“For the first time ever, we’re making the election entertaining,” went the headline to Joe Hildebrand’s column about his selection as moderator for the third leaders’ debate, able to be broadly summarised as “Why me?”.
Much was made of this debate’s point of difference: that it would be broadcast live on Facebook, for the first time in the history of Australian politics. (Also on Sky, for the second time this campaign.) That alone, Hildebrand and others seemed to suggest, would make it “fun”.
It was as though their experience of social media was as a place to dip into to be reminded of Simpsons episodes or distant family members.
“It’s online, it’s fresh, it’s youth-oriented,” said Hildebrand, perched on a stool between Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten in front of a small audience of voters in marginal seats and news.com.au journalists at Facebook’s headquarters in Sydney. (Guardian Australia’s request to sit in on the debate was firmly refused: “Sorry, impossible.”)
But Facebook not only distracts from “the real world”, it reflects it – and as the leaders went like-for-like for 75 minutes, the prevailing sentiment of the online audience was anger. You could tell from the constant flow of furrowed red faces passing over the bottom third of the screen.
The other options on offer from Facebook’s reactions? “Like”, “love”, “haha”, “yay”, “wow”, or “sad”. In the absence of a “dislike” button, “angry” had to do.
According to the on-screen metrics, the Facebook Live broadcast on news.com.au’s page peaked at about 13,500 users. Though it also screened on Sky News, the real-time reaction from the audience was purported to give the online debate its edge.
But what was communicated in the comments appearing below the feed faster than they could be captured was all the cynicism and silliness of the internet.
“Medicare is lit fam”
“Give me $1000 pls”
“I want ferrari”
One comment was made again and again: “Buffering.”
Earlier, Hildebrand had joked he’d felt like he was “at the movies” as he edged down the rows of the live audience. At home, following along on Facebook Live, the experience was far from cinematic. More than once, a spinning “wheel of death” appeared over Turnbull’s face – though the stream of angry faces continued unabated.
The comments suggested the problem was widespread. Attempting to interact with those comments, or switch between tabs, also caused the feed to freeze – sort of undermining the benefits of broadcasting online.
“Seems okay on 4G,” commented one viewer. “But I’m not gonna waste all my data on this.”
News.com.au received close to 3,000 suggested questions from Facebook users in the leadup to the debate – another element that Hildebrand had suggested would make this debate not only more democratic but more entertaining. (The two so often go hand in hand.)
It would be “forthright, fearless and fun” because it would be driven not by the boring old press and pollies but by “the people”, he wrote on Thursday, probably thinking about Duncan Storrar.
“This is not the press gallery you’re talking to, this is real people,” he warned Shorten and Turnbull in his plea for a “slogan-free zone”. “Quite frankly, they don’t take any crap.”
The first question, from a Facebook user, was blunt. “Given the number of changes of PM in the last five years or so, and the number of lies and backflipping by both major parties, why is it that the Australian people should trust anything a politician says?”
Turnbull fitted 10 slogans (“a clear decision”; “economic plan”; “stronger economic growth and more jobs”; “living within our means”; “not a glossy brochure”; “the most exciting times”; “opportunities … and challenges”; “innovation”; “backing business”; “clear plan”) and one nut (macadamia) in his 90-second response.
The experience was of two people talking over the top of each other in one room, and several thousand people doing the same somewhere else, sometimes about the same things. Attempts to integrate the two conversations were limited to the pre-selected questions crowdsourced on Facebook – not unprecedented for a debate – and occasional check-ins with Andrew Bucklow, a news.com.au staffer tasked with reporting back on the reaction.
There wasn’t even any more specific a hashtag than #ausvotes and #auspol promoted to corral the conversation on Twitter.
Shorten made the only play for the viewers online, asking them to “press ‘like’ if you prefer fibre to copper”, which was met with a little flurry of approval, despite being an oddly specific question to put to the Facebook masses. Perhaps they just wanted to see what any other reaction than “angry” looked like on screen. (Shorten was later named the winner by the studio audience.)
“The most popular reaction was ‘like’,” said Bucklow at the end of that segment. “That was followed by anger, though.”
In an earlier attempt to cajole viewers into posting a comment, he’d said people “all over this building” were monitoring the thread below the video: “I promise someone will see it.”
More than 37,000 comments were made below the Facebook Live broadcast. One question that didn’t get put to the leaders was buried by others before it could even raise the likes it deserved.
“What can the major parties do to improve my social life so I don’t spend Friday night at home on Facebook watching this?”
• The entire Facebook Live broadcast can be viewed on news.com.au’s Facebook page
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010