Australia’s Party Leaders Take Debate to Facebook Live
The election debate between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Labor Party Leader Bill Shorten led to an unprecedented amount of public participation - and exposed limitations on technology and format.
Case Study: First leaders’ debate livestreamed on Facebook
Debate: June 17, 2016
In June 2016, less than a month before Australia’s federal election, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, head of the Coalition Party, challenged Labor Party Leader Bill Shorten to a different style of debate—one that would be aired chiefly on Facebook, with viewers posting comments as it happened.
The two men had, by this point, already met twice. The first debate, the Sky News / Daily Telegraph’s people’s forum in western Sydney on May 13, was conducted town hall-style in front of 100 undecided voters. It attracted a small television audience—around 54,000, according to reports (Sky News is a paid-subscription channel). At the end, the studio audience declared Shorten the winner: 42-29, with 29 people still unsure who to support.
The second debate, a National Press Club event in Canberra on May 29 organized by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, was carried on two ABC channels (but no commercial stations) and drew a combined average viewing audience of 628,000. It was a more staid affair: A panel of journalists asked the questions, and the candidates were permitted to speak without interruption from the panelists or the other candidate.
With candidates sticking mostly to talking points, despite the panelists’ efforts to elicit more in-depth responses, the second debate was roundly criticized as lackluster. Phillip Coorey, the Australian Financial Review’s chief political correspondent, wrote that the event “cast fresh doubt on the future of what has been an election campaign staple amid concerns it has become a tired and obsolete format.”
Paula Matthewson, a communications adviser and columnist, went further, noting that “both men ended up as marionette versions of themselves, awkwardly posturing on the stage with stilted voices and pantomime expressions.”
“There was no trace of the former barrister Turnbull, the most skilled and compelling orator in the Federal Parliament, or any sign of the former union leader Shorten, whose inspiring stump speeches could deftly rally the troops,” she added. “Even more disappointingly, the over-engineering of the leaders’ performances treated debate viewers to an hour-long display of contemporary journalism’s greatest frustration: the non sequitur interview, in which politicians answer every question with a totally unrelated set of talking points.”
Less than a week later, with the election tightening, Turnbull rejected an invite from Sky View for another people’s forum, possibly because he thought the questions during the first event had favored his opponent. Shorten accepted and had the stage to himself; he called Turnbull’s no-show an “insult to Queenslanders.”
But Turnbull had another plan to reach voters, especially those in areas where the race might be tight. There’s no mandate in Australia for the number of debates, though traditionally there are three. Turnbull wanted the next and presumably final debate to engage a wider audience on smartphones and other mobile devices, so he proposed staging the next debate online—specifically on Facebook Live, with the live feed made available to broadcasters—a first for a leaders’ debate in Australia.
“These are the platforms that many people, many would say most Australians, see most of their media on, most of their news, and I think it’s important that we have an innovative election and that we use the platforms that Australians use,” said Turnbull.
“This debate will enable millions of Australians to participate. They will be able to contribute. It will engage a vastly wider audience than the formats that we’ve used before,” he added. “My aim is to have as big an audience as possible and to reach everyone, you have got to use the devices which I noticed you are all holding in your hands. That’s the modern world.”
Some of that statement was correct. In a country of an estimated 24 million, more than 14 million people use Facebook, and more people (44 percent, according to a 2015 study) cite the internet as their main source of news ahead of TV, radio, and print.
But in terms of audience engagement, the debate would run up modest numbers when it streamed on Facebook Live, though the numbers continued to grow in the days afterward. And the point the debate ended up making about technology and access wasn’t the one Turnbull intended.
A New Social Format
The 45-minute debate was staged at Facebook Australia’s headquarters in Sydney. It started at 6 p.m. on a Friday evening—not the best time to capture voters’ attention. Hosted by news.com.au, owned by News Corp Australia, the livestream could be viewed at Facebook.com/news.com.au and on the news.com.au website. The television channels Sky News and ABC24 also carried the feed.
“At Facebook, our mission is to make the world more open and connected and we are excited about the potential to connect so many Australians in one of the most important aspects of any election campaign—a leadership debate,” said Stephen Scheeler, managing director of Facebook Australia.
Daniel Sankey, editor of news.com.au, said that the Facebook Live platform “will give all Australians the ability to not just watch, but to actively participate, in the debate.”
