BEYOND THE ECHO CHAMBER
When I was first elected to the Parliament of Australia in 2010, my team regularly sent a glossy flyer to everyone in the electorate bearing the eponymous title ‘The Leigh Report’. In addition, most electors in my northside Canberra seat would get a letter from me once or twice a year, discussing a specific issue or a local forum.
Over the past seven years we’ve steadily shifted away from the letterbox and towards the inbox, the browser and the app. My website is updated with new material several times a day and I maintain an active Facebook page. I have an Instagram account. Twitter tells me I’ve written nearly 9000 tweets. When I deliver a major speech, it goes up on an ‘Andrew Leigh – Speeches and Conversations’ podcast, available through iTunes and other podcast apps. Last year I started a second podcast: ‘The Good Life’, which interviews experts about living a happier, healthier and more ethical life. Each month I send out an email about what’s going on in national politics. It used to be called ‘The Leigh eReport’ to distinguish it from the physical version. Three years after sending out the last physical newsletter, we realised it wasn’t ever coming back and we changed the email update to ‘The Leigh Report’.
Among my parliamentary colleagues, there’s nothing unusual in the fact that I engage with electors through a personal website, emails, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and podcasts. According to the 2016 Australian Election Study, the share of voters who follow a politician on Facebook or Twitter rose from 2% in 2010 to 7% in 2016. Social media now plays an essential part in the political process. Last election, my colleague Julian Hill and I did a Facebook Live event in a local marketplace, talking about inequality while chatting with stallholders. When his multicultural community was criticised, my colleague Chris Bowen hit back not with a press release, but with a heart-warming video that told the stories of Fairfield’s successful migrants.
Few politicians better mastered social media than Kevin Rudd, who once cut himself shaving and promptly tweeted a picture. Rudd even had half a million followers on the Chinese social media site Weibo. At its best, social media lets us expand the political conversation, reaching people who might otherwise be disengaged, disinterested or disconnected. Yet while politicians can make playful use of social media, there is also a risk that it fuels the trend towards anger and political polarisation. Occasionally I’ve seen posts go viral that contain absurd claims and outright untruths. Even when you get the facts right, it’s a sad reality that partisan anger almost invariably gets more retweets than thoughtful moderation. Some days, I wonder if there are any swing voters on Twitter at all.
Two recent US studies of social media and partisanship reach different conclusions. Analysing the rollout of broadband internet across the country, Lelkes et al. found that faster connections led people to spend more time online, to read more partisan media and to become more politically polarised . Conversely Boxell et al. observed that the rise in partisanship has been most pronounced among demographic groups that are least likely to use social media. For example partisanship has grown more among 75+ year olds than among 18-39 year olds.
A great strength of mainstream media is that it helps avoid the ‘echo chamber’ effect. At their best, journalists provide context and analysis, allowing the audience to engage with a whole range of viewpoints. Ironically, journalists must now keep up with the increasing social media output of politicians. They must hold us to account for what we say both in the chamber and online. It’ll only get tougher as the number of journalists employed by traditional news organisations in Australia shrinks and the number of social media accounts held by politicians grows.
We can’t stop the inexorable social media trend, but we must not lose the values that make a strong democracy: big ideas, rigorous evidence, an ability to admit mistakes and a fundamental sense that our shared identity comes before our partisan differences.