What drives Western politicians to post social media photos of them cooking curry and drinking beer?

Why do politicians often post content that seems strange, offensive or strange? The answer may be an appeal for authenticity – something that has become a valuable currency among politicians, influencers, and the world of social media.

When Australia’s John Howard debuted his first YouTube video as Prime Minister in 2007, he famously began by addressing the audience with “Good morning”.

The gaffe – not realizing that users can view content at any time of day – represents the beginning of an era for Australian politicians on social media, and is colored by naivete and experimentation.

Yet if we check out then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Facebook page ahead of the 2019 and 2022 elections (not to mention his famous “Curry Knight” post), you could be forgiven for thinking that Not much had changed.

Of course, there’s a lot of high-production material on the pages of Morrison and other politicians that reflect their professional personalities – but there are also myriad posts that appear unwritten and unsophisticated.

This may be done intentionally, and there is evidence to show that it is working.

Can we fake authenticity?

Media scholar Gunn Enli argues that her public-facing “authenticity” is a display of sorts for personalities in the media. This thinking suggests that being authentic in the media is something you do Doing you’re the opposite of something Huh,

Theories of authenticity have been used to investigate influencers, reality television, and the presidential election campaign of Barack Obama.

Bisexuality, imperfection and shared “live” experiences are among the range of qualities that Anelli suggests is an authentic performance.

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Behind the scenes photos can make politicians appear more ‘authentic’. Pauline Hanson / Facebook

Strategic engagement with social media platforms has become a major engagement for politicians. but why?

Research has shown that young voters in Australia, the UK and the US want to see politicians who are more authentic and accessible online. So it could be that politicians are taking an approach of authenticity to appeal to younger voters.

Another consideration is that social media often forces campaigners to narrow the scope of their message. It’s hard to explain tax reform nuances in 280 characters on Twitter or diplomatic efforts in 15 seconds on TikTok.

Drawing emotion over logic (known as “gut politics”) can be a strategy for campaigners trying to overcome the constraints of digital platforms.

So does ‘authenticity’ work on social media?

We can measure the success of content characteristics or appeals on social media, such as authenticity, by comparing high-engagement posts against a random sample.

If a particular trait is over-represented in the high-engagement sample, we can infer that it is contributing to its popularity online.

My analysis of social media posts by Australia’s federal party leaders ahead of the 2019 election indicates that this type of authenticity appeal actually gives the post an edge.

Using Enli’s analytic theory, the following graph shows that six of the seven authenticity traits were over-represented in a sample of high-engagement positions. Data was collected from six party leaders: Bill Shorten, Scott Morrison, Clive Palmer, Pauline Hanson, Richard Di Natale and Michael McCormack.

This graph shows the average frequency of authenticity appeals between the random and top engagement samples. ‘Imperfection’ was the only feature that did not feature prominently in high-engagement positions. Cameron McTernan

Of these qualities, “predictive” (meaning how they stay on the brand) and “instant” (use of “live” content) were most frequently observed.

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The biggest difference appeared in “duplicity”. Further examination at a page-by-page level revealed that most of these posts were coming from Palmer’s Page, indicating an abundance of memes among Palmer’s high-engagement posts.

Clive Palmer’s positions are often common to formal political communication. Clive Palmer/Facebook

We can understand authenticity with a set of political communication styles referred to as “gut politics”. Other appeals to visceral politics include “populist” and “originalist” appeals.

Populism promotes a worldview that political elites are depriving the public of their rights. Nativism expresses a worldview that promotes a divide between non-immigrants and migrants.

When I compared the positions measured for traits of populism and nativeism, the opposite was observed. Populist and nationalist appeals made by Australian party leaders found little support.

This would suggest that, in the context of Australian politics, there is less appetite for these kinds of appeals than for authenticity.

The graph shows the average frequency of populist-originalist appeals among samples of random and top engagement positions. Cameron McTernan

But authenticity is a good thing… isn’t it?

Politicians have tried to appear more authentic than ever before with the advent of social media. We can look to former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” as an early example of politicians using media and performance to appear more down to earth.

But is this a good thing for politics and democracy?

Politics comes at the cost of getting politicians to discuss matters that really affect the public. If social media continues to be a major area for political communication, politicians will continue to engineer the content that works best on these platforms. It can mean more political personality, but less political essence.

We also saw this drama on TV ahead of the 2022 Australian federal election, in which the authenticity of Anthony Albanese was challenged by Morrison following a “glow-up” of the former.

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Most recently, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young wore an “And Gas & Cole” dress to a press gallery event—American politician and social media icon Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whose “Tax the Rich” Met Gala dress made headlines everywhere) .)

Research shows that people (especially young people) want more “authentic” politicians. But it may actually be a political literacy issue.

Wanting to act like influencers to politicians may seem only natural to the generation raised on internet media. Memes, selfies and curry nights help us connect with our political leaders, but they don’t help solve the issues that matter most.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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