03 June 2016
by Fleur Anderson

Facebook Survey: When 'like' means 'hate'

Malcolm Turnbull is most commonly associated with "national security" and "Barack Obama", and Bill Shorten with "business tax" and "investment property", according to a new analysis of the political chatter of Australian social media users.

Facebook has trawled through three weeks of its 14 million Australian members' conversations, shares, likes and comments related to the 2016 election to discover whether voters' thoughts about the candidates reflected their campaigns' messaging.

While the "word pairs" associated with Bill Shorten for the third week of the campaign were understandable given Labor's opposition to a $51 million company tax cut and its policy to stop negative gearing on existing homes from July 1, 2017, Mr Turnbull's association with the US Democrat President was more unexpected.

"Conversations around Bill Shorten were reflective of campaign messaging ... and topics around [Nationals leader] Barnaby Joyce were similarly on message with 'Aussie Farmers' and 'Hard Working' the top two associated word pairs," Facebook said.

The major problem for party strategists is it is impossible to know whether voters' associations are positive or negative.

For example, Sydney artist Michael Agzarian's "Turncoat Turnbull" Facebook page – which features a Barack Obama-style poster of Turnbull with the caption "Fizza" – was in the news last week for getting into strife with the Australian Electoral Commission for potentially breaching election advertising rules.

Alternatively the association between Mr Turnbull and Mr Obama could be a delayed reaction to the May 12 phone call between the two leaders in which they agreed to work to stop the glut of cheap Chinese steel hurting domestic steel makers.

University of Melbourne political scientist Dr Andrea Carson said the metadata – which is scrubbed to remove users' personal information – was a valuable tool for political strategists.

"You've got 11 million Australians using Facebook everyday and most of those – well over 90 per cent are using it on their phones," Dr Carson said.

"So for politicians that's gold because it means they can reach their voters anywhere and anytime."

One of the surprising findings of the Facebook data was the shift in the demographics of engaged voters through the campaign. In the first week, it was young men – aged 25 to 34 – dominating the political conversation.

But contrary to the popular view social media is a young person's game, older women are starting to dominate the discussion as the campaign goes on.

By week two, younger women aged 35 to 44 were the most engaged and by week three, older women aged 45 to 55 are leading the political discussion with all male demographics – except the 25 to 34 age group – almost entirely absent.

"As you can see, getting women engaged in this political chatter is key and they [political parties] are now able to get into people's pockets," Dr Carson said.

In addition, it's regional Facebook users rather than inner-city types that are the most active participants in election talk.

The Facebook data for last week showed the most engaged electorates were all marginal seats in NSW: Robertson, Macquarie, Page, Grayndler and the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro.