, we again see climate change as an issue being picked up by these users, in addition to concerns around the appropriation of public money, aged care, corruption, and discussion of an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), as well as a fair amount of critique of the media themselves for what many on Twitter consider as overtly biased campaign coverage that is disproportionately favourable towards the Coalition, and that is also silencing voices of minor parties and independents.
Social Media Engagement
Looking beyond the specific themes and content, and towards the broader patterns of overall posting behaviour and engagement on both Twitter and Facebook, our final update of the list of candidates we have been tracking for this election has produced only a handful of minor changes to the fairly stable picture we’ve seen over the past weeks – and here especially for Senators and Senate candidates.
On Twitter, posting activity is still driven by Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and the Labor Party (fig. 4); for United Australia, though, well over half of the 14,000 tweets sent to date were posted by just two of its candidates. For all other parties, the distribution of posting activity across all candidates is considerably more even.
Fig. 4: Tweets from and to candidates, aggregated by party, from 4 April to 12 May 2022
For all this activity, however, Labor and Liberal candidates remain the major targets of engagement by ordinary Twitter users. And here, the stark contrast in types of engagement between Coalition candidates and all others that we have noted week after week continues to hold firm: almost uniformly, Coalition candidates’ posts fail altogether to gain amplification from retweets.
Fewer than 1% of all tweets directed at Liberal and National Party candidates are retweets (compared to 23% for Labor and 30% for the Independents), and only the Liberal National Party has gained some retweets with our latest update to the candidate list: of the 4% of tweets directed at its candidates that are retweets, the majority amplify the messages of controversial Senator Matt Canavan. Some 14% of all tweets directed at Canavan are retweets.
This qualified endorsement is not sufficient to elevate Canavan into the list of the candidates who have received the greatest amount of engagement on Twitter to date, however. Here, as always, the party leaders, key frontbenchers, and most prominent Independents dominate, with the bulk of the attention directed to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (fig. 5).
Fig. 5: Twitter engagement with the leading candidates, 4 Apr. to 12 May 2022
Here, too, a clear pattern emerges: Coalition candidates fail to receive any endorsement through retweets for their posts. Of the more than 755,000 tweets directed at Scott Morrison that we have gathered since 4 April, for instance, fewer than 1,300 (or 0.17%) were retweets, and other Liberal leaders similarly failed to reach the 1% mark. At just under 10%, Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s performance was still comparatively unimpressive – prominent Independents Monique Ryan and Zoe Daniel managed 25% each, and United Australia Party leader Craig Kelly is at 27% – but still considerably ahead of his major opponent.
On Facebook, our final update to the candidate lists has similarly produced only some minor changes. Compared to our last analysis, the Greens have now pushed ahead of the Liberals in terms of posting activity (fig. 6); this may be due in part to the number of prominent Senators in their team. Overall, however, Labor candidates remain the most enthusiastic Facebook users: to date they have posted nearly twice as often as the Greens, and some 1.33 times more than all Coalition candidates combined.
Fig. 6: Facebook posting activity on candidate pages, aggregated by party, 4 Apr. to 12 May 2022
There is a curious difference in posting styles between the two major party blocs and the minor parties and Independents that we have noted before, too: neither Labor nor Coalition candidates provide a great deal of outside evidence to back up their campaign messaging. The major party candidates vastly prefer posts that contain photos (accounting for around 80% of their posts) and videos (14-18%), while Greens, One Nation, and Independents as well as some of the smaller parties include links to sources outside Facebook in up to 22% of their posts. This might indicate that smaller parties and Independents feel that they must work harder to convince voters of their views.
Such posting activity does not convert directly into similar engagement patterns with the candidates, however. In our analysis of such engagement (fig. 7), we do see some notable differences from past weeks: as our latest update has added data for Senators Pauline Hanson and George Christensen, the total volume of engagement with One Nation candidates appears substantially greater now – for One Nation, these two Senators are clearly the focal point of such engagement. (At a lower level, the LNP’s figures similarly benefit from the addition of data on engagement with Senator Canavan.)
Fig. 7: Facebook engagement with candidate pages, aggregated by party, 4 Apr. to 12 May 2022
Overall, however, Labor remains comfortably ahead of its opponents, and – as with Twitter – there is a vast difference between Labor and the Coalition especially in the willingness of ordinary Facebook users to share candidate posts with their own followers, and thereby to boost the visibility of such posts in their friend networks. To date, Labor candidates’ posts have been shared on into personal networks some 237,000 times; Coalition candidates’ posts less than 100,000 times. Meanwhile, such on-sharing is also especially pronounced for One Nation and Independent candidates.
Viewed at the level of the individual candidates (fig. 8), the emphasis on Senators Hanson and Christensen for One Nation becomes especially clear; both generate very substantial engagement in general, and receive a large about of shares for their posts in particular.
Fig. 8: Facebook engagement with the leading candidate pages, 4 Apr. to 12 May 2022
Of the major party leaders, and in comparison to his party, Scott Morrison does comparatively well: though the Liberals lag behind Labor in overall engagement, Morrison attracts more reactions and comments than Albanese, but does trail his opponent on shares. This, and the absence of other Liberal frontbenchers compared to the presence of four other prominent Labor candidates in the list of the 10 candidates with the most Facebook engagement, also points to the central focus of the Coalition campaign on Morrison as Prime Minister, while Labor – by choice, or due to Albanese’s COVID-enforced temporary absence from the campaign trail – has placed more attention on the party’s broader leadership team.
While fig. 8 also shows that Facebook reactions to the major leaders are generally largely positive (ignoring likes, and grouping ‘sad’ and ‘angry’ reactions as negative and all others as positive), there are notable differences in the reaction types they have received (fig. 9). Morrison in particular has attracted substantially more ‘haha’ reactions than any other candidate in the election: more than 50,000 of the reactions to his posts to date, or nearly one third, are laughing with (or perhaps at) the Prime Minister. The vast majority of reactions to Albanese’s posts, meanwhile, indicate ‘love’ or ‘care’.
Fig. 9: Facebook reaction types for the leading candidate pages (likes excluded), 4 Apr. to 12 May 2022
While such patterns may point to a range of different uses for these reaction types amongst Australian Facebook users (to laugh with or at the candidate; to be angry with them, or on their behalf), they may be somewhat more obviously explicable for the Morrison post that has received the most reactions, comments, and shares of the campaign to date (including more than 2,000 ‘haha’ reactions), and sparked a minor social media frenzy while doing so: his update from the Morrison family’s recent curry night.
Fig. 10: Scott Morrison’s ‘Strong Curry’ Facebook post, 1 May 2022
Featuring the unlikely campaign slogan ‘Strong Curry. Strong Economy. Stronger Future.’, the post generated some concern when followers noted that some of the chicken in the picture appeared decidedly undercooked. Morrison himself responded, multiple times, to comments on the post to address those concerns (fig. 11) – and even fielded questions about the curry in media interviews the next day.
Fig. 11: The Australian Prime Minister addresses concerns about his apparently undercooked curry, 1 May 2022
Anthony Albanese’s Facebook post with the most reactions, comments, and shares, meanwhile, is a post introducing Labor’s challenger to government minister Peter Dutton, Ali France. Receiving the same amount of shares as Morrison’s curry, it remains to be seen whether this focus on campaign matters rather than personal profile wins through at the ballot box – but at this late stage in the campaign it does appear that Labor’s and the other opposition candidates’ messages are able to produce notably greater endorsement and amplification, on both of the major social media platforms we have been tracking, than the posts made by Coalition candidates. Strong curries notwithstanding.