State and Federal elections are a galvanising moment in our society for many reasons. It’s the chance for the masses to “have their say” about the policies, processes, interests and focuses of the political rulers, an opportunity to change what is – for what will be, and it sets in train a framework that governments and bureaucrats will use to make decisions in the years ahead.

For political parties contesting the election – there were tried and true methods to become elected. Before the 1980s, the approach was to set out an agenda – a vision – and to sell that in to the public through a rigorous series of public meetings, television appearances, letterbox drops and, of course, media. In the 1980s this changed. Rather than setting out your public agenda, a “small target” approach was adopted, with political leaders avoiding policy detail at all costs. Policy direction and costings would be announced at the “appropriate time” – meaning close to the election so that the opposition would have limited chance to respond or to argue with the details.

Throughout this time, the public heavily relied on two groups – the media’s political analysts and the parties themselves. For it wasn’t just the opposing parties who struggled to understand the broad range of policies, economics, social impact, and business and tax implications contained in party policies. The public were largely left out of the debate – included only when forced to by media campaign or protest. Most of the policy setting was accomplished well ahead of the election cycle through lobbyists, fundraising dinners, speeches and industry consultation. For while the public voted for the political parties, without joining a party, there were few avenues through which we could exercise our democratic rights with any force.

With a relatively controlled environment to operate within, political parties became experts at managing marginal seats. Those seats that were in jeopardy come election time drew the focus and attention of all parties – vying for the voters who had not yet firmed their voting decision. As a result, marginal seats received not just attention from politicians but also resources, investment, policies designed to appeal to voter interests and so on. But the 2015 Queensland Election has shown us that much has changed.

Social Media is the new Political Hustings

Just as social media has “democratised” the media, it is also democratising democracy. Finding a new voice, new influencers, analysts and commentators, social media is giving a new sense of mobility to voters. As the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2015 indicates, business and government are facing a challenge:

For the first time since the end of the Great Recession, trust in business faltered in the last year, signaling the finale of an era of recovery for business.

Trust levels in business decreased in 16 of 27 countries. The majority of countries now sit below 50 percent with regard to trust in business.

In fact, the credibility of spokespeople – a government official like, say, a  Premier or Prime Minister, sits at the lowest end of the spectrum at 38%, while “a person like yourself” commands 63%. Academic or industry experts rank higher still at 70%.

How does this play out in reality? A quick review of social media using the Hashtracking service shows massive spikes in conversation and engagement coming from non-mainstream media around the #Qldvotes hashtag.

HashtrackingQldvotes

Professional and “citizen journalists” from Margo Kingston and Tony Yegles’ No Fibs website led the charge – connecting Twitter and longer form commentary sourced from the community. But there were plenty of individuals joining the debate. Kiera Gorden garnered almost 100 retweets and 45 favourites for one tweet alone. With her over 4600 followers (each of whom can be assumed to have 100+ followers), the network impact can be imagined. Turned into votes, this could be enough to change the fortunes of a sitting member or even a government.

Self proclaimed “swinging voter”, Sir StanDeSteam (obviously not his real name), was exceptionally active through the weekend’s election, tweeting and retweeting conversations, discussions and articles.

The shift in trust here shows the challenge that lays in front of all political parties – not just those in power:

  • We prefer and prioritise people like ourselves
  • A vast majority distrusts elected officials

And understanding that our news consumption, engagement and discussion around politics has shifted out of the hands of the broadcast media and into the hands of the population, means that electorates can – and seem determined to be – more volatile. We are, in effect, exercising our social judgement effectively, rapidly and in a volatile manner.

The Abbott Government’s massive investment of over $4 million in social media research indicates that they are taking this change seriously. But we are yet to see anything like a shift in policy. Either they are listening to the wrong conversations, unclear of their own digital objectives or simply inept at taking insight and translating it to action.

Revising the 4As of Trust in Social Networks

Just as businesses and organisations have been struggling to come to grips with the realities of the digital revolution, so too, political parties and governments must accelerate their use of, understanding and strategic opportunity available through social networks. The first step is building trust – the very thing that most politicians squander too early and easily. Only by taking a strategic – not a knee jerk – approach to digital (and not just social) media can politicians begin rebuilding their social and political capital.

There are elections ahead. They’d best get started now.