12 million Australians logged into Facebook every day in August. 16 million Australians were enrolled and eligible to vote in August.
With these numbers of Australians logging into Australia’s most dominant social media platform each day, could social media be responsible for the impending result in the Marriage Law Postal Survey?
As someone who identifies as gay and is a daily social media user, Tahan Ellicott believes this may be so. “I do think there were a lot more actually voting yes purely because of social media,” he said.
“In saying that, it can be as dangerous as it is helpful.”
With the expansive reach of social networks including everyday people, famous personalities, media sources and business, social media has allowed all parties to join in on the conversation every Australian was having: ‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’
Michelle Webb, a social media manager from Australian social media marketing agency The Defectors, puts this down to social media being “how everyone communicates – particularly young people.
“This is why the same sex marriage debate has been so loud on social media as young people generally use it as a means to be vocal and engage with issues and their interests.”
This role of social media as a medium for open discussion on the topic of marriage equality in Australia and the LGBTQ+ community is one that is not particularly new. However, just how big a role it can play in these areas was immediately put to the test when the Australian Government announced the question would go to a voluntary postal vote and Australians were given two weeks to check their enrolment to get involved.
Immediately, media publications, online personalities and even just everyday users took to their social media profiles to spread the message and remind their social connections – particularly young unenrolled voters – to check their enrolment.
More than 98,000 people were added to the roll in this time; of which 65,000 were aged 18 to 24.
Ellicott explained, “Young people are more likely to vote yes and young people are more likely to be on social media. So, I think social media played a huge role in encouraging young people to vote in this survey even when they usually may not vote.”
Following this campaign success, the focus then shifted to the “YES” and “NO” campaigns. “Suddenly my news feed was all rainbows and ‘YES!’ which is great but then you see the other side, the ‘NO’ side, and people starting to get hateful.”
How everyone got involved
Ellicott explained how the discussion became so large as it moved away from being a decision being made by our politicians, to the people. “… everyone has been somehow engaging with the debate and consuming the content. Even just ‘liking’ a post about the debate now kind of makes you a part of it.”
Beyond being heard through a ‘like’ on Facebook, users have been able to make their voices heard in as many ways as social media has allowed. From posting their voting forms on Instagram Stories, filming themselves slipping their envelope into the post box on Snapchat to sharing their commentary and values on Facebook.
“I’m 70 yrs old,I would give my life to see my beautiful granddaughter marry the love of her life. She is my pride & joy as well as my best friend,” shared a commenter on Australian Marriage Equality’s Facebook page, a key social media campaigner for the ‘YES’ campaign.
While use of viral hashtags have made it easy for all social users to show their side and encourages sharing, such as #PostYourYes, #LoveIsLove or #SayNo. Webb says these hashtags and viral campaign efforts are “little easy ways for anyone to involved with and bite-sized to consume while keeping the message simple.”
While perhaps most significant has been the role of memes as a means of reaching people in a humorous way, particularly younger users.
Rose Jackson is the assistant general secretary of the NSW Labor party and leader of the NSW Left faction who’s Facebook page has been posting memes about the vote with large engagement. Jackson told the HuffPost that, “Digital campaigning, including tools like memes, are part of the new language of political campaigning.”
All of these aspects have been an easy way for voters to engage with the debate, however each side of the debate has seen the drawbacks to such wide discussion. As Ellicott puts it, “I think the Yes campaigners have been a lot louder … so, a lot of No voters feel attacked sometimes and this can lead to hate … which can be hard to read and hurtful for many, especially for the gay community.”
Regardless of these “drawbacks,” freelance journalist and blogger at Scripted Laces, Ashley Nair, still believes that it “shows how involved we can be as a country.”
“It makes you feel like you’re a part of this huge shift that has been a long time coming.”
How the publishers got involved
Nair believes this communicative aspect is important to media consumers as well as media publishers as many publications are increasingly relying on social media to disseminate their content and drive engagement.
“We’re then seeing a lot of content being made with social media engagement in mind.” For example, pop culture medium Pedestrian using memes or GIFs in their content or slang terms in headlines that originate in social media is using what “drives engagement” from their younger audience.
But has this drive for engagement undermined basic journalistic ethics of impartiality?
The ABC’s editorial policy manager, Mark Maley, sent a warning to employees against voicing their own opinions about marriage equality, particularly on social media. This came shortly after high profile journalist and Lateline host Emma Alberici Tweeted about the same-sex marriage issue as being an “indictment.”
“In this charged environment, I would also urge everyone to be circumspect on social media – advocating for one side or the other will make it more difficult for the ABC to be seen as impartial,” Maley wrote in the statement obtained by Mumbrella.
While these values are vital to ABC internal policy, Nair says that for “progressive” mediums competing in the digital sphere are increasingly making their positions on issues known so as to “align with their readers.”
In taking this duty seriously, publications Pedestrian, Broadsheet Media, FBI Radio, Junkee and Vice banded together to “make an almighty noise about a singular issue.
