An algorithm is a mathematical measure used in computerised data-crunching to calculate and to solve problems, and we have entered the age of algorithmic politics.
On Tuesday, when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull contentiously opted for a social media Facebook debate rather than a Sky News/Courier Mail people’s forum with Labor leader Bill Shorten in Queensland, it confirmed that this new force is shaping the election campaign.
“It will engage millions of Australians,” Mr Turnbull declared, rather than the limited audiences who tuned into the first pay TV Sky News and free-to-air ABC debate broadcasts so far.
According to the data crunchers, real-time analytics are being deployed to track clicks on all social media and eyeballs beamed on multi-platform political advertising second-by-second.
This builds the data sets from which algorithms become devastatingly useful in gauging sentiment, mood or voter resistance and ultimately to devise vote-changing incentives.
Trending topics, daily impressions
Trending social media topics last week were reported to be ‘jobs’, ‘Tony Abbott’ and ‘tax cuts’.
The social media campaign is about to step up to a much greater intensity as the electorate starts absentee postal voting and to actually think about the decision voters have to make by July 2.
When daily impressions on political messages, videos and ads start to fall off after initial intense interest, new messages and creative content can be interposed based on the algorithms.
Analysts now can track daily sentiment about Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten and the positive and negative perceptions about them.
Inside the political parties messages are matched with electoral roll street-by-street, house-by-house identification of each registered marginal seat voter. Once pinpointed each one can become precisely targeted by age, gender and occupation and any social media engagement.
Sky News, ABC digitally disrupted
In rejecting an ultimatum from Sky News and The Courier-Mail to front a people’s forum, Mr Turnbull revealed the Coalition had now agreed with Facebook and News.com.au for an online debate with Mr Shorten next week.
“It is traditional to have three debates, so let’s have the third one in an innovative way. This is the time of innovation,” Mr Turnbull said.
Also apparently thwarted at this stage is the ABC’s Q&A program with its presenter Tony Jones on Monday issuing both a challenge and an invitation to Mr Turnbull to face the politically balanced Q&A audience on one of the remaining Mondays before polling day.
“Prime Minister, Q&A is ready when you are,” Mr Jones said.
After Mr Turnbull was considered to have come off second best or at least dead-heated with Mr Shorten in the first two debates, his change of debating tactics seem explicable.
Why give Bill Shorten another free kick?
Now watch how the algorithms try to capture this contest.
Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He is a veteran of the ABC newsroom and has worked with a number of print titles including theSydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism.