Greg Barila

Journalist. Editor. Social Media specialist.

Politicians All a-Twitter.

Social networking sites have given millions of people around the world the chance to become stars, and villains, behind their bedroom doors. With an election looming SA’s politicians and media have finally cottoned on.

HE’S widely regarded as one of the best, most charismatic orators of our time, with the hopes of nations weighing on his shoulders.

But as recently as four years ago - the world’s most powerful man was just another politician from Illinois you’d never heard of.

Now? Obama is a trademark and that’s some change you can believe in.

To be sure, the US president has a rare talent in politics but his ascendancy to The White House, many commentators agree, was in no small way thanks to the genius of his marketing strategy and his willingness to harness the incredible power of new media and social networking sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Together, they are a powerful way to sell a message, so powerful they can turn a pimple-faced teenager, in a bedroom anywhere in the world, literally, into an overnight sensation.

And using nothing more than an internet connection, web cam and a good (or really bad) idea.

At last count, Obama had more than 5.6 million ``supporters’’ on Facebook. Makes your friendship circle look a bit small, doesn’t it?

He used email and text messaging to announce to supporters his choice of Joe Biden for Vice President.

Given this strategy, it’s no coincidence that 68 per cent of Americans aged 18 to 29 - the biggest new media consumer group - voted for Obama (age 48) compared with 30 per cent who voted for his adversary John McCain (age 73).

No wonder Andrew Keen, in an article in The Independent, was left to ponder: ``Did the Internet elect Barack Obama?’’

THE White House may be a long way from North Terrace but here in South Australia our politicians are increasingly being turned on by the possibilities of new media sources to sell their ideological wares.

For many, they are the modern incarnation of the soapbox or town hall meeting of old style politics and the newest tool in a kit that already included email newsletters, websites and airtime on traditional media such TV, radio and in newspapers. 

Premier Mike Rann, along with other of his senior Ministers, has recently become a fan of Twitter and now posts regular updates or ``Tweets’’ detailing policy announcements, observations, pot shots at the Opposition and notes on his diary and whereabouts.

The Premier’s 1027 ``followers’’ learned of last week’s Cabinet reshuffle in a series of brief dispatches.

More than a passing fad, Twitter has a growing subscriber base of millions and has been widely credited with being the first (news or non-news) site to break major world news stories such as the 2008 China earthquakes and the recent Amsterdam plane disaster.

Adelaide reporters now follow the updates as closely as they might trail the man himself between in-the-flesh press conferences and engagements.

The ALP may be all a-twitter but the Liberal Opposition are no slouches either.

As Messenger reported last year, leader Martin Hamilton-Smith and members
of the shadow cabinet have been posting short, TV news and interview style YouTube video clips to attack the Rann Government and spruik their own initiatives.

``Hello and thanks for joining me. It’s the eve of Budget Day, I’m talking about tax’‘, Mr Hamilton-Smith says in the introduction to one clip.

So how will the new communication technologies impact on SA’s political landscape on the eve of an election in 2010? And what place does the media have in a world where the journalistic filter between newsmaker and news consumer seems to be crumbling so rapidly?

Greens MLC Mark Parnell, who boasts more than 150 supporters on Facebook and is a Twitter neophyte, says politicians are simply engaging with their electorates in the ways they now demand to be engaged in.

``What we’ve got to get used to is all the different media is going to cater to all the different sections of the population,’’ Mr Parnell explains.

``There’s still an awful lot of people who are going to get their information from the nightly TV news. You know, that’s not going away.’‘

But he acknowledges social networking sites also give public figures the chance to by-pass the thorn-in-their side irritation of traditional media filters by going direct to their target audience, ``because clearly it’s your message, it’s your take on it and there’s no real mechanism for people to challenge you’‘.

``It does bypass traditional media filters to the extent there’s no journalist or editor between you and the community; you can say whatever you want and you can say it how you want and when you want.

``There’s not that rigour of a questioning journalist saying where did you get those figures from? what’s the basis of that claim? You know show us the market research that says that.

So you’re avoiding that level of scrutiny but my thinking would be that all politicians who are using these tools won’t be using them exclusively, they’ll be using all the methods they have.’‘

Dr Clem McIntyre, Head of Politics at Adelaide University, agrees politicians and public figures have become more willing to embrace the increasingly diffuse methods of communication, largely as a reponse of the seismic shift in the ways people consume, and want to consume, news.

``Each generation finds its own pace and its own appropriate way of communicating with a sector of the electorate it wants to get to’‘.

He points to the use of text message alerts by authorities during the recent Black Saturday bushfires, to disseminate information to people who ``just never watch commercial television, don’t listen much to the radio and don’t read newspapers’‘, chiefly young people.

``And that’s the market a lot of politicians want to tap into as quickly as they can and so any means by things like Facebook and increasingly Titter and text messaging - those sorts of things, will be used I think by politicians if they discern some advantage to be gained from it.’‘

Dr McIntyre agrees those advantages may include the ability to circumvent the probing questions of the old media, whilst providing the freedom to propagandise.

``I certainly see it as one of the prime motivations.

``If you think about someone like John Howard’s use of Facebook during the 2007 election, if there’s any politician less inclined to be using modern technology.

``I mean this is a bloke who resisted going on FM radio, because he saw his principle market as being the AM talkback audience.

``Yet even John Howard was persuaded that he needed to get his message through to different cohorts of the community and voters in an undiluted, unmediated form.’‘

But, Dr McIntyre argues, it’s not to suggest voters need necessarily feel like they’re getting the rough end of the pineapple because the dynamic has changed.

By using cheap, direct, real-time methods of communication, politicians may keep their finger on the pulse of their communities, which in theory should lead to better decision-making, which must have a positive effect on the lives of voters.

``The flow of information is beginning to go both ways now’‘.

Moreover, Dr McIntyre argues - the same tools at the disposal of politicans are freely available to everyone else and so have given rise to much of the activism that is the sign of a robust and thriving democracy.

``If you look at the GetUp campaign, the people involved and the policy priorities that they had, the nature of the campaign simply couldn’t exist without an effective internet presence.’‘

Kate Alport is a PhD student, with a special focus on electronic voting and electronic engagement in the political process.

She says there appear to be multiple benefits in the use of new media, for both politicians and citizens, but that it’s far too soon to predict their likely impact on the political landscape.

``This is a trend, it can grow and it can be useful but there hasn’t been any research, it’s just been so new.

``To my mind, at the moment it’s being used as a one-way information, short messaging service. It’s almost like a short radio advertisement going out to the people about what you’re doing now, but how interactive is it?’‘

Ms Alport says one thing is clear - voters, particularly young people, will be looking for much more in their political leaders than to know they’ve come to grips with Facebook and Twitter. They’ll want substance, she cautions.

“Young people are already interacting with each other (online). I think politicians, if they’re going to use this kind of technology, they’re going to need to have something else to engage young people, you know, what are the issues young people are interested in, not just using the technology.”

Remarkably, through the use of sites like Twitter, where messages are capped at 140 keystrokes, there may come a radical change in our politicians few thought possible; brevity will be forced on them.

“You can’t get anyone waffling on with that length of message,” Ms Alport says, with an economy of words.