By Daniel Angus and Axel Bruns
We’ve arrived! The church and school hall floors are being swept, the corflutes and bunting ready, and several tonnes of democracy sausages ordered and ready for the main event this Saturday. For the final time of this 2022 campaign, we will delve into the data to analyse how the digital campaign has played out, with last thoughts on Twitter and Facebook engagement and interaction data, and a deep dive into online advertising which we will continue to see right up until polling day as it is exempt from the media blackout rules. (You can also find our past updates from the campaign on the DMRC site.)
Political advertising has once again been a significant focus of this election campaign, and while it is tricky to quantify, we certainly feel that the intensity, duration, and ubiquity of advertising is unlike anything we have experienced in recent campaigns. Months before the election was officially called, citizens around the country were already being confronted with gigantic yellow billboards, television spots, and full-page ads in newspapers from the United Australia Party. Most of these UAP ads could be considered disinformation – indeed, several have been taken down by the major online platforms – and some community members even decided to take matters into their own hands to ‘correct’ the messaging they contained. One such example appeared just outside our QUT DMRC office (fig. 1). Many examples of similar ad jamming have been circulating online through popular Instagram and TikTok accounts.
Fig. 1: Example of ‘ad jamming’ of a UAP billboard in the seat of Brisbane
Online, the UAP were also well and truly out of the starting blocks first when it came to significant daily Facebook and Google ad spend. They were spending modest amounts on Facebook, around $6k to $8k per day in January, much less in February and March, and ramped back up into the $8k to $12k daily range throughout April. Google’s transparency tools report that the UAP have spent big on YouTube and other Google ads, too, with ~$13.2million spent on ads since January 2022.
While not party-political, before entering caretaker mode the Morrison government directed a significant volume of taxpayer funding towards advertising campaigns for various government initiatives, to the tune of at least $59 million. This also happened in the lead-up to the 2019 campaign, with around $100 million in taxpayer funding being spent on government advertising back then. We mention these figures to provide context for some of the direct political advertising spend we have documented above and below.
The Teal Wave
The top five seats in terms of total Meta (Facebook & Instagram) spend for the campaign are: Kooyong, Wentworth, North Sydney, Mackellar, and Hume. The significance of these five seats is that they are all seats where ‘teal’ Independents are running well-resourced campaigns against incumbent Liberal MPs (fig. 2).
Fig. 2: The top 5 seats by total ad spend on Meta are all tight Liberal and teal Independent contests
In these ads, the independents have focussed on positive messaging around key issues of measures against corruption, action on climate change, and local voice and representation. Their Liberal counterparts however have gone low, running scare ads designed to sow doubt regarding the integrity and intentions of their independent challengers.
Significant advertising activity has also been directed towards key Senate races. While the major parties can rely on the first seats in the Senate going their way, the final seats are well and truly up for grabs by minor party and Independent challengers in a few locations. If the advertising spend is any indication, the key races in this election are in Queensland, the ACT, and Tasmania.
Queensland has seen the most significant spend on Facebook advertising at ~$343k, with polling suggesting that a rag-tag collection of some of the most extreme far-right figures in Australian politics will be fighting for the last two seats in the state, together with a lone Greens candidate. While the Liberal National Party’s James McGrath and Matt Canavan and Labor’s Murray Watt and Anthony Chisholm are likely frontrunners for the first four seats, the remaining two are a contest between the Greens’ Penny Allman-Payne, the UAP’s Clive Palmer, One Nation’s Pauline Hanson and George Christensen, the Liberal Democrat Party’s Campbell Newman, and third-ranked LNP candidate Amanda Stoker.
Apart from Allman-Payne, who has not been running ads on Facebook, these remaining candidates have been spending up in their bid for these last seats (fig. 3). While Clive Palmer has topped the spending, it is Stoker’s presence at second place on the leaderboard with around $90k in Facebook advertising which suggests this contest may go to the wire. From her ads, it appears that Stoker is being backed strongly by the far-right Australian Christian Lobby for her divisive anti-choice, anti-science, and anti-LGBTIQ+ stances. Reporting by The Guardian suggests that Stoker would use her Senate seat to continue a US-style push for more government restrictions of people’s personal lives and bodily autonomy.
Fig. 3: The Queensland Senate race has seen some significant advertising spend from several far-right candidates
Have We Found Any ‘Dark Ads’?
We have been experimenting this election with our new Australian Ad Observatory, developed through the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. With support from our partners at the ABC we have enlisted a group of citizen scientists who have kindly downloaded a plugin that allows them to anonymously donate ads they encounter while browsing Facebook. We have been keeping careful watch to identify any political or issue advertising that isn’t properly authorised and that may be trying to sneak through undetected.
Thankfully we have not located any significant or widespread ‘dark ad’ campaigns throughout this election. With the caveat that we can only examine ads from the 1,700 citizen scientists who have installed the ad plugin, and that we can’t see mobile-only ads, it seems Australian Facebook’s political ad environment is mostly running as designed. This is not to say that there aren’t significant issues regarding false and misleading claims being made in advertising, or that the transparency provided by the platforms is adequate (far from it), but at least for now the political ads we have seen can all be traced back to an authorised source.
A significant part of the work in the Ad Observatory has been to develop machine vision techniques to detect political logos and other signifiers that may help us locate unauthorised ads. It was great therefore to see that colleagues at The Guardian have also been experimenting with the use of machine vision to detect political messaging techniques, such as the use of novelty cheques, cute furry animals, and hi-vis workwear. With the continued fragmentation of our media landscape, these new techniques all play an important role in helping us understand the pulse of the political campaign and hold our politicians to account.
While we haven’t been systematically tracking media coverage, there has been a significant volume of criticism towards the media in the social media material we have collected. The mainstream Australian media have not been covering themselves in glory in their coverage of this election. Claims of partisan bias, misrepresentation, shallow coverage, and absence of policy discussion ring through social media spaces. Some of these are well-founded.
Systematic attempts to examine this issue have produced some very troubling insights. John Delmenico at The Shot truly took one for the team in watching all of Sky News after Dark’s election coverage, and what he found was even worse than expected in terms of far-right conspiratorial garbage, and overt hate speech. The same issues were identified in the 2019 election by trusted journalism academic Dennis Muller.
To explore the social media debate about this, we examined the hashtag #thisisnotjournalism, which was prominent through the pandemic for pushing back on conservative columnists who were at odds with the health and scientific advice on pandemic response measures, and has continued to be used for other Australian media criticism. We found a significant peak in activity around this hashtag during the election campaign, which is somewhat concerning sign for the health of balanced political journalism in this country (fig. 4).
Fig. 4: Twitter activity relating to the hashtag #thisisnotjournalism (courtesy of Laura Vodden, DMRC)
The Social Media Campaign
Finally, with election day now nearly upon us, we can also offer a full review of the social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook. For both platforms, the patterns established after the first couple of weeks of the campaign have largely held.
On Twitter, the Labor, Greens, and Independent candidates, as well as the three or four United Australia Party candidates who are responsible for the vast majority of that party’s tweets, and even a number of very enthusiastic micro-party hopefuls have vastly outcampaigned the Coalition parties (fig. 5). Labor candidates posted nearly 15,000 tweets since 4 April, for instance, compared to fewer than 1,700 by Liberal candidates.
Fig. 5: Tweets from and to candidates, aggregated by party, from 4 April to 19 May 2022
Labor and Liberal candidates received almost the same amount of engagement from overall Twitter users, however, demonstrating the substantial attention paid to them by this community – yet as we have seen in previous updates, where 22% of the engagement towards Labor was in the form of retweets (amplifying and disseminating candidates’ posts), Coalition candidates were almost entirely starved of such support. Fewer than 1% of the tweets directed at Liberal accounts were retweets.
That said, at an individual level Labor leader Anthony Albanese did not perform as well (fig. 6): fewer than 10% of the tweets directed at him were retweets – which still places him well ahead of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s 0.2%, though. Retweets for Labor were directed more at other Labor frontbenchers and rank-and-file candidates instead, which may indicate both a lingering lack of enthusiasm towards Albanese, and good electoral support for local candidates.
Fig. 6: Twitter engagement with the leading candidates, 4 Apr. to 19 May 2022
Elsewhere, the most prominent races between Liberal MPs and teal Independent challengers are also evident: Josh Frydenberg and Monique Ryan in Kooyong, and Tim Wilson and Zoe Daniel in Goldstein, are all in the list of the 15 most engaged-with candidates on Twitter. Here, too, the almost total lack of endorsement for the Liberals and the 24-25% in retweets for the Independents produces a stark contrast, though.
Now that we’ve reached the end of the campaign, it’s also worth reviewing which of their posts produced the most engagement from the Australian Twittersphere. By far the most discussion (in the form of @replies) was produced by the Prime Minister’s sleek campaign video ‘Why I love Australia’, posted on 9 April just days before the election was called, which provoked nearly 8,300 responses but, notably, only some 500 retweets:
In second place is a post by fringe Senate candidate Drew Pavlou, whose anti-China rhetoric resulted in a physical altercation with Chinese Australian voters in the Bennelong electorate (3,600 @replies).
Morrison generated further debate by congratulating French President Emmanuel Macron (who is on record as calling the PM a liar) on his re-election (2,700 @replies, 270 retweets), while substantial further debate surrounded Nine reporter Chris Uhlmann’s self-serving intervention in the tussle between Liberal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and teal Independent challenger Monique Ryan over the candidates’ debate in the electorate of Kooyong. Several posts discussing this debate reached around 2,000 @replies.
Just heard back from Dr Monique Ryan's @Mon4Kooyong team. She has declined the invitation to debate the Treasurer @JoshFrydenberg on @9NewsMelb at 3pm on Thursday. The offer stands. Given the call for more transparency in public life, Dr Ryan should reconsider. #auspol
— Chris Uhlmann (@CUhlmann) April 25, 2022
As far as retweets were concerned, two of the most retweeted posts of the campaign were about Pavlou’s altercation with Chinese Australian voters, and the subsequent police investigation (4,300 and 3,100 retweets, respectively), while anti-vaxx UAP candidate Sean Conway received some 4,200 retweets for criticising COVID-19 vaccine approval processes, and One Nation candidate Walter Stragan’s endorsement of Novak Djokovic’s anti-vaccination stance earned him some 2,800 retweets. Such cases demonstrate the ready potential for the amplification of voices that tap into existing fringe communities on Twitter, but this endorsement is unlikely to convert into votes on election day unless supporters are also eligible to vote in these candidates’ electorates.
The same is true also for the retweets received by the teal Independents, however. Kooyong challenger Monique Ryan’s response to one of Uhlmann’s tweets was retweeted nearly 2,800 times, for instance, and three more of her tweets received over 2,000 retweets, too:
Since @JoshFrydenberg pulled out of the ACTUAL Kooyong candidates forum, I'd relish the opportunity to debate him on Ch9.
If it's in Kooyong (not Docklands!), in front of people of Kooyong, with Qs asked by the people of #Kooyong.
That's why I’m running — to represent Kooyong! https://t.co/EXK6e0fbaK
— Dr Monique Ryan (@Mon4Kooyong) April 25, 2022
But this volume of retweets may simply indicate the broader national interest in Ryan’s campaign, further amplified by Uhlmann’s intervention, and in the possibility that she might claim the seat of the current federal Treasurer, without necessarily signalling sufficient support from her local voters.
On Facebook, the overall pattern of posting on and engagement with the candidates’ pages similarly appears relatively unchanged from previous weeks. Here, Labor candidates collectively outcampaigned all of their opponents by a substantial margin as far as the sheer volume of posts is concerned (fig. 7); their 17,000 posts are almost double the 9,000 managed by the Greens, for example. Alongside the Liberals, One Nation and the Independents (teal or otherwise) each produced some 8,000 posts on candidate pages, though with substantially different numbers of candidates fielded.
Fig. 7: Facebook posting activity and post types, aggregated by party, on 4 Apr. to 19 May 2022
This energetic campaigning was also rewarded with substantial engagement by Australian Facebook users. Labor’s posts produced nearly 3.5 million reactions, compared to the Liberal’s 2 million – but as we have noted before, the real difference is in the relationship between the comments and shares that these posts also received (fig. 8).
Fig. 8: Facebook engagement with candidate pages, aggregated by party, 4 Apr. to 19 May 2022
As on Twitter, there is a pronounced weakness for the Coalition candidates (and especially for the Liberal Party) when it comes to the on-sharing of posts. This dissemination and amplification of posts is critical if they are to reach Facebook users who are not already following a candidate’s page – yet on this metric Liberal candidates perform considerably worse than their nearest competitors.
We’ve illustrated this in fig. 8 by comparing the number of comments received (indicating the debate, possibly controversial, prompted by a post) with the number of shares (indicating dissemination and quite possibly also endorsement): while on average Labor candidates receive two comments for every share, and the ratio for the Greens is even slightly inverted (more shares than comments), which points to considerable enthusiasm for their viewpoints, for the Liberals this blows out to nearly 6 comments per share.
Although this performance is nowhere near as disastrous as it is on Twitter (where Liberal candidates receive one retweet for every 126 @replies, while Labor candidates gain a retweet for every 3.6 @replies), this shows clearly that the reluctance to share Liberal (and Coalition) campaign content does translate from Twitter to Facebook, too.
Again, however, the two major Prime Ministerial candidates both struggle to match their parties’ performance. For Morrison, the ratio is even worse than for the Liberal Party (8.7 comments for every share), while Albanese manages only one share for every 5.3 comments (fig. 9). Meanwhile, One Nation’s Pauline Hanson (1.4 comments per share) and George Christensen (1.0 comments per share) as well as the Greens’ Adam Bandt (0.8 comments per share) show the considerable commitment of minor party supporters to help share their candidates’ messages far and wide across Facebook.
Fig. 9: Facebook engagement with candidate pages, aggregated by party, 4 Apr. to 19 May 2022
On Facebook, too, it is worth reviewing some of the best-performing posts as we approach the end of the election campaign. Remarkably, of the ten posts receiving the most comments during the campaign, eight are by Morrison, variously promising new initiatives on cost of living relief (10,800 comments), fuel price subsidies, using superannuation in first home purchases, and childcare subsidies – as well as responding to birthday greetings and posting about that curry. Interspersed with these are posts by Labor’s Tanya Plibersek, asking for input on the most important issues facing voters (5,800 comments), and the UAP’s Clive Palmer, promoting a campaign speech by Craig Kelly (3,900 comments).
The list of the most shared posts, meanwhile, is almost entirely different, and dominated especially by One Nation candidates. Five of the ten most shared posts are by One Nation candidates (including three by Pauline Hanson herself), two more are by former One Nation MP and now Independent candidate Steve Dickson, and one each are by Liberal Democrat candidate Topher Field, Greens candidate Ben Pennings, and Labor’s Julian Hill. As on Twitter, however, it remains to be seen whether such strong enthusiasm by party supporters for disseminating these posts by sharing them on Facebook converts into substantial votes in these candidates’ local electorates or Senate races.
Finally, then, for a brief review of the state-by-state picture on Facebook, focussing on the four most populous states (fig. 10). Because of the disproportionate national engagement with the various party leaders that fig. 9 has shown (Morrison for the Liberals and Albanese for Labor in NSW, Hanson and Christensen for One Nation in Queensland), which skews the picture in those states considerably, we have removed these candidates from our analysis in this graph.
Fig. 10: Facebook engagement patterns, aggregated by state and party, on 4 Apr. to 19 May 2022
What remains is perhaps a somewhat more accurate picture of local and regional engagement with candidates from the various parties. While we are at pains to make clear that this is entirely unlikely to predict the eventual election result, across the various engagement metrics that Facebook offers it nonetheless aligns with what recent polling appears to point to: in New South Wales and Victoria, a strong campaign performance by Labor compared to the Coalition parties, with a considerable presence by ‘teal’ and other Independents in selected seats, too; in Queensland, a tighter competition between the combined Liberal National Party and Labor; and in Western Australia, a solid advantage for Labor as well.
Whether this general resurgence by Labor will produce the swing necessary to win government outright; whether teal and other Independents will gain the balance of power; or whether Morrison’s famed ‘silent Australians’ have been silent on Facebook and Twitter in this campaign as well – we will find out on Saturday, or some time thereafter. Enjoy your hard-earned democracy sausages, Australia, and remember: it ain’t over until Antony Green says it is. (The tweet below is from 2019, though, so don’t get too excited just yet.)
Our social media analysis during the 2022 election campaign has been made possible by our excellent team of data wranglers and analysts at the QUT Digital Media Research Centre, including Jane Tan, Laura Vodden, Ehsan Dehghan, Nadia Jude, and Phoebe Matich. We are grateful for support from the Development, Institutions, and Public Policy Research Group and Twitter for our efforts to compile the list of candidate accounts and pages (which will be released as a public dataset after the election); to CrowdTangle for Facebook data access; to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society for its support for the Australian Ad Observatory project, which is maintained by Abdul Obeid; and to our excellent colleagues Anatoliy Gruzd and Philip Mai at the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University for providing their PoliDashboard infrastructure. Many thanks also to Glenn Kefford and colleagues at the University of Queensland for their Election Ad Data Dashboard, and to Fabio Giglietto from the University of Urbino for suggesting the Comments : Shares metric for Facebook engagement.
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