A reluctance by the federal Labor party to embrace a digital-first campaign strategy left it “flat-footed and falling behind its opponents” in this year’s election, a wide-ranging internal review has found.

The review, publicly released today, examines what went wrong for a Labor party which was widely expected to now be governing.

Among other findings, it says Labor’s latest digital campaign went backwards from its 2016 effort and had been surpassed by the coalition and its allies’ digital strategy.

A shrinking email list, less money from online donors led to content that was “less engaging” and reached fewer target voters than in 2016, according to the review.

The “shortcomings” occurred despite a 160 per cent increase in Labor’s digital advertising budget for the campaign.

The review concluded a risk averse culture and a lack of digital literacy within senior Labor ranks created a digital strategy that was ultimately “found wanting” and suffered from a campaign preference for TV.

The review says Labor did not allocate enough resources to its digital team which was responsible for a “diffuse” set of functions and lacked any leadership opportunities.

“A campaign with this culture comes to see digital as a means to amplify the content, priorities and activities of other parts of the campaign, rather than a core obligation to shape online conversation about the election and the Labor Party,” the review says.

The review recommends an “urgent” change in Labor’s campaign culture, including a change in digital strategy rather than just more investment.

Disinformation response

It also calls for more agility and effectiveness in Labor’s response to the spread of disinformation, noting the response in this year’s campaign failed to quell the circulation of false claims against Labor. 

In April information about a non-existent Labor policy to tax inheritance began spreading online with three spikes in sharing. Labor, aware of the spikes at the time, responded with a factual material and targeted advertising at those searching for “death tax”. But the review said the strategy had “little impact”.

Facebook has been criticised for failing to remove the “death tax” claims from its platform, despite being aware they were untrue. The social media company regularly fails to remove disinformation and accepts paid political advertising, even for dubious claims, in contrast to Twitter which last week banned paid political advertising.

The Clive Palmer effect

Mining magnate Clive Palmer’s unprecedented advertising expenditure, which ultimately failed to win his party a single seat, also worked against Labor’s digital strategy the review found.

The Palmer United Australia Party messaging became increasingly anti-Labor and anti-Bill Shorten in the lead up to polling day. 

Palmer’s advertising spend, estimated to be over $60 million, not only competed with Labor for voters’ attention, it also drove up the price of online advertising, according to the review.

“In addition to his television and outdoor expenditure, Palmer spent an unprecedented amount on digital media. This significantly pushed up the prices Labor paid for online advertising and limited the paid reach Labor’s advertisements were able to achieve as they were competing for the same audience as the United Australia Party.”

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