Impact of Internet on federal election

The federal election is being fought online as well as in the streets and malls of the marginal electorates. What is happening with the online campaigns? Stephen Quinn takes a look.

That damn worm. As a former journalist I squirm when I read the hundreds of column centimetres about the worm, the device used to measure audience reaction to political speeches. The audience for the federal leaders’ debate was 90. The audience for the Costello-Swan debate was 50. The margin of error for such tiny audience samples would be in double figures. So the worm is a major concern to anyone who understands basic statistics.

What has the worm got to do with online coverage of the federal election? Any attempt to predict a result based on online coverage would involve as many brain cells as the average worm, and be as statistically valid.

Various opinion polls have been predicting a Labor win for months. But during the actual election campaign, in the past three weeks, the difference has come back to about 6 points. For the groups sampled by the main pollsters, the margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. This means the reported gap of six points between the major parties could produce a close result.

This article would never dare suggest that many journalists covering the election are numerically challenged. But when did you last read an opinion poll that included the margin of error?

Having said that, let’s get a wriggle on and look at how the election is shaping online.

We’ll start with Facebook and MySpace, the most popular social network sites. MySpace’s main audience is aged between 14 and 30, and tending towards the teenage end of the continuum. Facebook is the MySpace for the over 30 brigade.

Kevin Rudd has both a dedicated election web site, at http://www.kevin07.com.au/, and a MySpace account. John Howard does not appear to have a MySpace account. He gets plenty of online space at the official Liberal Party site (http://www.liberal.org.au/). The site makes powerful use of video rather than text. It seems to know its audience. And I liked the easy access to information about candidates in individual electorates.

Kevin07 is a pretty cool site. It also focuses on video and gives easy access to key topics. But just as revealing are the hundreds of comments on the Whirlpool archive (http://whirlpool.net.au/forum-replies-archive.cfm/796765.html) about this site. They provide a totally unscientific sense of what the audience thinks about Kevin07. These comments cannot and should not be reported in any article because all come from people with pseudonyms so it’s impossible to verify their accuracy. But the do make for fun reading.

Most analysts expect the under 30 group to vote for Rudd. So the people who may decide this month’s election will be the 55+ group. In some respects it’s pointless writing about the impact of online on that group. Most recently available ABS data suggest that only 21 per cent of people aged 60 or older had used the Internet in the previous year.

Dr Norman Abjorensen, lecturer in politics at the ANU, described this as the first blog election, noting that never before had a campaign been so analysed and disected as this one is online. “I suspect from anecdotal evidence that this is drawing in people, especially the younger ones, who might not otherwise be interested in or taking much notice of an election campaign.

“It is the shape of things to come, just as television was a few years ago, and the politicians who can master the new medium now, as those that did then, will be the ones who dominate the coverage” Dr Abjorensen said.

Both leaders have a Facebook site. For the uninitiated, Facebook is an online place where people establish a free profile, which usually includes a photograph and a biography.

Two graduate students at Harvard University in the US invented it, but in the past year Facebook has moved beyond universities and spread around the world. Late last month Microsoft paid $US 240 million for a mere 1.6 per cent stake. This values Facebook at an astronomical $US 15 billion.

As of November 8 Rudd had three Facebook accounts, and a total of 5,838 friends. PM John Howard also had three Facebook accounts, but only 3,049 friends. Any attempt to base an election prediction on these numbers would be as valid as trusting the accuracy of the worm.

None of the six Facebook accounts provides any information about either candidate. You have to go to Wikipedia, the online user-provided encyclopaedia, for that. Blogs are providing some astute coverage. Hugh Martin, general manger for the online in Australian Provincial Newspapers, said some of the most interesting election commentary came from non-mainstream commentators such as academics. “People like economist John Quiggin offer some very astute opinions in their blogs.”

All of the mainstream media have an election site. The ABC site is, as usual, professional and formidable. The broadsheet newspapers tip most of their print content onto the web site, so we tend to get the same “commentariat” online and in print. During the first cricket test, the SMH did not have a link from its home page to the election. The cricket was obviously more important.

The Australian’s site, news.com.au, provides some fun material in the shape of Nicholson animations and Leak cartoons. These are a pungent delight and show how to mix spinach with sweets to get people to spend time on the election site.

Crikey offers an extensive election site, and a clever election tracker (http://www.electiontracker.com.au/). Its collection of commentators, the “Crikey Commentariat,” make for a good read.

And I like the Australian Electoral Commission’s clock that counts down the days and minutes before election day (http://www.aec.gov.au/).

But the most interesting site comes not from mainstream media, but Google (http://www.google.com.au/election2007/). It offers what the web does well: Videos of candidates via YouTube, and Google maps which allow people to find their electorate, see their seat in satellite view, and explore marginal seats.

Voters can monitor a specific House of Representatives seat and search Hansard and MPs’ homepages to see what MPs have said on specific issues. My favourite is the election trends site that allows me to see graphically and quickly what issues and politicians are hot in the news and on Google.

So much more useful than that damn worm.

* Published in The Age Just before the federal election in November 2007

Categories: Not home, politics

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