Social Media and the Youth Vote in 2015 Queensland Election.

Driving through the suburbs during an election campaign, one grows accustomed to the placard-carrying sidewalk dwellers, smiling and waving frantically at passersby.

Is it just me, or has the demographic of the volunteers changed from the usual mature-age workers to a contingent of younger faces?

There has been significant debate about engaging the youth vote and how best to overcome what is broadly perceived to be a sense of apathy on the one hand and self-entitlement on the other.

However political disillusionment isn’t apathy. While younger generations may be disengaged with the political process, it does not necessarily follow that they don’t care about the issues.

The current election campaign is a case in point. The degree of interest is expressed by a surge of people either registering and updating their enrolment details. As with the campaign, the window to register to vote has been short.

Surprisingly, this has galvanised a large number of younger voters, with a third of those registering being under the age of 24 (8,800 of 18–19 year old and 11,000 of 20–24 year old). Whatever their motivation, these are hardly the actions of the politically disinterested.

While younger voters may have disengaged from the machinations of politics and its adversarial atmosphere, enrolment figures suggest young voters are still interested in debate — on issues they care about — and will, where they see a reason to, participate in the political process.

The 2007 Youth Electoral Study Report 4: Youth, Political Parties and the Intention to Vote, noted that many respondents perceived little difference between the parties, with 43.3 per cent being uncertain of which party they felt closer to, and another 14.2 per cent indicating they didn't feel close to any of the parties. The report suggested these statistics “may reflect the lack of in-depth knowledge about the political parties, or they might indicate that the parties are irrelevant for the issues that the students consider to be important.”(p 7-8).

Image from 2007 Youth Electoral Study Report 4

Whatever the reasoning, younger voters appear less encumbered by party loyalty than their parents’ generations — viewing politics through a prism that is multi-faceted — broader than the traditional two-party perspective. Their lack of rusted-on partisan identification makes them more likely to be swinging voters. It would seem that issues, not ideology, their primary motivation; and that their responses are both unpredictable and intensely personal.

Perhaps then, it is time to rethink the perception of apathy among young voters, and consider new ways for political campaigns to engage with these constituents.

The use of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, gained prominence during the 2007 federal election, as highlighted by the successful “Kevin 07" campaign.

Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential bid leveraged citizen interest on social channels to successfully solicit campaign contributions. Social media platforms are serving as enablers of citizen participation in the public sphere.

In the past, people joined political parties, or turned up to protest marches. Today, they are far more likely to sign an online petition, send an email to their local member or share a story with their online networks. While this has been described as ‘slactivism’ or ‘clicktivism’, and has been overlooked by many as passive engagement — perhaps in the new era of technological advancement, this is how the youth vote will be fought and won.

How successfully are the political candidates in Queensland using social media sites to date?

The use of social media during the 2015 Queensland election has been, for the most part, relatively perfunctory. Both major parties are interacting online and in turn have dominated much of the discussion. The LNP government is the focus of much online debate — hardly surprising given the sharp decline in its popularity over the past three years; not to mention the uncertainty about who will lead Queensland should the LNP be returned but without Premier Campbell Newman, should he lose his seat of Ashgrove.

The Queensland Election Social Index graph below, produced by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Social Media Research Group, provides a breakdown of the online political discussions that have occurred across Instagram and Twitter. From January 6 through till today, the LNP has been mentioned more than 15 per cent more often than the Labor opposition.

Image from QUT Queensland Election Social Index

Dr Axel Bruns, the leader of the QUT Social Media Group suggests the interest in the LNP and more specifically, Campbell Newman, is to be expected in the current political climate. While the LNP may be the focus of the majority of the online discussion — the data itself doesn't indicate whether that focus is primarily positive, neutral or negative. Instead Bruns suggests that the @mentions and retweets a party and candidate receive offers a more accurate representation of their impact on social media.

“Here, the advantage is with the ALP, whose candidates were @mentioned almost 25,000 times over the same timeframe, compared to only 18,000 @mentions for LNP candidates and a far lower level of attention to all the other parties.”

According to Bruns, the important difference in the data is that “more than 42 per cent of the @mentions received by ALP candidates turn out to be retweets, while only just over 7 per cent of the tweets directed at LNP candidates are retweets.” These figures indicate a “very different pattern of engagement with candidates … as retweeting indicates a certain degree of endorsement”. Although not conclusive, Bruns says it suggests more Twitter users are publicly endorsing Labor aspirants over their LNP counterparts.

Image and data from QUT Queensland Election Social Index

Whatever the final result on January 31, this election is clearly important to younger constituents who are registering to vote in high numbers. This is a great thing for democracy, as evidence from overseas highlights how groups of people — young, poor, first nations peoples, (particularly in voluntary voting systems), are more likely to be overlooked in future policy deliberations if governments don’t have to worry about their vote. It may explain in part why youth unemployment and new training policies have been an important element in the major parties election platform this campaign.


Elise Arklay has degrees in journalism and public policy. She works as a Media, Publicity and Marketing Intern for the quarterly literary magazine the Griffith REVIEW.

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