When Kevin Rudd was toppled, the Twitterverse was first with the news. What will be its role in the federal election, John Bergin wonders.
Almost 20 years ago, it took Paul Keating two challenges and his resignation as Treasurer to oust Bob Hawke, the most electorally successful prime minister in Australian Labor’s history. It was a slow-boil story six months in the making. Now Kevin Rudd has the dubious distinction of being the second Labor prime minister knifed, and the first to be dumped by a party before completing a first term.
Rudd’s dumping was the second federal leadership spill within the space of a year to be covered extensively on the micro-blogging and social networking service Twitter (the first was Malcolm Turnbull). Twitter was informing its users of happenings in Canberra’s halls of power at a speed television, radio and print couldn’t hope to match.
One of the first signals that a Rudd leadership crisis was afoot came in 140 characters or less. “Kevin Rudd’s leadership is under siege tonight from some of the Labor Party’s most influential factional warlords. Watch ABC News. NOW!” tweeted ABC News 24 political editor Chris Uhlmann on the Wednesday evening.
It was just one missile in an opening salvo from the public broadcaster that broke the story wide open: Labor’s factional powerbrokers were on the verge of ousting Kevin Rudd in favour of his deputy, Julia Gillard, a left-winger from the outer western suburbs of Melbourne.
As the night wore on, it became a clear that Rudd, who had gone from soaring approval ratings to nosediving popularity in the space of two and a half years, was in for the chop.
“Text from Labor MP: ‘it’s done. There will be a new PM tomorrow’,” tweeted 2UE political reporter Latika Bourke.
“Cabinet source: it’s all over, Gillard-Swan ticket has the numbers locked in,” wrote Sky News political editor David Speers.
When the Labor caucus finally decided on Rudd’s fate the next day, the “twitterverse” was the first to know the outcome.
“Labor MP text: it’s Julia no ballot,” wrote News Limited’s Samantha Maiden.
The brief message quickly found its way onto newsreaders’ lips and was dropped into wire copy.
The breakneck pace of the strike on Rudd’s prime ministership was only intensified by the immediacy of the real-time web.
All this foreshadows one salient truth: Australia can look forward to a federal election that will be conducted and covered via social media in ways previously unknown.
The first hint that online activities would play an increasing role in political life came in 2004, when a tech-savvy, US Democrats campaign manager Joe Trippi used the internet, blogs and social media services to raise funds and rally support for presidential hopeful Howard Dean.
And Twitter itself first shot to prominence as a political tool when Barack Obama’s campaign team used it extensively in the 2008 race to the White House.
It was a handful of avid tweeters, particularly Annabel Crabb, which helped cement Twitter in the Australian political lexicon.
The “backchannel” that has developed around Question Time is an online equivalent of a coffee klatch, with the most unlikely participants. Search for the hashtag “#qt” – used to aggregate Twitter commentary – on any given sitting day and you’ll discover an online space inhabited by a motley assortment of press gallery journalists, wonks, bloggers, incognito staffers, satirists and politically engaged citizens.
Also joining this theatre are the politicians themselves, who regularly trade barbs on matters of policy and performance both inside and outside the chamber. It’s an extra dynamic for the Speaker of the House, Harry Jenkins, to take into account. “This illustrates that these very powerful social networks do allow us all to perhaps read people’s minds and listen to their inner thoughts,” he recently told parliament.
When questions surrounding the Liberal leadership rose to a crescendo in November last year, Twitter was a natural fit for reporting the fast pace of events, with journalists roaming parliament house and recording our politicians’ every move, as well as checking their mobile phones and reading tweets live on-air.
At the same time, we saw politicians use Twitter to send signals to their own party. The first sign that Joe Hockey’s support for an emissions trading scheme was wavering came when he used social media to canvass the public’s views on the matter.
And once Malcolm Turnbull had been toppled as Liberal leader, he sniped from the sidelines at Tony Abbott’s changes to climate change policy, announced his intention to bow out of politics, then threw his hat back in the ring, all largely via social media.
The potential for social media to prise open political narrative and delve beyond the sound bite and the printed page appears profound.
