The Australian Electoral Commission Has Gone Rogue On Social Media, And It’s Working
The AEC can, and will, call you out.
We’re just over a week out from the federal election, which means you’d be hard pressed to scroll through social media without some form of political advertisement or misinformation crossing your radar. But if you’re lucky, any misinformation has likely already been fact-checked by the Australian Electoral Commission.
An unexpected and unsung hero of the 2022 election cycle has been the AEC’s social media team, who have — quite frankly — chosen to go full sicko mode this year and aren’t afraid to call you out if you’re spreading electoral misinformation online.
Sure, whatever floats your boat.
— AEC ✏️ (@AusElectoralCom) May 10, 2022
According to Director of Media and Digital engagement Evan Ekin-Smyth, the decision to personify the AEC’s social media presence was part of a broader strategy to minimise the spread of misinformation.
“I’d love to say it’s all fun and bubbles and we do it because we love a laugh — which we do — but there’s a really serious side to it, of course. we’ve seen what’s happened overseas, particularly in the US, where we’ve seen electoral processes being questioned more than they ever have before and we’ve seen echoes of that over here in Australia over the course of this electoral cycle, particularly leading up to the 2022 federal election,” Ekin-Smyth told Junkee.
“So we sat down and had a think about it, about our communication, our role, how people see us and the processes that we deliver and how we can protect it and part of that is our social media presence. Having a really actively online voice, a lot of people form a view of an organisation’s presence and processes based on their digital voice, so we took that really seriously.
“We’ve got a reputation management strategy, which is a refreshed approach to be more active and to be more judicious on how we use tone and timing, and in terms of our frontline social media approach, we’re speaking like human beings, rather than public servants.
“We’re being sassy at times, we call it firm and friendly but sassy at times, where we need to, to be able to debunk information that’s circulating that’s not correct. There’s a lot more to it than that but that’s where our thinking was at and that’s why we’re doing it the way that we are.”
The new approach comes after a rise in disinformation — with Ekin-Smyth telling Junkee that there has been an increase in both intentional and accidental disinformation.
“I think it’s both. I think there’s a rise in both. Some of it is divorced from each other but some of it goes hand in hand,” said Ekin-Smyth. “Theres people who seem to spread deliberate disinformation about election processes that then spreads to audiences who believe it and are inadvertently spreading it. So that’s what I mean by hand in hand.”
Specifically, there has been a rise in minor political parties promoting the idea that electoral officials doctor votes made in pencil — which is blatantly untrue. For those unfamiliar with the reason, we use pen in Australia because it’s cheaper and more hassle-free than pen, which can dry out or leak.
“One recent trend that we’ve seen — particularly from minor political parties — is encouraging people to use pens instead of pencils, the inference being that we’re rubbing out votes,” said Ekin-Smyth.
You're more than welcome to use a pen, but no one is rubbing your vote out. We take ballot security very seriously and have strict supervision and security arrangements in place when it comes to ballot handling. pic.twitter.com/fli42JdlTd
— AEC ✏️ (@AusElectoralCom) May 10, 2022
“And also encouraging their voters to fill in a statutory declaration that they voted in some sort of way so that they can dispute the election result. That’s a particularly dangerous one it seems not massively spread at the moment but it is a dangerous one that we’ve seen spread across a couple of minor parties.”
It’s worth noting that any vote that identifies yourself is considered informal and therefore will not be counted in an election. And as it turns out, the new tactic has worked — with Ekin-Smyth confirming the organisation’s engagement on social media has increased since it adopted a witty approach to social media.
“Anecdotally, yes. If you try to look at statistics it’s hard to tell what is the motivator for people reaching out… but we certainly are getting an increased level of engagement and we think that our approach both proactive and reactive — we pretty much answer every single thing that comes along, including some where people aren’t asking us directly — we’ve found that is encouraging people to check in with us. We think that by debunking mistruths, we’re discouraging people from spreading mistruths — either inadvertently or deliberately.”
This is backed up by the AEC’s social media stats, which include nearly 8,000 new Twitter followers in the last 30 days alone.
“We’re answering a hell of a lot of questions and we’re hoping that has a positive impact. we’re getting a heap of positive feedback from people who are thankful that we’ve answered their question in a very timely manner,” said Ekin-Smyth, whose team is averaging 215 tweets and replies per day, according to SocialBlade.
The effort is particularly impressive considering the entire AEC media team consists of only eight people.
“It’s hard to say it in pure number terms because the people who are working on our social teams aren’t just working on social media,” said Ekin-Smyth. “My team — during an election period — is about eight strong across all of those functions. We’re very busy.”
While a majority of the public has faith in the democratic system, the AEC still warns that there are minority groups that continue to spread electoral conspiracy theories.
“The vast, vast majority of the Australian electorate trusts Australian elections and trust the AEC and how we operate. But there are communities, particularly online, that express these sentiments and appear to be direct lift-outs from the US and appear to have a distaste for political representatives and ask “what’s the point?”. We see that, we don’t like that — of course — and we put out our own messaging about the value of people’s votes and how people can trust the AEC. You would say anecdotally that it is a minority of Australians, but it is dangerous nonetheless.
“Social media is a breeding ground for this sort of stuff and that’s why we’ve taken this sort of approach.”
The move to become more personable on social media comes after political parties have shifted towards a more meme-centric approach to online communication.
Lavender Baj is a senior reporter at Junkee, focusing on news and politics. Follow her on Twitter.