I wrote a piece recently questioning whether the rise of social media has been a positive or negative for our overall levels of political engagement. The idea for that post came from the general level of ambivalence to a recent election in my home state, and how that same sense of lessened political impact seemed to be pervading through social networks and online conversations. The question, really, was about whether giving the audience more specific control over their news inputs would mean we they would actively tune-out content that was of little interest, and whether political news would suffer as a result.
My findings in that investigation were that social media is not necessarily lessening political engagement, but that political parties do need to consider where and how the audience is interacting in order to keep them engaged and maximise the potential of their messaging. In large part, it seems many political organisations have not advanced their communications and outreach strategies in-line with the social media communications shift, and as such, they’re not reaching their audiences as effectively – a concern that will exacerbate as the next generation of digital natives move into more politically and socially aware phases of their lives. Failing to reach them on the platforms where they are most active will lead to political failure – the numbers do indicate that political campaigns that had received traction in social media were significantly more impactful and ensured wider awareness of local political issues.
In order to extend this further, I decided to investigate political and news engagement based on Google search trends – the news stories people are seeking to learn more about via online search. While not definitive, Google search patterns can provide a indicative measure of the public ‘pulse’, the issues of most relevance to any given region. By looking at what we’re searching for, I hoped to get an idea of what issues were gaining the traction amongst Australian internet users and build an understanding of what that means for how we communicate and engage with digitally savvy audiences. What I found was both obvious and enlightening, in equal measure.
What People Want to Know
To start with, I wanted to get an idea of internet news trends, of the stories have gained the most traction over time. My suspicion was that by looking through the most popular Google searches, year-on-year, I’d find that we are, indeed, far less politically engaged or news driven overall, as I suspected the charts would be increasingly filled with searches for Justin Bieber and One Direction as time went on. That wasn’t the case – the above chart looks at the most popular Google queries globally. I shaded each topic in a colour – blue for tech, pink for entertainment, orange for news and current affairs and green for sport. As you can see, if anything, people are searching for news content more than ever in the last few years, which suggests the interest in news and current affairs is still strong, or at least on par with gossip and entertainment.
What I also found interesting was that tech queries on Google went way up in the mid-to-late 2000’s, dominating search in 2006-07, but have died down since. Now, given the growth of social media since then, I don’t think this suggests people have become any less engaged in tech – I think it’s more likely that this exemplifies a change in search behaviour. These days, you’re much less likely to go to Google to search for ‘Facebook’ because everyone knows where to find it. Everyone accesses it through apps or links – social media and apps are definitely more prevalent now than they were in 2007, but the way we come to them has changed. That behavioural shift is indicative of the larger trend of how search is being used – it’s hard to say people are searching for news content more frequently in 2014, despite these numbers, because the way people come across news content online has totally changed.
In any event, looking at global trends only forms part of the overall picture – news stories that are relevant to people in Australia might be totally irrelevant on a global scale. Breaking down the search to a regional level would provide more indicative insight into how politically engaged Australians are.
First, I looked up the trending Google searches for Australia over the last four years. What was most interesting about this is how few local news stories made the cut – the mentions of ‘RFS’ and ‘AEC’ in 2013 are related to bushfires and elections, and the mention of ‘MyGov’ in 2014 is news related, but the rest is dominated by entertainment. This suggests that maybe we’re not seeking more information on important local issues, but then maybe, I thought, generic search is probably not the most indicative measure of news engagement. I switched the analysis to searches conducted in Google News instead – the news stories Australians have been seeking more information on in that same time period.
Again, not much local content in that list – I highlighted the local stories specifically to better exemplify the data. As you can see, we searched for ‘Julia Gillard’ and ‘Qantas’ in 2011, ‘Mysogynist’ is related to Gillard also in 2012, and we have the ‘Melbourne earthquake’, but outside of that it’s all world news. The most searched for news content by Australians is rarely even about Australia – which is concerning, considering the impact local news issues have on our day-to-day lives. The question is, are we paying more attention to global news to the detriment of local issues?
The Currency of Clicks
Here’s the thing: there’s been much angst in recent times about the negative affect online media is having on journalism, and the quality of journalism in general. Just recently, Edelman published a study on modern media consumption and part of their findings were that 75% of journalists now feel more pressure to think about their story’s potential to get shared on social platforms. Whether you like it or not, the media economy is now driven by the currency of clicks – the website that gets more traffic, makes more money, and those signals, the stories that are generating clicks, are now being used to decide what stories get covered and what gets more attention. You see this every night in the evening news, there’s far more entertainment and gossip type stories making it into the news feed because that’s the content that’s generating clicks online. News outlets want to provide the audiences with what they want, therefore more of this content, of arguably lesser news-relevance, is being reported.
In considering this, and looking at the Google search data, what I think we’re seeing is the effect of a more connected global community. Social networks have provided us with unprecedented access to the global conversation – just last week, I tuned in and watched a building fire in Brooklyn being streamed live via Periscope. The connection is immediate, we’re more connected to the wider world than ever before, but as a result, our attention may be being dominated by global stories, while local issues fade into the background. To clarify this further, I sought to match up Australia’s news search habits with those of other nations to see whether we, as a smaller news nation, are seeing less local content than others.
A Question of Relevance
Using Google Trends, I looked up the most searched terms in Google News – Australia for the past 6 years. As you can see, the local issues (pink) were still not largely prevalent, with world news dominating in 2014.
I then compared that to the US:
Local news searches in pink.
Now, it makes sense, to a degree, that there would be more local news stories searched in the US, as many of these stories are of international relevance. But have a look at the political discussion in America. Politics features prominently, a lot more prominently than it does in the Australian topics.
In the UK, political issues also feature, though their news searches are dominated by sport, particularly in the latter years. But even when it is sport, that’s still local discussion, something largely absent from Australia’s news searches. For comparison, I charted the mentions of local news from each region:
Comparatively, the volume of local news searches in Australia is well down on the US and UK, especially when you add-in local sport as an extension of local news content. What this suggests is that we are, in fact, becoming more global in our approach to news – which is undoubtedly a good thing, greater global awareness leads to increased understanding overall. But our newfound connectedness with the global conversation may mean we’re becoming less engaged with the not-so-shiny, less attractive, more boring local news content. But those local issues need our attention and interest.
Relevance vs Popularity
So let’s say this is indicative, that we’re losing the local audience on the news and current affairs issues of significant relevance to them and their day-to-day lives. What then? What can we do to address the regional news attention deficit? The stories that people are clicking on and searching for are the ones they’re interested in, that engage them, so how can we make local politics or societal concerns more popular? This is a question that all political groups need to be considering – in no way should issues be made more divisive or sexy through artificial means, but there is a legitimate concern that local issues are going to receive less and less attention over time, and that’s incredibly bad news for the advancement and improvement of our immediate surroundings. Political groups need to be working to integrate social media and social media communications into their overall mix, into reaching their audiences where they increasingly are. Many are doing this, there’s a whole range of politicians who are actively engaged on social platforms, but there’s a definitive need for politicians to be using social media to connect with their audiences and increase awareness of issues. If the public loses interest in politics, we lose in general – we need our elected officials and leaders to be representing the views and interests of the wider community, and to be relating their messages back to the people in the methods and means they are most engaging with.
While only one part of the puzzle, the Google trends shown here indicate local news engagement is slipping. There’s no definitive answer as to how to combat this, but it’s a question all communicators should be considering – if global news items are dominating attention, how do we tell stories that raise attention and awareness among our audiences? How do we ensure important local issues remain at the height of public interest?