In those distant days when I was part of the government system one thing that could be guaranteed to to raise the anxiety level in our group was the Minister’s beginning a conversation with the words ‘I met this man on the aeroplane last night…’ What tended to follow would be a request to take some hare-brained idea seriously, or to go through the files and see if we had any information on said scheme.
As I understand it, today’s difficulties are worse. Ministers are bombarded with opinions and appeals on Facebook and Twitter, and no public servant can provide appropriate advice nearly as quickly. We do not know, of course, how much notice the politicians take of what they receive, and it is not at all clear whether they actually read the tweets from the twits, or that task is given to an undertwit.
But there is no doubt that in volume terms we are looking at a considerable amount of opinion. I can’t find out Facebook statistics, though I’m sure they will be there somewhere. But those for Twitter are easy to obtain, and are considerable. There is a useful compilation on the web, which you can consult here. Be warned, however. It seems to have stopped in mid June, and while a plaintive notice tells the enquiring reader that statistics will be resumed shortly, the data are, well, dated. What follows is my digest.
To begin, not all Federal MPs and Senators have taken to Twitter. Of the 226 sitting politicians 99 were on Twitter, though another site seems to suggest that the number of present and former politicos (including Maxine McKew, for instance) runs to about 150. Those in the system contribute about 40 tweets a day on average, two thirds of the messages coming from one fifth of the politicians.
In party terms, 37 per of the tweeters come from the Liberal Party, and only 31 per cent from the Labor Party. But the Labor politicians are the more active. Who has the largest following? You guessed it — Kevin Rudd. His runs to a million people, or even more, according to another site. He is far and away the most ‘followed’ of the politicians, and that was before he found himself back as PM. Julia Gillard was next, with about 400,000, then Malcolm Turnbull (200,000) and Tony Abbottt (125,000).
Kevin Rudd was also one of the most consistent posters in the preceding year, as well, though he was fourth after Mike Kelly MP (Labor, Eden-Monaro), who seems the most assiduous — does it take a lot of time to average 12 tweets a day over a year? Ahead of the PM (who averages only 5.5 tweets a day) were also Labor Senator Ursula Stephens and Robert Oakeshott (Independent, Lyne). Kevin Rudd also tweets on average every other day, while Ed Husic (Labor, Chifley) is the team leader, who tweets on 85 per cent of the days in the year.
It may not be quite to the Prime Minister’s satisfaction but the word ‘KRudd’ is mentioned far more often than ‘Rudd’, and is indeed one of the most mentioned words in Twitterdom. Incidentally, tweeting peaks on Wednesdays, and starts to build up momentum from 7 am, declining quickly after 10 pm.
And by this time you’re wondering — So what? What difference does it all make? I don’t have an answer, but I’ve no doubt that the Rudd following is related to the sharp rise in the polls that Labor received after he became Leader again, and started his almost manic rush to be everywhere at once, and to solve every issue tomorrow.
Will the following follow him to the polls? I don’t know. The move to have a Twitter account seems to have started four to five years ago, and the longest-Twittering politician is the Green’s Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who began hers more than six years ago. What all this suggests to me is that Twitter is a form of fame-hunting on the part of the followers, who feel that they have some kind of mystic connection with the person followed when they tweet.
Since the maximum number of characters you can use in a tweet is 140, the mechanism doesn’t lend itself to much more than slogans and witty one-liners. In fact, that last sentence is about the length of the longest message you can put on Twitter, so it is best suited to flamboyant smooth-talkers like Rudd MP, which is no doubt why he leads the pack.
So it all seems to me to be a form of celebrity politics, whose exemplar is Barack Obama, and it is hard to reject the feeling that Mr Rudd has to some degree modelled himself in these ways on the American President. Mr Obama also has a huge personal following on the social media, from which he drew a substantial war chest for each of his campaigns.
I wait to see what happens on polling day, and whether or not the celebrity magic, facilitated by the social media, can allow Labor to do well. If it does, there won’t be any politician in the next parliament who doesn’t have his or her own Twitter account and Facebook page.