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Parties were told to up their digital game, now there’s an online war

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Some explicitly political content on TikTok has overstepped the mark, with an ABC report revealing the United Workers Union had paid users to create videos targeting the government. Other union accounts added authorisations that made their operators explicit after queries from the broadcaster. But some left-wing TikTokers have found big audiences on the platform by being entirely themselves.

“I’ll be honest, I’m as surprised as the next person,” says Wil Stracke, assistant secretary at the Victorian Trades Hall Council. “I would not have thought that a 56-year-old lesbian feminist trade unionist would find some kind of audience, but there you go.” Several of her videos, created in just the last two months, have received more than 100,000 views. They fit another genre of political content on TikTok: resurrecting the greatest blunders (depending on your politics) of years gone by.

In one with 138,000 views, she delivers historical clangers such as Barnaby Joyce’s 2011 argument against marriage equality on the basis that it would hurt his daughters. “We know that the best protection for those girls is that they get themselves into a secure relationship with a loving husband,” he said at the time. Other videos doing the rounds highlight a 2012 speech from Albanese that cribbed lines from the 1995 film The American President, or have Morrison championing coal over footage of koalas fleeing bushfires and people fleeing floods.

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Facebook and Instagram – the dominant social networks in Australia – allow political advertising, shifting the focus of the campaign on those platforms. Tens of thousands of dollars from the major parties have poured in during recent weeks, though the United Australia Party, funded by mining magnate Clive Palmer, has outspent both by millions over the longer term. (Palmer advertises with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age among many other outlets, and the two main parties have previously placed ads in the mastheads as well.)

The effect of Palmer’s advertising, which trashes the major parties and spruiks grand-scale policies on debt and the cost of living, is clear. March Google figures provided to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age by Firewire Digital, a marketing agency, show searchers for the “United Australia Party” were up 9900 per cent year over year, albeit only to total monthly searches between 10,000 and 100,000. Unlike last election, Palmer’s ads have not swung decisively against either party, instead taking a “plague on both your houses” approach. The weight of his expenditure, combined with digital ad price rises and privacy changes, will likely crowd out much of the microtargeted ad expenditure that has been prominent in previous contests.

On Facebook and Instagram, Labor spent $32,684 between April 4 and 10. In that period, the Liberal Party spent $31,132, the United Australia Party spent $54,041. But those figures, which are the most recent available, reveal only a fraction of total expenditure because individual candidates and party branches spend money that is counted separately. While the platforms have policies on such things as misinformation and have removed a handful of ads from parties, including the Liberal Democrats, Australia does not have federal “truth in political advertising” laws, allowing politicians to spread tendentious or false claims.

Local candidates are predominantly spending their money spruiking smaller scale policies like fixing mobile phone blackspots or providing an MRI machine licence to a hospital. Some with large ethnic communities in their seats have paid for ads in foreign languages, such as Labor’s candidate for the north-west Sydney seat of Bennelong posting ads in Korean.

Labor’s national strategy has been to put money behind Anthony Albanese’s personal page, introducing him to the electorate after spending this term as opposition leader keeping a small target. It has also spruiked slogans such as “making more things here” with images of men in high-vis workwear and power tools. Audience statistics from Meta suggest the ad has been targeted at people aged 18-34, a key demographic, in the battleground states of NSW and Queensland. Many of the party’s ads use the same text and image across dozens of different versions to allow more precise measuring and targeting.

Carrington Brigham, a digital strategist who worked on Tony Abbott’s successful 2013 campaign and is now a managing director at communications agency Agenda C, says statistics from the Facebook and Instagram owner show that despite Labor’s masculine, aspirational messaging, it is reaching more women. “It’s such a huge disparity,” he says. It’s a sign of Labor’s need to make up ground with young men and the Coalition’s difficulty attracting female voters.

The Liberals, meanwhile, have one theme: Anthony Albanese cannot be trusted with the economy and Scott Morrison can be. The party has produced at least nine ads capitalising on Albanese’s failure to name the unemployment and cash rates in the first week of the campaign – a blunder the opposition leader apologised for and described as showing his willingness to admit mistakes. Nonetheless, “it’s not easy under Albane$e” is a slogan Liberal strategists seem to have decided Australians will be seeing and hearing often. Brigham, the former Liberal digital campaigner, says each party’s ads are likely to evolve as they highlight different themes weekly throughout the campaign and events disrupt carefully planned messaging.

Surrounding the two main parties, outriders are running their own social media campaigns. Advance Australia, the conservative campaign group, has tried to tie Labor to controversial Greens policies such as cutting defence spending and legalising personal drug consumption. Albanese has repeatedly ruled out negotiating with the Greens to form government, despite the Greens talking up the prospect of a hung parliament in which the party could, if the numbers fall very precisely, control the balance of power.

Unions, too, are running attack advertisements against Labor’s enemies, such as spots from the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union targeting Nationals MPs and One Nation. Other organisations are less transparent. An outfit called Brighter Directions, which provides no details on its ownership or staff, is running ads touting the benefits of green hydrogen for the Queensland regional centre of Gladstone, which is in the battleground seat of Flynn. Emails seeking comment to Brighter Directions went unanswered.

During the 2019 campaign, Labor suffered a subterranean scare campaign claiming incorrectly that the party planned to implement an inheritance, or “death”, tax. It was a rebound from 2016, when Labor had run a “Mediscare” suggesting the Coalition planned to attack the public healthcare scheme. This year, there have been a handful of posts from Labor, including former leader Bill Shorten and the Tasmanian branch of the party, claiming the party will “save Medicare”, though the government is not proposing reform to the scheme.

Shorten’s office referred a request for comment to Labor’s campaign headquarters, which did not respond. The party’s official line is, instead, “strengthen Medicare”, and the scattered posts do not suggest an organised campaign on the level of elections past, when the death taxes scare took on a life of its own and began to spread through community Facebook groups.

In those groups, such as Gladstone Open Discussion, users trade “boomer memes”. These images, initially created by highly motivated users in other social media groups that back one party or another, are typically highly literal and text heavy, in contrast to more ironic and joke-laden memes used by younger cohorts.

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“Australians are angry,” reads one, with an image of Newcastle pensioner Ray Drury, who confronted the prime minister on the cost of living in the first week of the campaign. “What would you say to Scott Morrison?”

Another poster suggests children should be educated that voting for Labor is like snatching away their pocket money earned from household tasks and giving it to a layabout neighbour.

It is not clear that these exchanges are convincing. A poll released by Twitter on Tuesday of 2344 Australians found more than half said they would be less likely to vote for a politician who participates in online battles. If a genuine scare campaign begins to spread, that wisdom will be tested.



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