| GEO Amazing and Interesting|
Granny tweets as Oz voters embrace social media
| Updated at: 1040 PST, Tuesday, August 17, 2010|
SYDNEY: Grandmother Lesley Dewar is an unlikely hit in Australia's election campaign with 12,350 people following her 140-character political reflections on Twitter.
The retired financial planner, 66, began using the microblogging site two years ago, and the prolific pensioner is now ranked among the top 100 most influential Tweeters in Australia's 2010 election campaign.
Her closest competitors are political journalists and news sites, the ruling Labor party, members of parliament and The Economist magazine, according to the BuzzElection media monitoring site.
"I took to it like a duck to water," Dewar said after amassing more than 41,000 tweets.
"The thing I absolutely love about Twitter is that you can actually talk to people all over the world on an enormous range of topics."
Dewar is one of Australia's one million Tweeters and nine million Facebook users who turn to social media to let off steam on issues that engage or enrage -- near cyber-saturation for a population of just 22 million.
But are the leaders -- Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her conservative opponent Tony Abbott --- listening?
Labor took to the Internet with fervour during the 2007 election, using YouTube and other tools to muster support online for the first time in Australian political history.
But rather than capitalise on the momentum and extend their reach into new platforms like Twitter, both parties are retreating from the Internet in a bid to stay on message and limit their exposure to criticism, analysts say.
"I think that both parties have adopted this small target strategy," said expert Axel Bruns from the Queensland University of Technology.
"We saw some interesting use of YouTube for videos (in 2007). And the Labor Party in particular used it to show that they're more modern than the Liberals. This election it seems to have had less of an impact," Bruns said.
The public broadcaster, ABC, has for the first time included social media tracking -- what people are saying about the election and how popular the leaders and parties are -- in its "Campaign Pulse" election monitoring site.
It also has a live Twitter feed into its popular Q&A television debate programme where viewers can ask politicians questions and vent their spleen on the issues.
An ABC spokeswoman said the broadcaster wanted to tap into the growing popularity of social media in Australia and engage with the grassroots democracy it offered.
"It gives people a place to be involved, and not just leave it to the experts," she said.
But Bruns said it was a case of one-way traffic for Australia's parliamentarians, who saw Facebook and other platforms as public relations noticeboards rather than dynamic tools of engagement.
"Engaging in social media, you really have to talk with people ... to be seen as participating in the space effectively," Bruns said.
"Of course, they all have Facebook pages now, but there's not much happening. Just having followers doesn't really do much for you. You've got to have something to say."
Journalist and academic Julie Posetti agrees.
"The politicians themselves -- at least the leaders -- are taking a very cautious and safe approach to social media, that I think is quite counterproductive," said Posetti.
Both Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, and the combative Abbott are recent converts to Twitter, and Posetti said their efforts to engage have been token.
"Abbott's following is less than half that of Gillard, but he doesn't follow anyone back," she said.
"And Gillard's only following half the constituents back who are following her."
The leaders' failure to assert themselves in the social media sphere has left both Gillard and Abbott open to a rash of satirical Facebook groups and fake Twitter accounts whose popularity often dwarfs their own.
While Abbott's official Facebook group has more than 11,850 fans, another group, "Friends don't let friends vote for Tony Abbott," has almost nine times as many followers.
Other popular anti-Abbott pages include "Is Tony Abbott an orc?" -- a dig at the opposition leader's appearance -- and "Can this sanitary napkin get more fans than Tony Abbott?" which has nearly succeeded in its objective.
Gillard's party is also widely ridiculed online for its plans to introduce a mandatory filter of the Internet, with tens of thousands of members of "anti-Clean Feed" groups.
Like most western countries, Australia has an ageing population, with a median age of 36.9, and 13.3 percent of the population aged 65 and over, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Tweet-happy Dewar believes older Australians may be reluctant to embrace social media due to concerns about a perceived lack of privacy, but Bruns said there is evidence this is changing.
"We do see -- particularly on Twitter -- that the demographics are actually more early middle age than necessarily young," he said.
"And certainly on Facebook now we have quite a broad range of the electorate who are participating."
Campaign Pulse pits traditional measures of popularity such as opinion polls alongside against barometers rating popularity -- Hot or Not -- from what's being said online. But can it predict the outcome?
"It's an open question: we can track a lot about what people are doing ... and if we aggregate it all together, (the leaders) are neck and neck," Bruns said.
"It will be interesting to see whether those sorts of trends are ultimately replicated by the final result."