Coronavirus made them social media superstars, but can likes translate to votes? - ABC News


Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews now has almost 880,000 followers on Facebook. (AAP: David Crosling)

A live stream of Daniel Andrews wearing a mask and a windbreaker is a daily sight for his 880,000 Facebook followers.

The Victorian Premier now has a bigger social media presence than the Prime Minister as his state trudges through a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

And while they may not acknowledge it right now, the coronavirus pandemic has given incumbent state leaders a massive profile boost on social media — a key election battleground.

But can wins on social media translate into wins on polling day?

Michael Gunner will be the first state leader to find out when the Northern Territory votes on August 22.

Like many of his counterparts, Mr Gunner has enjoyed a renewed wave of support over his handling of the pandemic, following years of public criticism of his performance as Chief Minister.

He has more than doubled his following on Facebook in the past six months as the Territory steadily steered its way through the pandemic.

NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner is the next state leader to face an election during the coronavirus pandemic.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Murdoch University political lecturer Dr Ian Cook suggests a loss in trust of mainstream media had people turning to the government for answers.

"It's interesting because normally people don't trust politicians either," he said.

"People are looking to their politicians for leadership and direction at this time … and they are the right people to look to."

New audience for political press conferences

Curtin University social media expert Tama Leaver said the daily press conferences live-streamed to Facebook drew a massive audience.

"Facebook has been the most appropriate and the most straightforward conduit for getting information from your state leader," he said.

"It is unprecedented in scale, I think more people than ever before are listening to politicians on Facebook."

As the NT polling day fast approaches, Mr Gunner has been accused of using the COVID-19 pandemic for political advantage.

And when the live press conferences could start with health advice and end with political spin, it was an accusation that will likely be repeated during every election cycle in the near future.

"I think the blurring of lines between political messaging and essential health information is the greatest danger here," said Dr Cook.

"I worry that providing information shifts to producing propaganda.

Australia's state leaders have seen their popularity on social media surge during the COVID-19 pandemic.(ABC News)

"Perhaps the government should do certain things to make sure we know it's the government talking to us, rather than the party talking to us.

"Because at the moment, I don't think it's very clear."

Translating 'likes' to votes

Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan is the most popular leader in the country, enjoying an 89 percent approval rating on a recent Newspoll.

One of Mark McGowan's most successful Facebook posts directed people to also like the page of Health Minister Roger Cook (left).(ABC News: James Carmody)

His Facebook page — and almost every McGowan-related post on the pages of WA news outlets — regularly attracts hundreds of glowing messages of public support.

He speaks directly to people in long open letters, videos, info-graphs and pictures.

The Premier and his team are drawing more attention to his Facebook posts than what every single one of Perth's major media organisations can muster up on their own pages combined — and then some.

In August 2019, Mr McGowan had fewer than 25,000 followers. That number is now almost 250,000.

His direct opposition, WA Liberals leader Liza Harvey, has little over 5,000 followers.

Like all state leaders, Mark McGowan's Facebook followers increased sharply at the beginning of the pandemic.(Supplied: CrowdTangle)

Dr Cook said the support Mr McGowan had amassed on Facebook was a political party strategist's dream.

"I think his media advisors would be foolish if they're not watching the Facebook comments in great detail," he said.

"This is the stuff they've been looking for — the ability to cut the traditional media out of the conversation and control what issues we talk about, how we talk about them to control the political agenda."

Premier Mark McGowan is getting more attention for his social media posts than all of the major news outlets in Perth combined.(Supplied: CrowdTangle)

Dr Cook said Mr McGowan had used his Facebook platform to build his brand to an almost celebrity level.

"The more people feel connected to Mark McGowan, the more they're likely to vote for Mark McGowan's people," he said.

"He's been doing a fantastic job in terms of getting West Australians behind him so I think this can directly translate into electoral support."

Mr McGowan's office said the strategy was nothing new.

"Communications from the State Government have always had a strong social media focus, and over the last few years that focus evolved and adapted accordingly," his office said.

"Western Australians have utilised the Premier’s Facebook page as a reliable source of information throughout the pandemic."

The Premier's biggest social success story was an Easter message to the children of Western Australia which racked up millions of views and was mimicked by many other politicians.

"I think it was an opportunity — someone saw a kid write about can the Easter Bunny get into Western Australia," Dr Cook said.

"If you're in the party and you see that, you have to see it as a moment of 'hey, look, we can we can work with this'.

"The media play they got out of that was enormous and all very successful for Mark McGowan."

The humanising of a Premier

Mr Leaver said the spotlight on the country's leaders during the pandemic gave them a political opportunity to showcase more personable sides of their character to the public.

He said Mr McGowan was a perfect example of a politician being 'humanised' through the lens of social media.

Youtube Mark McGowan kebab video

A perfect example was when in April, he was asked at a press conference about a man being fined in the eastern states for going for a run, then stopping to eat a kebab.

Mr McGowan essentially got the giggles on live TV over the idea that someone would jog, and then immediately eat a kebab.

It gained him immediate popularity — and the video on the ABC's YouTube channel has been watched more than 350,000 times.

"I think everyone could appreciate in a context where everyone's stressed up to their eyeballs, that having moments of levity like (the kebab video) were are incredibly humanizing," Mr Leaver said.

"It's not Premier of Western Australia, it's Mark McGowan. That's incredibly valuable."

Mr Leaver said Mr McGowan's ongoing clash of words with Clive Palmer over WA's border closures meant his social media status would sustain even as COVID-19 becomes less of an immediate threat for West Australians.

"I think, ironically, Clive Palmer has done more for Mark McGowan than he could possibly have imagined," he said.

"It would not shock me at all if this is studied in great detail.

"There is going to be modelling of how to do social media well in an emergency situation and I think McGowan is a really good example of that.

"It doesn't feel like he exudes elitism, perhaps in a way that some other politicians have."

"The context of an emergency has lowered political boundaries in a way that that very few other things could have.

"Your interaction with the Premier when they're at the top in a Facebook Live window does not feel significantly different to a video chat with your friend or colleague, for example."

Unofficial Mark McGowan t-shirts are being sold on the Internet.(Supplied: Bell tower times)

Mr Leaver said social media had proven itself as an essential battleground on which elections were won.

"Donald Trump's campaign, for example, and their clever use of Facebook in particular is what many people believe won them the 2016 election," he said,

"We saw it was used in Australia in the last federal election reasonably well — it is a key campaigning space."

What goes up … must come down?

Dr Cook warned a national emergency was a volatile event to pin political success to, particularly on an already fickle platform like social media.

He said the real test for most politicians would be if their state fell victim to a second wave of coronavirus infections, as Daniel Andrews had proved.

"The thing we know about social media is groups can turn and this relatively friendly space can turn into a pretty ugly space," he said.

"It can be a quite difficult space to control and it can work for you really well, one day, but not necessarily the next.

"You'd want to be careful with this."