In the past, Scott Morrison has used his pulpit as prime minister to tell Australians not to get their news from social media platforms like Facebook. But strangely, the Prime Minister has had a change of heart and is now making important public announcements about Australia’s lagging vaccine rollout exclusively on the platform.
It seems like only yesterday that Scott Morrison was telling people to ignore medical information spread on Facebook.
“Always go to the official voice, always go to your doctor, always go to the medical advice, not to social media,” he said at a press conference in December in response to a question about the COVID-19 misinformation spread on social media.
This is a puzzling message from a government that uses social media to get public health messages out, something that is recommended by public health experts.
Even more recently, Morrison doubled down by citing social media as one of the major “degraders of respect”.
Which is why the Australian prime minister’s pivot to Facebook has been notable.
While Morrison has used Facebook as the sole platform for announcements before — specifically a late night apology to Sky News for falsely accusing them of having an HR complaint against them — the Prime Minister has unusually used Facebook for two separate announcements about vaccines this week.
The first, on April 11, said that the government no longer would set targets for vaccines doses to be administered this year. “It is not possible to set such targets given the many uncertainties involved,” a post to his Facebook account read.
Aside from the disappointing roll-out, pundits also noted his choice of format.
Political reporting doyen Samantha Maiden said it was problematic. “This is a significant statement it needs to be there on the PM’s website for record. This business of releasing somethings on Facebook is an issue,” she tweeted.
Morrison doubled-down on this approach, however, with a Facebook live video defending the government’s vaccine rollout.
Scott Morrison is giving a vaccine update right now on Facebook, in a live video
watch here: https://t.co/qx99eF91jS
claims at the end of the year, vaccine numbers will "ramp up" – "rather than setting targets… we're just getting on with it" pic.twitter.com/EFlhhqg3Vg
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) April 12, 2021
It’s an interesting decision that diverges from the Prime Minister’s usual method of holding press conferences, releasing press releases and doing direct interviews with the press. So why is he doing it?
Some have speculated that it’s to drop disappointing news in a way that attracts the least attention possible.
Morrison has one of the biggest Facebook reaches out of any Australian politician. This week, he’s only behind Craig Kelly and neck-and-neck with Anastascia Palaszczuk in total total number of interactions, despite posting much less frequently. His live video was viewed around 50,000 times — not a massive number but not tiny either.
It also hasn’t evaded attention from the media either. Mainstream media outlets have republished the text and video posts to their audience.
What posting through social media allows the Prime Minister to do, however, is to talk directly to his audience without having to contend with it being interpreted through the framing of critical journalists. Media outlets can still use it, but they don’t get the same access to prod and probe Morrison over the expectations he set for the vaccine’s rollout.
Politicians using social media to communicate directly with voters is hardly groundbreaking. What is different is the Prime Minister’s choice to do so during a pandemic when there’s an imperative to inform as many people as possible about public health measures. It’s telling that Morrison decided to turn to this as soon as things started to go pear-shaped.