How Facebook could really help decide the Federal Election

Cannings Purple 7 May 2019
4 mins
A selection of the Facebook ads being run by parties in the lead-up to the Federal Election.

If you want to get a glimpse of how next month’s Federal Election will be impacted through social media like never before, go to the Facebook pages of either the Liberal Party of Australia or the Australian Labor Party.

Once you’re there, click on the “Info and ads” option on the left-hand side of the page. And then scroll…and scroll…and scroll some more.

I gave up when I got past 50 ads for each party, all of them running concurrently. Plenty of the ads feature the same material, repurposed to target different electorates and demographics. But the sheer volume of sponsored posts gives an insight into the unprecedented focus political parties are now putting on social media.

You can repeat this process of ad review for the Nationals, the United Australia Party, Clive Palmer’s personal page (strong devotion to memes but not quite so committed to sponsored posts) and also Katter’s Australian Party, which early in the campaign used its sole ad to celebrate the 14th anniversary of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s passing. Interestingly, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has some Photoshopped images that simply can’t be unseen but is also comparatively light-on for sponsored posts.

What’s even more interesting is the tone of many of these sponsored posts, especially from the two major parties. The split between selling their own policies and attacking those of their opponent (or just their opponent) isn’t far off 50-50. Labor has at times had sponsored posts devoted specifically to declaring Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton and George Christensen “have to go”, while many Liberal ads train the cross-hairs on Bill Shorten.

There’s a background to all of this – and that’s the election of Donald Trump as US President in 2016. It’s been reported Trump spent up to $44 million on sponsored Facebook posts during his initial campaign, running up to 175,000 different ads.

He’s doubling down on that approach ahead of his 2020 re-election bid, spending $2.5 million on Facebook ads between December 30 and March 10. In a single week from February 3-9, President Trump – and accounts linked to him – spent more than $500,000 on Facebook ads.

Research by ETH Zurich’s Department of Management, Technology and Economics found a key to the initial Trump campaign’s success lay in its micro-targeting of Facebook ads to gender, location and political allegiance. According to the study, it increased the probability that a non-aligned voter would vote for Trump by up to five percentage points.

It’s also possible to look at Trump’s Facebook-friendly methods through the traditional advertising prism of appeal, engagement and, particularly, empowerment. As this excellent story from The Conversation explains, Trump’s social media approach to contentious issues like immigration evokes not only anger from millions of people (the engagement part of that advertising equation) but by offering up solutions (as far-fetched as some may be) he also makes people think they can do something about it. That’s the empowerment side of the equation.

A quick look at some of the Facebook advertising around this month’s Australian Federal Election reveals some of the same factors at play. The Liberals are urging voters to sign petitions to ward off Labor taxes on housing and pensions. Labor, meanwhile, has been telling people they can help close the gender pay gap as well as “doing something about” Abbott, Dutton and Christensen.

The message is pretty clear: vote for us and you can play a direct role in tackling an issue that’s important to you.

Of course, the use of Facebook as a medium for this advertising is a telling factor in itself, particularly when you consider research published earlier in the year by US experts.

Nicolas M Anspach of York College of Pennsylvania, Jay T Jennings of the University of Texas at Austin and Kevin Arceneaux of Temple University tested to what extent people could glean knowledge from an article preview in their Facebook feed and, more importantly, to what extent they THOUGHT they could.

You can read more about their fascinating findings here but perhaps the most intriguing outcome was that subjects identified as having a high need for affect (in other words, thriving on emotion) were found to have far more certainty that they had learned “a lot” from a mere preview.

In other words, when asked about a topic on which they’d only been presented with a snippet of information, overconfidence led them to believe that they were something close to the full bottle.

If you take that tendency and then throw it into the context of our Federal Election, what you have are hundreds (if not thousands) of Facebook ads, tugging at people’s emotions and promising them a chance to have a direct impact on how the country will be run after May 18.

For undecided voters without a high need for affect, this might not be such a big deal. They’ll do what they’ve likely always done, consider all the options and make a measured decision about which way they’ll vote.

But for those people who thrive on emotion and are currently sitting on the fence, there’s a chance they’ll succumb to the lure of an emotive Facebook ad and make a snap voting decision.

For many months, Newspoll results had suggested Labor was headed for a comfortable victory at the polls. But in recent weeks, the margin has narrowed – by last Monday it was back to 51-49.

Could Facebook be a deciding factor either way? Trump – and scientific research – suggests it’s a distinct possibility.

Canning’s Purple’s Government Relations team are experts at engaging with politicians and government departments – if you need help with reaching out, contact one of the team.

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