“… that means we’re blacking out our respective social channels and sites to make it very clear the time is now for you, the youth of Australia, to take action and enrol or update your details for the upcoming postal vote on marriage equality.”
With their readers being the youth relying more on these social and digital channels and those more likely not to be enrolled to vote, these publications aligned their roles in their readers lives and acted on it. When looking at the huge numbers of younger enrolments, it’s easy to see how these initiatives have been effective.
However, any of these initiatives and campaigns by publications or those with high profiles often walked a fine line between receiving huge back-lash or receiving wide applause.
How online personalities got involved
Mia Freedom used her high profile and publication Mamma Mia to start a viral Twitter campaign using the hashtag ‘#married4marriageequality’. The campaign called on straight married women to share photographs of their ring in solidarity with same sex couples.
Freedom received backlash on social media for being “tone-deaf,” as one Twitter user posted in response.
Forthcoming Mamamia campaigns: Hand out photos of your house to the homeless! Txt a widow a picture of your living spouse with a thumbs up!
— Jess McGuire🌈 (@jessmcguire) August 8, 2017
“Only Mia Freedman can make marriage equality about straight already married women,” read another Tweet. While Australian comedian and gay activist Josh Thomas used his following on Twitter to generate conversation through his viral hashtag ‘’#TheyGetToVote”. This encouraged users to share the “homophobic abuse you’ve received or witnessed” and was received a lot better than Feedman’s.
New hashtag: #TheyGetToVote. Where you say the homophobic abuse you’ve received or witnessed and remind the ‘no’ people what team the are on
— Josh Thomas 🌈 (@JoshThomas87) September 13, 2017
Michelle Webb points out that in creating campaigns of this kind it’s important not to trivialise the issue through “social media marketing and tactics that can just look like a way to market yourself or make things about yourself.”
While vloggers and shareable video content using humour, parody, satire, emotive stories or visualisation techniques allows these personalities and publications to also spread their message.
This is something that Ellicott has found important as “a lot of people follow social media personalities, quite religiously… [and] there are a lot of personalities out there with a diverse viewer base engaging with their content and listening their voice.”
How our businesses got involved
While brands and businesses are also similarly creating campaigns or sharing their endorsements on social media whether it be changing their profile pictures or logos to incorporate the Yes symbol of the rainbow or simply sharing a post making a stance.
As a social media manager, Michelle Webb had clients approach her about endorsing their support for the Yes campaign on their social channels.
“We had to think quite hard about the correct way to do it so the brand didn’t look like it was just joining in as a marketing tactic, but we still had to also remain on brand. Some companies like Absolut and Skyy Vodka did awesome campaigns but we tried to keep it as simple as a rainbow logo and a banner essentially saying the brand supported same-sex marriage.”
In terms of receiving negative feedback, these brands didn’t, however many brands did. For example, a Magnum advert showing their support for same-sex marriage received feedback on Facebook such as “How about just promoting your product and not getting involved in politics… At least now when I feel like an ice cream one less decision to make….”
Ellicott however appreciates the support from these brands and believes that “regardless of a company’s intention as long as they support marriage equality then it can only have positive repercussions.”
While the social network companies themselves have also been taking steps into facilitating this conversation.
“One of the most stand-out things I’ve seen is the Facebook profile photo frames,” Ellicott said. The partnership between Marriage Equality Australia and Facebook allows users to attach a frame to their profile photo reading “I [heart] Marriage Equality” or “I vote YES” to show support.
AME’s campaign director, Erin McCallum told The Guardian that these frames were “just a really simple and easy way for people to show their support for marriage equality,” keeping the community together and engaged in a simple, authentic way.
While Twitter partnered with AME to launch a special Emoji for Australian users as “Since 1 August, marriage equality has been the most-discussed political issue on Twitter in Australia,” an official Twitter statement read.
“Twitter has been a vital platform to facilitate Australians having millions of conversations about marriage equality during the postal survey. Through Twitter, people have shared stories of hope for an Australia that truly celebrates fairness and equality for all.”
While other social media companies such as Tinder, Grindr, Google and LinkedIn have also pledged their support for same-sex marriage.
How it adds up
With this huge assortment of Australian companies, brands, personalities and influences, media publications and, perhaps most importantly, all active users on these social media networks all discussing and engaging with the same topic, it is obvious how the issue has “blown up” on social media, according to Webb.
“It’s interesting because the support for same-sex marriage has always been a lot louder on social media but more so since the announcement of the postal vote. And it social media is definitely not the only influence and nor can we say it changed so many minds, but it is interesting to see how vocal so many parties have been on one particular issue.”
Dubbed “bigger than Brexit” by ABC election analyst Anthony Green, the significantly high participation of three in four Australians voting in the voluntary survey is high by international standards, showing how large the issue is to Australians. Many polls have suggested that the Yes vote is leading.
The final result will be released November 15.