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Moving Politics Online: How Australian Mainstream Media Portray Social Media as Political Tools

Posted In News - By On Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013 With 0 Comments

(by Theresa Sauter and Axel Bruns – crossposted from Mapping Online Publics)

Difficult as it may be to believe, we’re still almost three months out from the likely date of the next Australian federal election; campaigning during this time will become even more frenzied than it has been to date. A sea of speculation, controversy, and crisis surrounds the polls, and an increasing subset of the political battle is being fought online, through party Websites and social media. This is beginning to affect the balance of power in the overall media ecology: while mainstream media have historically played an important role in political campaigning and in shaping public opinions, online and social media now contribute new communicative ingredients to the public sphere.

While much attention has already been paid to the way that social media users critique and criticise the mainstream media, the opposite is less true. Conventional print and broadcast media have been instrumental in raising awareness about the political uses of social media platforms, and in doing so reflect contemporary views; so, what is the portrayal of social media in the media?

This question lies at the core of Social Media in the Media, a new report released by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI) in collaboration with the University of Oslo. In the report, we investigate how the political uses of social media are portrayed in the Australian mainstream media, in order to understand the perceptions that help shape how politicians, citizens and journalists employ new media tools to support their political objectives. Through a longitudinal comparative analysis we identify significant changes in how social media have been reported on since 2008. Overall, we are able to trace the gradual adoption and acceptance of social media as political tools, by politicians themselves as well as by journalists and everyday citizens.


For the study, we sampled Australian mainstream media articles about social media in politics from the years 2008, 2010, and 2012. Over this time, politicians’ uses of social media were covered most prominently in the mainstream media; citizen uses came a close second overall. Journalists’ uses of social media in political reporting were considered far less often, even in spite of the considerable changes to journalistic practice that have occurred with the advent of real-time social media such as Twitter.



Commentary on politicians’ uses of social media changed considerably from 2008 to 2012. Early articles commonly reported on politicians’ “incorrect” or “inefficient” use of social media, and suggested that they were mainly using these tools in order to demonstrate their ability to move with the times. But by 2010, and certainly by 2012, social media use was described as more integrated into the day-to-day practices of politicians. Social media had become normalised: they were no longer new. Similarly, articles that discussed the attitudes of politicians towards social media portrayed more negative attitudes in 2008 (viewing social media are “useless”, or even as detrimental to political debate). Considerably more positive perceptions emerged in 2010 and 2012. This suggests that politicians (and the journalists covering them) were beginning to see the benefits in using social media as political tools.


Members of the public were predominantly portrayed as using social media to campaign, fight for their rights, and support particular causes. News articles construct social media use by citizens as a means of demanding and achieving change and improvement in the public policy issues that affect them. Articles also suggested that citizens use social media to an important extent to support, criticise or gossip about politicians. Interestingly, such uses increased substantially in 2012; this may reflect a broader change in Australian political discourse (towards more emotive and inflammatory language, and strong public responses to it), with prominent pro- and anti-Gillard/Abbott groups emerging on social media platforms. It remains to be seen whether this remains an isolated episode, or whether it indicates a lasting shift in the reported political uses of social media.


By contrast, the use of social media by journalists was much less reported on than uses by politicians and members of the public. We noted an overall increase in articles covering the use of social media by journalists; we also identified a shift across the years in how social media are portrayed as tools for political journalism: in 2008, articles demonstrated the potential of social media as tools for political news reporting, yet indicated that this potential was not being realised. By 2010, articles suggested that journalists had begun to use social media, if not yet in the most effective ways. Articles from 2012, finally, conveyed more successful engagement by journalists with social media; journalists also increasingly used social media as sources or supporting evidence in their reporting, for example by citing politicians’ social media statements and conversations. On average, some 26 percent of the articles we examined across 2008, 2010 and 2012 cited politicians’ statements on Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms.

Social and Traditional Media: Connections, Comparisons, Contrasts

New, social media have traditionally been perceived as a threat to the established news industry; in Australia, this manifested especially in the ‘blog wars’ of the mid to late 2000s. However, our study reveals a significant decrease in the number of articles that focus on a comparison of social and traditional media from 2008 to 2012. Instead, journalistic coverage of social media in politics has shifted to a portrayal of social and traditional media as sitting comfortably alongside one another. By 2008, a perception of social media as useful additional media had already become dominant, in fact; in subsequent years, coverage focussed increasingly on the growing integration of social media into political practice, engagement, and reporting. Combined with the overall decrease in articles that compared social and traditional media, this shows that social media in politics have become normalised – the debate is no longer over whether, but how they may be used.


The role of the media in setting political agendas and impacting on public opinion has long been noted. As social media become increasingly integrated into the modern political landscape, then, we need to consider the contribution they make to setting political agendas. Analysing their portrayal as political tools by traditional media can provide important insights into the emergence of what Yochai Benkler has termed ‘hybrid media ecologies’. In light of the coming federal election we plan to continue our examination of how social media are conceptualised and used by politicians, citizens and journalists, comparing especially the election years 2010 and 2013.

Already, our study shows a political media ecology in considerable flux, and points to significant changes to the professional practices of politicians, journalists, and other stakeholders in the political process in Australia. As politicians, citizens and journalists come to terms with using social media, we need to turn our focus to the impact of these tools, and to develop new methods for analysing and understanding them.

This report is part of a joint research project on The Impact of Social Media on Agenda-Setting in Election Campaigns with scholars from the University of Oslo, the University of Bergen, Uppsala University, and California State University. It investigates the interaction and inter-media agenda-setting between social media and mainstream media in different cultural and political settings, in order to develop cross-national comparisons. (Cover image by whatleydude on Flickr.)

About the Author

- Axel Bruns is a Professor in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, where he leads the Digital Publics programme.

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