The news site reported that more than 4 million Facebook users saw its posts promoting the debate, and more than 3,000 questions for the prime minister and the opposition leader were submitted in advance. The final questions were selected from these advance submissions and from new comments submitted during the debate, as well as from a small studio audience.
Joe Hildebrand, a morning talk show host, brought a giddy energy to his role as moderator. He kicked off the event by taking viewers on a brief tour of Facebook’s headquarters, pointing out the gold-colored walls and the roomful of producers and moderators from Facebook and news.com.au tasked with combing through comments.
Hildebrand told viewers watching that if they wanted to get their question to either the prime minister or the opposition leader, “certainly one of whom will be the future prime minister on the night of July 2,” the comment should “stand out.”
“That means no spam, no trolling, no abuse, that’s boring, we’ve seen it all before,” he warned. “Get exciting, get adventurous, and really tell us about what matters to you, and if you’re funny we’ll give you double points.”
Cameras followed Hildebrand into the room where the debate would be held. He walked through the studio audience of 30 undecided voters selected from more than a dozen “marginal seats”—districts that could go either way—pausing to ask a few people about the issues that matter most to them. Childcare, education costs, health care, and marriage equality were cited.
Andrew Bucklow, an entertainment reporter with news.com.au, delivered a final reminder for Facebook users: Those watching on news.com.au’s Facebook page could share their reactions by clicking, as often as they wanted, on one of Facebook’s emojis. Agree? Give a thumbs up, or a heart. Upset by what you’re hearing? Post a sad or angry face.
Turnbull and Shorten then entered the room and shook hands. They perched casually atop stools on either side of Hildebrand, who again emphasized the newness of the debate, calling it “fresh” and “youth-oriented.” Ground rules allowed 90 seconds to answer each question until the final round, when the leaders would have 60 seconds to respond.
After pleading with both men to avoid clichéd talking points, Hildebrand said: “This is not the press gallery you’re talking to anymore, these are the real people out there who quite frankly, they don’t take crap. You know that. We all know that. Let get started.”
The Debate Begins
And with that, Hildebrand read the first question from Facebook—on why voters should trust politicians—which sounded a lot like a question asked at the National Press Club debate. But more variation followed, from both the public and the candidates.
The next three questions—one more from Facebook and two from the studio audience—addressed affordable housing, climate change, and shift workers. The selected questions honed close to issues identified in news.com.au’s State of the Nation Survey, which identified the cost of living as the top concern, and Facebook data on the most-mentioned election topics.
Hildebrand initially described himself as merely a conduit for the public’s questions, but he asked smart follow-up questions when time allowed, continuing to push for specific responses.
After the fourth question, Hildebrand turned to Bucklow of news.com.au for an update on viewer reactions.
“The most popular reaction so far is actually anger,” said Bucklow, “but a lot of comments flowing through, as you’d expect. A couple of cheeky comments about the NBN, some people saying this stream would be far more watchable if we had NBN.”
That was the first inkling the party leaders got that all might not be going well for Facebook Live viewers.
Only as Good as the Bandwidth
The NBN stands for the National Broadband Network. It’s a major infrastructure project to deliver fast broadband that has seen cost overruns and delays through several different administrations. Indeed, many online viewers were reporting choppy video with periods of buffering, sending angry emojis flying across the screen and posting images on Twitter of what the debate looked like.
— Andrew Collins (@AndyCollinsSP) June 17, 2016
— Bevan Shields (@BevanShields) June 17, 2016
A Facebook spokesperson later told Mashable: “We thoroughly tested all aspects of our product on different devices with people located around the country both before and during the debate and were not able to identify any issues with the livestream at our end.”
The debate quickly resumed after Bucklow’s update. Hildebrand, picking up an iPad, read a newly selected Facebook question for the prime minister on whether reducing taxes on companies would increase employment. A question from the audience about youth unemployment followed. Shorten responded by discussing Labor’s plan for increasing jobs and apprenticeships, then steered the conversation back to NBN, noting that a vibrant economy needs “first-class technology” and good infrastructure.
Turnbull countered that his party had inherited a failed project, yet the government had greatly accelerated the number of people connected to NBN and would complete the project by 2019 or 2020.
But Shorten wasn’t done, and he made one more pitch—this time directly to Facebook users.
