The newly-announced Australian Federal Election will prompt many discussions about the degree to which social media will play their part.
The commentary will almost certainly focus on how candidates might plan to use social media for broadcast purposes, how parties might plan to use social media channels to link to their respective web sites, the use of social media to comment on the plays of the moment, and how social media might be used to counter-attack or denigrate the other side.
Until now, political parties around the world have tended to use social media as a rapid one-to-many means of communicating at voters or raising donations.
But there’s another facet to the use of social media in the election context: the notion of using social media channels to listen to the electorate, of using social media to communicate and engage with voters.
There are 11.8 million active Australian Facebook accounts, just over 2 million Twitter accounts, 11 million YouTube accounts and 2 million LinkedIn accounts.
Over the next few months these millions of Australians will to varying degrees comment as individuals on their local Federal politician, alternative candidates, policies, and the political and election plays of the moment. Individuals will talk about their experiences and expectations with health, education, the environment, the economy, business, infrastructure and more, as each of these relate to them and their individual communities.
Powerful insights into the views of the electorate are there for the taking.
This is powerful stuff on a number of levels. These comments literally represent the view of the people. To a large degree, and certainly to start with, they will be spontaneous comments less affected by policy statements, comments from politicians, prompts from opposing camps and so on.
Once campaigns are running, the parties can plug into real-time direct feedback on how policies and briefings to the public and other media have been received. Are policies understood? Are they viewed as relevant? Most importantly of all, do individuals care about a particular policy?
For voters this is powerful because they can make their views known.
For political parties this is powerful because they can decide whether to reconsider a policy, get a sense of its relevance to an electorate, how that policy resonates with the electorate, and consider how to present that policy. (Particularly poignant for those electorates swinging with a few votes making the difference as to who wins.)
Using social media to listen to the voice of the voter does not countermand alternative methods of expression and debate. As with most things to do with social media, they enlarge, accelerate and expand the effect. It also represents another measure: the reality of how people are feeling day to day, week to week, month to month.
Polls claim to provide this insight already, but polls are samples and are always old before being published. Social media provide instant insight into authentic comments made freely.
And what social media offer in both directions is a scaling effect that links individuals with politicians and candidates, but does so in the millions, not the hundreds.
With such a wealth of insight now available. there should be few surprises on election night. It will be interesting to see how many there actually are.