Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Turnbull announces Australia's first live Facebook debate

Last year Justin Trudeau, now Prime Minister of Canada, broadcast the launch of his campaign using Facebook Live, and livestreamed his party's launch event. Also last year UK political parties made extensive use of Facebook for live online Q&A sessions, speeches and debates.

Now it is Australia's turn, with Malcolm Turnbull announcing today (and Bill Shorten accepting), that the third political leaders' debate of the current Australian federal election would be held on Facebook in partnership with News Corporation.

I'm sure preparations for this announcement have been underway for a little while, however this still marks a momentous step for Australian politics and media, to use a social network for a live, unscripted, public debate.

At this stage it appears the debate will be held using Facebook Live, a relatively new livestream video platform that has already been extremely successful in building usage and viewership.

The platform, which Facebook launched after live video rivals such as Google Hangouts on Air, YouTube Live, Meercat, Periscope or Blab had all entered the market, has proven to be more stable and well developed than many of its rivals and with its strong API support has allowed third party companies to begin developing additional functionality and specialised hardware to a much greater extent than even Google's Hangouts on Air.

Facebook Live also received an enormous marketing boost last month due to the efforts of an otherwise unknown US lady, Candace Payne, who created a five minute Live video of herself laughing in her car wearing a wookie mask.

Now popularly known as the 'Wookie Woman', Candace has received over 155 million views of her video, making it the most popular on Facebook Live, with extensive coverage and all-expenses paid trips to Facebook and Disney HQs - even meeting the actor who plays Chewbacca.

Science fiction aside, the step to hold the first live Facebook public debate is as momentus for Australian politics as the first televised US Presidential debate was in the US.

While many further debates are likely to be held using 20th century technology - in RSL clubs and television studios, we are likely to see a further shift to digital debating at all levels of politics now that the door to the 21st century is open.

On this point it is important to consider that one of the major changes when television became the primary means for political speechifying and debates was that a different style of politician became successful. Television worked for Kennedy, who was otherwise a relatively unknown Senator, and put the nails into Nixon's re-election coffin because Kennedy presented much better and was clearly comfortable and effective using the medium while Nixon was ill-at-ease. In fact this first televised debate was widely seen as a gamechanger for US politics.

Similarly the current US President, Barack Obama, was notable in his first Presidential campaign for his effective use of online tools to build his profile, his grassroots organisation and his campaign treasury while the then leading Democratic candidate (Hilary Clinton) was wedded to traditional media and approaches. He used this momentum to far outstrip the Republican nominee, and repeated the trick during his re-election.

I don't know if Turnbull and Shorten yet realize how significant this online debate may be for either of their party's campaigns for election. If either leader clearly shines in their use of the medium, they may be able to build an unassailable lead in the campaign. If either appears outdated or inarticulate while answering live questions from the public, they could lose the election for their side in a few moments.

Regardless of the outcome of this live online debate, the likelihood is that politicians of all stripes and all Australian jurisdictions should now begin ups killing themselves on the qualities that will make them stand out and be effective in live online debates - qualities different to those needed even on the other highly visible mediums of television and live town halls.

Politicians who cannot adapt, like Nixon and many of his peers at the beginning of the TV era, will find themselves increasingly on the backfoot and struggling to compete against the upcoming crop of social media native politicians, who willingly and effectively engage with the public through services like Facebook Live, Blab, Periscope and other emerging livestream video , audio and text platforms.

By the way -  anyone who was listening to 2UE in Sydney or online this afternoon may have heard me talking about this online debate with Tim Webster on his show at about 2:30pm - you may be able to catch it later online at 2ue.com.au

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