How will election campaigns evolve in relation to increasing social media use? This was the main question tackled by digital media researcher Axel Bruns, and DECIDIS researchers Luca Rossi, Lisbeth Klastrup and Sander Schwartz during the seminar “Election 2020” tacking place at the IT University of Copenhagen.
Axel Bruns, known for his extensive research on Twitter, started off by talking about the policital landscape in Australia. The case of political campaigning in Australia provides an interesting context as it raises the questions whether the law enforcing compulsory voting at federal and state level encourages awareness of political issues and political actors or not. In this regard it can be stated that the main focus needs to be put on the swinging middle, which makes up 10-20% of Australian voters. Drawing on comprehensive research in relation to the hashtags #ausvotes, #qldvotes and #wavotes Bruns concluded that Twitter has evolved from a narrow “Twitterati” in-group tool to a mainstream campaign tool. The collected data further suggests that there is no relation between how often a politician is mentioned on Twitter and the final election outcome. Additionally, the dynamics of recent elections, which have largely favoured the conservative side, mean that the Australian conservative Coalition bloc, which has won a number of landslide elections, has yet to engage in the question how to use social media effectively. By contrast, social media are especially important for small Australian parties, which are active on social media but are systematically disadvantaged by the first-past-the-post system used in Australian elections.
The following presentation by Lisbeth Klastrup shed light on the Danish context. Danish politicians are active in the Facebook sphere since 2007 and have fully adopted the medium in 2011 when Facebook became a mainstream tool for politicial communication. By contrast, Twitter has only been used by early adopters in 2011 and is now slowly becoming a mainstream tool. Klastrup further talked about “defining moments” where the social sphere made an actual impact. In 2007, for example, invited Anders Fogh Rasmussen his Facebook “friends” for a run and therewith engaged with his online community offline. Another recent example is the refugee crises, where the hashtag #engangvarjegflygtning (rough translation: Once I was a refugee) has been used in relation to a social media campaign. In conclusion, Klastrup states that social media is no longer optional but needs to be strategically integrated in a meaningful way.
Sander Schwartz’ talk on “Facebook and the general Danish election” supplemented Klastrup’s talk and presented data gathered from 2011 to 2015. Schwartz started off by noting that Danish Facebook use is not declining, even through this is an often made claim. According to a recent study by Danish Radio, 62% of the Danish population use Facebook on a daily basis. This trend is confirmed when looking at how Danish politicians use social media: While in 2011 only 38 % of the candidates were active on Facebook pages, in 2015 62 % of the politicians used Facebook pages. Also, the use of Twitter accounts has risen considerably, from 15 % to 69 %. Overall, Schwartz noted a steep increase of citizen activity on Facebook. He believes that recent changes in the Facebook design have potentially led to this engagement.
Luca Rossi concluded the seminar by sharing insights from an annual data collection run by the DECIDIS research group, which will be published in the first quarter of 2016. The data shows that Facebook has fully penetrated the age group of 16 to 18 year olds Danes. This does not mean that all young Danes use Facebook intensively but that they have at least opened an account at some point. When contrasting Twitter and Facebook it can be stated that Facebook is still at the forefront, Twitter is mostly used by young Danes up to the age of 30. A network analysis of different political hashtags used on Twitter shows that activity mostly happen around TV debates. Further, it can be stated that users typically re-tweet what they agree with, which leverages the problem of online echo chambers, in which competing ideas are typically underrepresented. In conclusion and as a summary of the seminar, it can be stated that Twitter is and will be an important medium gathering ad-hoc publics for live events as well as a (back)channel for politicians, journalists and so-called “political junkies”.