While traditional mediums such as television, radio and print are somewhat hamstrung by their linear design, the real-time web can explode into a constellation of opinion, commentary and analysis thanks to the unassuming hyperlink. Links to images, documents, audio, and video – and, of course, people – give social media seemingly limitless dimension and freedom of movement.
Journalist and academic Julie Posetti has written extensively about the way the Liberal leadership spill played out online and is confident that the next election will be “twitterised”.
“Twitter will be a platform for citizen journalism, interactive political reporting and engagement between politicians, voters, analysts and the fourth estate,” she says. “It will also be a reporting, news gathering, commentary and news dissemination platform for individual journalists and media outlets.”
Former digital director for Malcolm Turnbull, Thomas Tudehope, says the recent leadership contests demonstrate the rising prominence of social media in mainstream political discourse.
“For journalists the rise of social media, and in particular Twitter, will dramatically alter the way in which they will cover fast-paced election campaigns,” he says.
Tudehope says that Twitter is already used to sound out ideas and provide observations, colour and atmospherics to stories that might otherwise fall by the wayside.
“Some journalists often use Twitter to test a story or provide a tidbit of information that is not substantive enough for a full-length story but of interest to the community,” he adds.
But while some have suggested social media will reshape political participation and coverage, others believe such predictions may be premature.
Freelance writer, blogger and prolific political tweeter Malcolm Farnsworth says aside from the obvious benefits of the immediacy and the personal linkages it creates, social media is yet to have a significant impact on the way Australian political events play out.
“Being able to exchange the odd snippet of chat with a well-known politician, journalist, television or radio host or blogger is all well and good, but unless this leads to something more substantial on or off-line, I think it’s pretty shallow engagement,” he says.
“If this year’s election produces a Twitter moment along the lines of the blogger who posted a video which destroyed Virginia Senate candidate George Allen in 2006, then social media will have arrived in Australia,” he adds.
George Allen’s re-election to the Virginia Senate seemed all but certain until he was caught on video using a racial slur against a volunteer of Indian descent from his opponent’s campaign.
Blogger and Crikey political contributor Possum Comitatus sees the benefits of Twitter, but feels that its abilities are sometimes overstated.
“Twitter certainly makes the media world smaller and faster but, ultimately, finding out that some event has occurred five minutes before it appears on Sky News or current affairs radio isn't exactly a world-changing app,” he says.
He adds that the medium, like any other, is only as good as its users. “Like most social media, it is what you make out if it – a source of info, an interactive community to socialise with, a platform to advertise your content, or simply a vehicle to vent spleen and annoy others with mindless rot,” he adds.
While it’s true that Twitter’s speed is unrivalled, attempts by mainstream media to harness its wider appeal and impose structure have been met with mixed responses. The recent Twitter debate between the NSW premier Kristina Keneally, state opposition leader Barry O’Farrell and Greens MP Lee Rhiannon left many people bewildered by its chaotic nature.
Farnsworth says the debate, organised by Nine Network state political reporter Kevin Wilde, is a classic example of a traditional media outlet thinking it could migrate a television debate into the realm of social media.
“No-one has yet come up with a method for integrating social media with traditional methods,” he says.
Stephen Spencer, Network Ten chief-of-staff in the Canberra press gallery says the exercise “shows [Twitter] hasn’t got a hope of ever replacing traditional media.
“This is because twitter is like talking on a walkie-talkie,” he says. “It's not possible to actually debate or have a proper dialogue as everyone has to take their turn and no-one, in real time, can be held accountable for what they've said.”
But while Tudehope admits that social media may not supplant mainstream media any time soon, at its peak it can be at least as competitive as television and radio.
“Political tragics were glued to their Twitter stream, not to their TV, for the latest news on the spill,” he says.
It’s a safe bet that politicians, now mindful of how both spills unfolded online, will use the likes of Twitter in an effort to bypass journalists and commentators and communicate directly with the public.
John Howard is regarded as the master of leveraging talkback radio to his political advantage, but as the ballot box looms the social media equivalent is yet to be determined.
It will be an interesting race.
“Ultimately, (Twitter) gives people a much larger opportunity to make a ****head out of themselves – which we've already seen with some journalists and will undoubtedly see with political candidates at the election,” quips Possum.
John Bergin is digital news director for Sky News Australia. Jon Kudelka is a freelance cartoonist; kudelka.com.au