“If I could use the Facebook system we have here, I would just like to see people press ‘like’ if they would prefer to have fiber than copper,” said Shorten. “I’m interested to see what Facebook users who have bad connections and delays and buffering—Malcom Turnbull says everything’s fine. Let’s press ‘like’ if you prefer fiber to copper.”
At that moment, those watching the Facebook video saw a non-stop parade of thumbs-up emojis.
Turnbull and Shorten continued to talk over each other, debating whose party bore more responsibility for the project’s slow pace and cost.
“The facts are pretty unpleasant, whatever side of politics you’re on,” said Hildebrand, finally moving the candidates on to another question from Facebook about mental health funding.
Then, for a second time, the debate paused to consider the latest online feedback. Standing before an enlarged screen with a live scroll of Facebook comments, Bucklow said Shorten’s appeal to viewers about the NBN had resulted in “like” becoming the most popular reaction.
Bucklow also noted that a number of comments were also coming in about jobs, and he read several of those out loud. The extent of the frustration online was not processed.
The final section of the debate called for Turnbull and Shorten to limit their answers to 60 seconds, but Hildebrand allowed for a lively dialogue around a new Facebook question on marriage equality (the question’s exact wording: “What the hell are we waiting for?”). Both Turnbull and Shorten support same-sex marriage but have different approaches to making it law. An audience question on the affordability of higher education sparked another discussion.
The debate wound down with two more newly added questions from Facebook—one concerning parliamentary perks, and the other on the candidate’s mid-range vision for Australia.
The total question count by the end of the 45-minute debate: Three questions had been submitted to Facebook in advance, four were pulled from Facebook during the debate, and four came from the studio audience.
Winners and Losers
Members of the studio audience voted Shorten the winner, 17-7 (the other six people may have remained undecided). The consensus among political reports and analysts was that Shorten came out ahead, though some thought it was a close call.
David Crowe, a political correspondent for the Australian, wrote that Shorten “got the better of” Turnbull by “using clever tactics and an aggressive message to win the moment.”
Katharine Murphy, who live blogged the debate for The Guardian, said Shorten delivered a “feisty performance”: “a few left hooks, a couple of risks, some high visibility contrast with his opponent, some assertive negativity.”
“But the prime minister didn’t stumble,” she added, “didn’t take any wrong turns, he just followed the battle plan: Keep it tight and tidy, stick with the messages, be reassuring, and all will be well on polling day. Let’s see how that all goes.”
All wasn’t well on polling day. The race was so close that it seemed unlikely at first that the Coalition Party would win enough seats to form a majority government. But almost one week after the July 2 election, Shorten conceded defeat.
Labor’s post-debate tweet didn’t work.
Vote Turnbull you’ll still be buffering #electionin6words
— Australian Labor (@AustralianLabor) June 29, 2016
The Numbers and Beyond
Fifteen minutes into first online leaders’ debate, Facebook showed around 12,400 viewers. The livestream appeared to peak about 30 minutes later, with around 13,400 viewers. When the debate ended, 36,000 comments, 10,000 reactions, and nearly 1,100 shares had been logged.
According to Facebook, the debate had 160,000 views by 8:15 p.m.—a little more than two hours after the start—with a total newsfeed reach that night of 1.6 million.
“If those figures are correct, even if they’re only half correct, it shows that the debate has reached a lot more people than it normally would,” Andrea Carson, a University of Melbourne lecturer in media and politics, told the university’s Election Watch.
The video ultimately reached 800,000 views before the election, along with 40,000 comments and 2,400 shares. A review of the 16,000 reactions reveals 11,000+ likes; 2,400+ angry faces; 1,600+ hearts; 568 laughs; 338 wow’s; and 286 sad faces.
Despite the engagement of Facebook users, Carson noted that more could still be done to increase interaction between the voters and the candidates.
“I think it was a little overhyped about how innovative this would be,” added Carson. “The innovation was being able to reach different audiences but the format wasn’t all that innovative, it was what we’ve seen before with town hall debates.
“I like that format, that’s a good way of broadening it out and making it beyond the gatekeepers, but they didn’t make use of the fact it was live and interactive—they had Joe Hildebrand reading out the questions rather than using a video of the questioner. They still had intermediaries in place.”
Shorten at least recognized these limitations; immediately after the debate, he offered to stick around and answer questions that weren’t selected for the livestream.
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