By: Liz Somers on 03-09-2013 in Fun, Politics, Social Media, Twitter

From Kevin Rudd’s hire of Obama’s “digital attack dog” to someone’s purchase of a whole bunch of online friends for Tony Abbott, this election campaign has paid more heed than ever before to the power of social media.

Rudd with Obama

As we count down to election day, we take a look at the contest you won’t get to vote on: which of our major party leaders is winning at social media? Read on, as we compare their levels of engagement, relevance & likability.


If there’s one thing that Obama’s successful 2012 digital campaign taught us, it’s that using social media channels to spruik your message isn’t enough, no matter how good that message is.

Engagement is key: you want your audience to feel like you’re having a conversation with them, not talking at them. Analysts argue that a good chunk of Obama’s digital campaign success came down to the way it included real supporter stories, encouraging them to share this material with their friends.

Our political leaders shouldn’t just be aiming to create conversation between themselves and the Australian people; they want to be encouraging their audience to talk among themselves. Tony Abbott’s former digital campaign advisor Simeon Duncan says it best: “As we know, politicians aren’t the most trusted people in the country but we do trust people like ourselves, we trust our friends.” People might roll their eyes and move on at a status posted from a politician’s Facebook account, assuming they even follow it in the first place, but they’re much more likely to pay attention to a friend who says “hey, check out this video I just watched!”. Much like Google tells us to do on our own sites, content published on social media should aim to be so engaging, its audience can’t help but want to show it to their friends.

So how do our pollies pull up?

It’s clear that Rudd is eager to emulate his American idol; from hiring members of Obama’s winning campaign team to penning a strangely familiar note of absence. But does he manage to copy Obama’s winning ways with the voting public?

Rudd chalks up points for attempting to form a connection with his followers thanks to his conversational, friendly tone alone. As Rachel Mulholland muses on Mumbrella, Abbott’s tweets and Facebook updates tend to read like outtakes from a particularly dry press release.  Rudd also boasts more followers across all social media channels, and the popularity of his Instagram account has been noted as far afield as The Wall Street Journal, with each image he uploads attracting a deluge of comments.  He also scores major brownie points with us for his recent Reddit AMA, where he chatted directly with participants about everything from mental health policy to Australian wildlife.

Kevin Rudd Redditt AMA screen grab

However, if you take a look at the comments left by each leader’s supporters across their social media platforms, it would seem that the feelings of Rudd’s followers vary much more wildly than Abbott’s do. Abbott might get the occasional heckler on Facebook, the bulk of his posts attract reactions of support. On any given Rudd Instagram image, in contrast, will boast reactions from the adoring “Love you, Kevvy!” to the somewhat less-heartwarming “[censored] you, you [censored] piece of [censored].” Of course, it’s absolutely possible that Abbott’s social media minders take a harsher line on abusive commenting than Rudd’s do, deleting them before they’re seen. Even so, this observation is a necessary reminder that, for the seemingly popular Rudd, 78,000 Instagram followers doesn’t equate to 78,000 fans.

Over on Twitter…

Rudd has nearly 10 times as many followers as Abbott. Lucky for Abbott, a follow doesn’t equate to a vote… or does it? We’ll find out this weekend.

Kevin Rudd Twitter FollowersTony Abbott Twitter Followers


And the winner is…

Rudd takes out this round, but we’ll need to see more AMA-style engagement if he’s going to hit Obama-style heights.  With fewer people trusting social media for news than any other source, Rudd and Abbott are likely preaching to the choir: there’s a good chance their followers were going to vote for them to begin with.  Converting voters from the opposing team requires a much more serious game plan.


Often the best things about a federal election will have the least amount of relevance to the political process.  Even if you’re not happy with the government you’re handed on September 7, you can console yourself with these cheeky interior design suggestions from Ikea, or watch a campaign summary from across the equator (watch below).

You could even catch up on some of the election campaign’s better advertising (watch below).

Whilst Swedish furniture giants and Daily Show substitute hosts can get away with going off task, if you’re the leader of a major Australian political party, it’s important to stick to the point, and discuss topics your audience cares about. Both Rudd and Abbott manage to stick to the task at hand, with the occasional side track from policy announcements and public appearances to pay tribute to the humble Iced Vovo, or follow the path of every Twitter user who’s ever hauled themselves off the couch, and Tweet about a just-completed run.

