How Daniel Andrews’ social media army tries to control what you see and think

"Insiders say messages came from Jessie McCrone – the premier’s deputy chief of staff."

[Source: The Herald Sun]

When Daniel Andrews was nearing a return to work following a horror back injury this year, Labor MPs were sent a message.

It came via the premier’s parliamentary secretary, Oakleigh MP Steve Dimopoulos, on encrypted messenger service WhatsApp.
Dimopoulos said a statement about Dan’s first day back was about to be released and it would be good to give it some love online.

“It basically asked people to express their excitement about Dear Leader’s return,” one source said.
The point, the MP said, was to try to manufacture a mood across Victoria by starting with a few loyal supporters.
While “Dimo” is charged with sending messages to caucus shortly before statements are issued, insiders say they really come from Jessie McCrone – the premier’s deputy chief of staff.
McCrone, with input from chief of staff Lissie Ratcliff and media director Sabina Husic, oversees social media and the relentless cultivation and nurturing of Andrews’s image.
Labor sources say the team fervently believes – as do most MPs – that social media was a critical component of the party’s 2018 state election victory.

“It’s a direct channel.
Continuity of messages in one thing but the channel for communicating is another,” one senior ALP figure said.


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“They put a lot of money into it.”
On Facebook, the premier has nearly one million followers.

Slick marketing of the premier, which began when Labor was in opposition early last decade, has developed into a massive operation including careful testing of phrases and language.
Last year, with Andrews under siege over his handling of the pandemic, supporters rallied to offset inevitable negative media.

The hashtag “istandwithdan” soon popped up on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other sites.
Several MPs aligned with Andrews said they wouldn’t be surprised if the hashtag was workshopped by the Premier’s Private Office – or “PPO” – but only a handful of people would know.
One Labor insider said whether the PPO created the hashtag or not, it quickly capitalised on its power and reach.

The insider said the premier’s team was obsessed with social media to help find “a language that resonates with certain people”.
This includes groups of progressives as well as middle class women who are “very important” electorally.

“He (Andrews) is extremely crude and harsh. You would never get that sense from public utterances or his social media,” the insider said.
The carefully crafted image also helps to offset negative perceptions.

“That (manufactured image) is there even when you see a narky man on the TV at night.”

“These are people they have cultivated over a long time.
They cross over electorates, they cross over issues, and they are remarkably uncritical of him.

“It’s calculated, it’s researched, the reach of certain messages are tested.”

A quick scroll of Andrews’s social media posts shows different themes for different media.
While the premier never initiates these concepts, people around him say he builds on them in his own way
“Anything to do with soft values, LGBTQI, family violence – any time you think he sounds like a soft, progressive, enlightened man, the kernel of that has been given to him and he has buffed and polished it in his own way,” the insider said.
While opponents and detractors called him “Dictator Dan” during the pandemic, supporters were furiously praising the premier’s every action.
Labor MPs and figures say this wasn’t a co-ordinated campaign through “bots” but of people who reiterate messages without question after becoming followers and effective disciples of Dan via social media.
“It’s just propaganda that’s rolled out every single day, on very popular programs.”

“The closest Cabinet gets to it is Jessie (McCrone) gives a report about the success of our work on social media.
It might talk about a minister but it inevitably shows the reach of messages on things that Daniel spoke about that week.”

If the team can get things trending a certain way, this can shift the dynamic of how many people view an issue, according to PPO.
Another insider said this technique was not necessarily new, but the way it was done was important.

“Dan’s office uses (social media) as an engagement tool, others use it as a billboard. Using it as a billboard doesn’t work.”
The centralised control of everything within the Andrews Government by the PPO is recognised by all MPs and senior bureaucrats, with one describing it as “a military style operation”.
Ministers routinely decline to comment about important issues in their portfolio because getting PPO approvals to participate would be a nightmare.

Few argue that centralisation has not worked – largely due to the political brain of Andrews.
“I’ve never seen anyone like Andrews, in all the decades I’ve been at this,” one senior MP said.

Another Labor figure said the command and control became evident when the chips were down during the pandemic, with Andrews taking over daily press conferences.
No one else provided clashing narratives, especially when it came to hotel quarantine blunders.

When they did – such as when chief health officer Professor Sutton shared information on second wave cases beyond the premier’s team – they were put in the “deep freeze”.
“That’s the nature of government now, with the 24/7 news cycle, the feds (federal government) would be similar,” one source said.

“There’s always tension between ministers’ offices and the PPO as a result.
Everything is run through with PPO, it’s very controlled, they act as door keeper for every announcement, every report.”

The spin machine in Victoria is constantly taking soundings from the community, according to MPs, in what can be an expensive operation.
Recent reports in The Australian show that millions of dollars has been spent on research conducted by a company called QDOS, probing people’s opinions on COVID-19 responses.

The PPO helped to draft and approve questions.
The responses weren’t released under Freedom of Information, which Labor insiders said was probably to stop political opponents getting a look.

“I say so what? In a pandemic you need to know what people think,” one Labor figure said.
Critics say it’s a misuse of taxpayer money, and that the government has form using public cash for political advantage.
Parliament’s public accounts and estimates committee was told that $770,000 over five years was spent on the premier’s Facebook advertising, which Liberal MP Richard Riordan said “doesn’t pass the pub test when so many Victorians have lost their jobs”.
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien and ambitious politicians such as Kew MP Tim Smith have tried to use their own channels to promote personas, but with more limited reach.
Despite some public scrutiny and controversy over how MPs brand themselves, no one sees the spin machine cycle slowing.

The message may shift, however, particularly during a pandemic.
According to one figure, researchers such as RedBridge Group director and former ALP state secretary Kosmos Samaras have told MPs to spend less time posting about coronavirus and more time promoting local schools or roads being built.
Daniel Andrews posted this picture with daughter Grace in a health update on social media.
Daniel Andrews posted this picture with daughter Grace in a health update on social media.
During Andrews’s first week back at work the premier hardly took off a hard hat.
Advice to “ditch the North Face and daily press conferences” seemed to be adopted.

Despite this, recent messages sent to backbenchers through their WhatsApp group – titled the “Corona Cave” by Burwood MP Will Fowles – have asked them to promote health messages.
Cynical MPs believe even this could be market research on them by the premier’s office.
One MP said colleagues were suspicious when South Barwon MP Darren Cheeseman – a close factional ally of the premier – posted to his caucus colleagues that he felt “a three-day lockdown coming on” ahead of an announcement earlier this month.
“It seemed like they wanted to know what the thinking is inside the Cave – no one responded,” one MP said.

No one expects the premier’s style to change.
In fact, some MPs point to advice back from Labor field organisers in Western Australia, where political opponents were obliterated.

That advice was to further centralise control during political campaigns.

More Coverage
What Dan’s fall means for his future in politics
“The only thing that MPs should be doing is doorknocking,” one source said.

“Ministers are like backbenchers in this situation. The policy unit of PPO is real the engine room, that’s the real ministry.”

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