Social Media, Youth Participation and Australian Elections

Updated: 1 March 2013

Dr Peter John Chen and Associate Professor Ariadne Vromen
Department of Government and International Relations
University of Sydney


This document has been prepared as a 'mashup' of two separate presentations due to synergies between the presentation content. Original sides included are preserved in this document, but re-sequenced for the preparation of this document. They are referenced by the speakers' initials (PC or AV).


The media landscape of Australia has been subject to rapid change in recent years. This change comes from a range of sources: technological innovation and service improvement, the introduction of new and enhanced services, alterations to the political economy of media production, and the changing nature of users' response to the technological capacities afforded to them. One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the introduction of "social media". Social media is defined by Bruns and Bahnisch as "technologies to provide space for in-depth social interaction, community formation, and the tackling of collaborative projects" (2009: 1). These technologies remediate and recreate user and audience communities around new and existing media. As much a social as a technological phenomena, social media is significant in considerably expanding the extent to which once-passive audiences are able to engage with media producers and fellow consumers. This is commonly linked to a "democratisation" of the media: the expanded interaction of members of the community through the media, and the ability of user communities to have greater editorial roles in shaping the content they consume, and recommend to peers in their social networks. The popularity of particular social networking services is illustrated in slide AV1.

Slide AV1: Social media use in Australia
Slide AV1: Social media use in Australia

A recent Essential Media Poll (October 23, 2012) asked respondents what kinds of sites they visited online and used at least once a week. Unsurprisingly the dominant search engine, Google, is the most popular site.

  • Google – 89%
  • Facebook – 67%
  • News websites – 55%
  • Blogs – 21%
  • Social and political campaign Websites – 18%
  • Twitter – 15%

When these overall trends in the Australian population are scrutinised further there are emerging patterns of use of social media based mainly on age group, gender and partisanship. That is young people are more likely to use these sites than other sections of the population, and to a lesser extent being a woman, or a Greens voter, also matters for social media use. Essential Media found Facebook is used more by women (53% daily), those aged 18–24 and 25–34 (82% and 60% daily respectively), and Greens voters (55% daily). Blogs are used more by those aged 25–34 (38% at least once a week), Greens voters (45% at least once a week), and income $1 600+ pw (28% at least once a week). Campaign websites are used more by those aged 25–34 (31% at least once a week), and Greens voters (40% at least once a week). Twitter is used more by those aged 18–24 and 25–34 (24% and 29% respectively at least once a week), and Greens voters (26% at least once a week).

While this is often seen as a "new" phenomena, social media makes visible the types of active audience behaviours once difficult for elites to identify: the tendency for citizen sociality and "cross talk" (i.e. "water cooler talk"), and audience "talk back" to media. What is new is the extent to which this discussion is visible to the public (providing greater access to it), and the digitisation of this interaction (which allows for quantification of it). Thus social media is a new phenomena, but is not outside of the range of human responses to media seen throughout history.

Democratic implications

Social media, like the rise of less interactive but online "new media" before it, enters into an active debate about the performance of national media systems and their implications for democratic practice. Looking at slide PC1 we can see how the Australian Electoral Study (AES) has tracked declining engagement with media during elections since the 1980s. This leads to concerns that voters are disengaged from electoral politics and may be less informed when casting their votes.

AES media research - Followed the election in the mass media Citizens' views of government and democracy
Slide PC1: Media consumption and trust in government

The extent to which this presents a democratic crisis is unclear, however, with further evidence from the AES indicating resilience in the population's trust in government: a strong indicator of the retention of political legitimacy that one might expect from a major disengagement from the political process. This highlights the need to think of political engagement beyond the electoral process and the way that politically active, but pragmatic citizens may employ a range of other behaviours, such as issue monitoring (Schudson 1998) and "hit and run" participation (Bang and Sørensen 1999).

What is clear is that there is a performance gap between those political actors with established presence on the political landscape and emerging and minor voices. This is demonstrated (see slide PC2) in comparing the level of visibility (content produced) by candidates for major and minor political parties using new media (where the low barriers to entry give smaller parties with less funding equivalent visibility) and the tendency for established major parties to receive greater levels of overall media coverage (Goot, 2008) and, correspondingly, greater levels of attention on social media (part 2 of this figure).

Candidates' points of presence online in the 2010 federal election Politicians' Twitter followers in the 2010 federal election
Slide PC2: Democratisation of access, if not performance

What social media does facilitate is increased access to opinion sharing online, greater demonstration of media selectivity through the reposting of material online and the democratisation of editorial behaviour through "social filtering". Some social media channels (for example Twitter) have shown themselves to be active spaces for elite-public interaction and "talking back" to sites of power (political, economic, media). Others (for example Tumblr and Pinterest) have demonstrated themselves as valuable places for "gatewatching": the scrutiny and citizen-centric curatorship of media content (Bruns, 2005), while others (e.g. Facebook) have been useful sites for micro-activism (Marichal, 2012) and the formation of alternative spaces – or counter publics – for democratic discussion (Dahlberg 2011).

Social media users and political activity

While social media use is strongly associated with younger people, the political users of social media are a more age-diverse group than commonly expected. In slide PC3 we can see that, depending on the type of social media channel used, we are likely to see a diversity of ages with only Facebook more likely to significantly over-represent younger users than the population average (from Chen 2012 in press). As the underpinnings of social media (social sharing, peer-communication, visible media consumption) become increasingly accepted by the population overall, this tendency is likely to continue.

Age distribution of social media survey respondents, compared to N Highest level of education achieved, political social media users
Slide PC3: Characteristics of political social media users

What remains clear in this slide, however, is that the politically-engaged social media user (as the political media consumer overall) is more likely to have a higher level of education than the population average. This re-confirms the tendency for the use of technology to be shaped strongly by existing social norms, rather than have a significant impact on social behaviour.

For younger citizens

Our focus on younger Australians is important for understanding social media use, and its potential for increasing political engagement. Current normative debates on mobilisation, political engagement and democracy are underpinned by a concern for young people's declining political engagement. Can widespread social media use mitigate this decline? Put simply, for young people social media is an indispensable part of everyday networked interaction, in every part of their lives i.e. Essential Media (2012) found that 97% of those under 25 use Facebook. This means young Australians have the highest use of social media in the world. A recent Pew Global Attitudes Study shows only the UK comes close to rivaling this finding as 94% of 18–29 year olds use social media in the UK; this is compared to a lower 80% of young Americans who use social media (Pew 2012a).

We need a more complex discussion of young people's social media use that moves beyond naïve charges of "clicktivism", and instead differentiates between different kinds of social media use for political engagement into the following dimensions:

  1. Sourcing of news and political information
  2. Sharing and discussing official news and political information
  3. Informally sharing and discussing news and political information – incidental exposure – within trusted networks of friends
  4. Participation on and offline

Unfortunately we have very little research in Australia on these kinds of social media use. In the USA research has found that sharing and accessing of 'Social information' is significantly linked to willingness to participate in online political activities; and a recent America Votes study (AV Slide 2) using an experimental method found that Facebook provided a small but distinct influence on voter turnout in the US midterm elections in 2010 (Bond et al 2012) and again in the Presidential election in 2012 (Greenfield 2012). On Election Day November 6, 2012 94% of Facebook users (approx 61 million people) were advised that it was 'Election Day' at the top of their Facebook page (the remaining 6% not notified of Election Day were the 'control' group). There was a link where they could find their polling place, a button that said either "I'm voting" or "I'm a voter," and pictures of the faces of friends who had already declared they had voted, which also appeared in Facebook users' News Feed. In data from the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections, Bond and his colleagues (2012) found that this kind of Facebook message and behaviour-sharing communication increased the probability that a person voted by slightly more than 2 percent. That may not seem like a huge effect, but when you have a huge population, as Facebook does, a small uptake in probability means substantial changes in voting behavior. It suggests that social pressure for electoral turnout applied through social media works.

Experiments in social pressure and voting
Slide AV2: Experiments in social pressure and voting

Slide AV3 is taken from a recent Pew Internet study (2012b) that asked American respondents about the forms of political engagement they have undertaken using social media. The study found that 66% of all social media users have used it for political engagement in at least one of the 8 ways highlighted on the chart. The chart clearly shows that young people are more likely than other age groups to have used social media for political engagement and expression– particularly in terms of promoting political material and posting their thoughts on issues that matter to them. We have limited corresponding data in Australia on these social media use indicators. However, the recent Essential Media (2012) poll did ask Australian respondents whether they had engaged in particular kinds of online actions. The age differences in online actions found in the USA are replicated here, with younger people more likely than the rest of the population to have engaged, suggesting that online forms of engagement are increasingly becoming a normalized part of the political repertoires of engagement for those interested in politics

  • 41% of Australians have Voted in an online poll (47% of 18–34 year olds)
  • 29% Signed an online petition (37% of 18–34 year olds)
  • 24% Posted a comment on a blog (33% of 18–34 year olds)
  • 15% Posted a comment on a news website (16% of 18–34 year olds)
  • 33% Posted comment on any other website (39% of 18–34 year olds)
  • 13% Posted a comment on Twitter (22% of 18–34 year olds)
USA Pew research on Social Media and Political Engagement
Slide AV3: USA Pew research on Social Media and Political Engagement

Implications for Electoral Authorities

This analysis presents a range of implications that may be relevant to electoral authorities:

  1. Social media is a set of channels and technologies that have relevance for reaching younger Australians. Social media used for political purposes is likely though, in the first instance, to attract those with pre-existing strong political interests. However, the generalisation of social media use, and its focus on sociality and community building, has the potential to change the way trusted political information is distributed and engagement occurs. Understanding how political use of social media by young people varies by class background (and gender, ethnicity, location, and cultural capital) will become increasingly imperative;
  2. Social media reflects a rise in the level of competition for attention in the media system. This will increase the cost of effective and well targeted communication (even if the cost of production of content is lower);
  3. The characteristics of social media, such as peer to peer sharing and validation of content through social filtering, highlights the two- or multi-step flow model of communication. As political users of social media are highly motivated communicators of political information (slide PC4) they are an ideal audience for information to be delivered through them to their less-informed social peers. These opinion leaders' validation of content potentially developed by electoral agencies will be more effective in reaching less-informed consumers than strategies that are aimed directly at these non-political media consumers.
The two-step flow, 2.0
Slide PC4: The two-step flow, 2.0

References cited

  • Bang, Henrik and Eva Sørensen, 1999, "The everyday maker: A new challenge to democratic governance", Administrative Theory & Praxis, 21(3): 325–4.
  • Bond, Robert et al (2012) 'A 61 million person experiment in social influence and political mobilization' Nature, v. 489, September 12, pp. 296–298, URL
  • Bruns, Axel, 2005, Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production, New York: Peter Lang.
  • Bruns, Axel and Mark Bahnisch, 2009, Social Media: Tools for User-Generated Content: Social Drivers Behind Growing Consumer Participation in User-led Content Generation, Volume 1: State of the Art, Brisbane, QUT.
  • Chen, Peter (2012 in press) Australian Politics in a Digital Age, Canberra, ANU E-press,
  • Dahlberg, Lincoln (2011) 'Reconstructing digital democracy: an outline of four positions' New Media and Society, 13(6), pp. 855–872.
  • Essential Media Report 2012, URL, October 23.
  • Goot, Murray, 2008, "Is the News on the Internet Different? Leaders, Frontbenchers and other Candidates in the 2007 Australian Election", Australian Journal of Political Science, 43 (1), 99–110.
  • Greenfield, Rebecca 2012, 'How social pressure gets Facebook friends to vote' The Atlantic Wire November 6, URL
  • Marichal, José, 2012, Facebook Democracy: The architecture of disclosure and the threat to public life, Surrey, UK, Ashgate.
  • McAllister, Ian, 2011, The Australian Voter: 50 Years of Change, Sydney: UNSW Press.
  • Pew Internet (2012a) 'Social Networking popular across globe' Pew Global Attitudes Survey December, URL ,
  • Pew Internet (2012b) 'Social media and political engagement' Pew Internet and American Life Project, October 19, URL
  • Schudson, Michael, 1998, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. New York: Martin Kessler.

Prepared for the AEC Electoral Research Forum, 19–20 Nov 2012, Canberra.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author, and do not represent the views of the Australian Electoral Commission or the Australian Government.