Of course, there’s arguably such a thing as being too on point. Kevin Rudd’s Instagram snap showing himself mid-teleconference to Barack Obama following recent civilian death in Syria was somewhat on the nose.  Much like checking into a funeral on Facebook, some interactions need to stay offline.

Who comes out on top?

This category’s a tie, so we’ll hand the prize to Abbott by merit of the fact he avoided a Syria-related selfie.

It’s important to know what your audience want to hear… and what they don’t


Perhaps one of the best traits a politician can possess is charisma.  How often do you hear people explaining their voting choice by referring to how much they like or trust a candidate?  It might not be the wisest way to vote – after all, an unlikable face can front solid policy – but the truth is that many people simply vote for the person they feel they can trust.

The reasoning behind kissing the infants

LOVE ME! There’s a reason politicians kiss babies. The reasoning behind kissing the infants’ mothers is another story for another blog.

Social media provides politicians with the ideal opportunity to create a carefully engineered window into their souls.  Twitter and Facebook don’t just give Abbott and Rudd the chance to touch base with their constituents: these platforms allow them to paint a picture of themselves as real, friendly and likable people.

Of course, all good things have the potential to go horribly wrong, and social media is no exception.

There’s nothing more embarrassing than being caught lying to look cool, as Kevin Rudd found out after potentially-staged shaving blunder put him in the media spotlight for all the wrong reasons.  It’s one thing to portraying yourself as an everyman, and relatable to your followers, but allowing the audience to see the strings controlling the puppet can be the surest way to remind them that they’re observing a performance, rather than reality.

Tony Abbott recently experienced the shame of the social media sham after his Twitter account picked up a suspicious number of fake followers in a questionably short period of time. His office was forced to leap to the defensive, denying that the Liberal party were responsible for purchasing followers, but it was nonetheless an embarrassing blow to Abbott, whose fan following already lagged several hundred thousand behind Rudd’s on Twitter. After all, it’s hard to look like the most popular guy in school when you’re relying on rent-a-crowd to bulk out your birthday party.

The winner:

Fairfax coverage put the Coalition leader’s fake follower count at 40%, but other investigations (my own included) prior to the account’s Twitter cleanup earlier this month put this rate at closer to 95%. Whatever the final figure, it’s clear that neither the Liberal party nor its adversaries can buy the kind of love Kevin Rudd is showered with online.

Whilst the the engineering behind KRudd’s carefully crafted online persona might show through the cracks (or shaving nicks), it’s clear that a solid portion of his followers are genuine fans. We might not be quite an enamoured as his enthusiastic Instagram fans, but we will let him take out this round.

Who comes out on top? Does it even matter?

Kevin Rudd might be winning the internet, in this two-horse race at least, but is this likely to translate into an election victory?  This time around, probably not. It seems Australia has a long way to go before social media can be considered a crucial factor in determining election outcomes.

At the end of the day, regardless of the persona each leader presents, there’s one simple fact that gives Kevin Rudd an edge online: historically, he’s had a solid youth support base. Back in the halcyon days of Kevin 07, Rudd boasted more than 50% of the youth vote.  With half of  all Australians aged 18-34 check Facebook as soon as they wake up in the morning,  it’s not surprising that social media channels are the platform of choice for reaching young voters.  All in all, social media and Rudd’s pet demographic go together like shaking and sauce bottles.

Considering his reliance on the youth vote, the news that 25% of Australians aged between 18 and 24 are not enrolled to vote can hardly have been well received.  The success of the 2012 Obama campaign lay in part in its ability to get young people to polling booths in a country where sitting the election out is a perfectly legal and often preferred option.  That half a million young Australians are not registered to vote, despite our compulsory voting system, and a campaign from Rudd at least that leans heavily towards young voters, shows that our major party leaders have a way to go before their social media strategy leads to significant political change.

Much like his ideologies, Bob Katter’s idea of planking is somewhat off base

That said, it might be seen by some as a miracle that Australian social media users are as politically engaged as this election campaign has proved them to be.  After all, our most-tweeted topic in 2011 was planking.

You decide…

So what do you think? Does King Kevin of Instagram do social media best, or does Tony Abbott’s low-impact approach ring truer to your ears?

State of the Nation - Google

Seen any great social media politicking you think we should see? Show us in the comments!