Twitter has changed the way politicians communicate with voters, former opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull says.


The Coalition’s broadband spokesman joined Australian Greens deputy leader Christine Milne before an audience at Old Parliament House on Thursday to discuss the politics of social media.

The baby-boomer legislators have used the internet to connect with their followers and break down the traditional barriers that usually divide politicians from voters.

They regularly share personal details, with Mr Turnbull offering grooming news on his Maltese terriers and Senator Milne giving progress reports on her garden water feature.

The social networking site Twitter, where tweets are restricted to 140 characters, has also been deployed in the serious business of politics.

Mr Turnbull, who founded internet service provider Ozemail in the early 1990s, is optimistic about its potential.

“Social media has changed political communications and more profoundly than we think,” he said.

“We’ve gone from a world where news communications was controlled by a handful of very powerful gatekeepers … to the point where, really, it is very, very open and diverse.”

When it came to traditional media Mr Turnbull, a former print journalist, feared newspapers were in “terminal decline” as more people consumed their news online.

Senator Milne said the Greens were able to use social media to bypass the mainstream media’s reluctance to give coverage to the minor party.

But politicians can risk becoming celebrities, she said.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd and US President Barack Obama were named as public figures who had disappointed their Twitter followers.

“If you don’t deliver the substance of … the content that matches the profile, then people become disillusioned,” Senator Milne said.

“It was oversell for Kevin 07, and … oversell for Obama.”

The US ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich said the right-wing Tea Party movement in his home country had been very effective in using social media.

But with polls showing up to a fifth of Americans think Mr Obama is Muslim, Mr Bleich was worried about people trusting misinformation they had gleaned from social networking sites.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not everyone’s entitled to their own facts,” he said.

“There is a lot of false information that gets spread around the web and becomes true just by virtue of `I’ve heard it now from three different people’.”

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott accused the traditional media of engaging in “conspirational weirdness” with concocted stories about voters in his Lyne electorate being angered at his decision to back a minority Labor government.

Doha-based Arab news channel Al-Jazeera was the only outlet that had offered to spend a day with him during the past month, he said.

“Every other media outlet is commenting from either Sydney or Canberra about pitchforks in the electorate of Lyne and how the mood on the ground is terrible,” he said.

Mr Oakeshott recently started using Twitter to hit back.