Senator Gerard Rennick’s Facebook engagement surges following frequent posts about COVID vaccines, lockdowns | #socialmedia


Liberal senator Gerard Rennick has rapidly become the federal parliamentarian with the busiest Facebook page, thanks to his frequent posts about vaccines and COVID-19 lockdowns, which some experts have slammed as dangerous.

More interactions are now being recorded on his posts than even those on the pages of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.

The Queensland senator, little-known until recently, has become a significant figure in parliament this week after he declared he’ll withhold his vote on legislation if the federal government doesn’t intervene in state government workplace vaccine mandates, which he opposes.

Facebook data suggests the issue has for some time been fertile ground for Senator Rennick to grow his presence on the social media platform.

The ABC has this year been tracking the posts of federal parliamentarians, collecting data showing how many times Facebook users have interacted with each post before midday of the day after it was posted.

In the past two months, Senator Rennick’s Facebook engagement has been growing particularly fast.

The surge in engagement means his page is suddenly attracting more interactions each day than the leaders of both major parties.

Both leaders average fewer than 20,000 interactions on their Facebook pages per day over a two week period, but Senator Rennick’s page is currently recording more than 30,000.

Facebook’s data does not reveal how many people saw each post, as the company does not publish that information. Rather, it counts the number of comments, shares and reactions on posts.

It is also unclear where the users interacting with his posts are located, or if any particular MP has a large following outside Australia.

Rennick’s rapid audience growth

Looking at activity on the Prime Minister’s page, Senator Rennick’s relatively higher user engagement is in part because he posts more often than Scott Morrison, with around 62 posts since the start of the month to Mr Morrison’s 21.

This month, the senator ranks third in the parliament for average number of interactions per post, behind Pauline Hanson and the Prime Minister. One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts ranks fourth.

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While we don’t know exactly how many people are viewing each politician’s posts, greater engagement is one factor in social media algorithms that can push posts to wider audiences.

We can also see that Senator Rennick’s audience has been growing rapidly, with his follower count surging more than 350 per cent since the start of October.

Digital campaigners working for the Coalition bragged after the 2019 election about their strategy to weaponise “boomer memes” to win “the battle of the thumbs”. 

Vaccine ‘injury’ claims dominate Rennick’s feed

At least 80 per cent of Senator Rennick’s Facebook posts between November 1 and November 23 have directly mentioned COVID-19 vaccines.

Many of those are stories sent to him by members of the public alleging they have suffered adverse reactions from vaccines. Health experts have warned this is potentially dangerous because such stories could undermine public confidence in vaccines.

Senator Rennick said he has spoken on the telephone to the people who submitted most of the stories and he speaks to around half a dozen of them daily.

Rennick threatened to withhold his vote on government legislation over concerns with state government COVID-19 vaccination mandates.(ABC News: Tamara Penniket)

“I sort of say, ‘Can you send me a couple of photos, give me some more detail’ … I do try my best but it does worry me, I’ll be honest, I don’t want to be talking shit for want of a better expression either,” he said.

“I felt that it’s important to highlight the risks of both choices. My obligation is to promote the health and wellbeing of all Australian people. It is also to protect the minority groups as well.”

He said no one within the federal government had “directly” spoken to him about his Facebook posts this month. “Up until basically four, five weeks ago, I had said very little on the vaccine rollout. I wasn’t undermining it, to an extent. I threw a few wobblies out there more so around the PCR testing and the counting of comorbidities with COVID.”

Senator Rennick this week apologised for, and deleted a post featuring a woman who had previously called for New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to be executed.

“Do I have an obligation to be as accurate as possible?” he said. “Absolutely, and I try to do that to the best of my ability.”

Facebook tries to strike the ‘right balance’

Almost every other post on his page this month has been about lockdowns and management of the pandemic by state governments. His views have been critical.

Since the beginning of November, Senator Rennick has posted just once about a topic unrelated to the pandemic: a remembrance day post on November 11.

Health Minister Greg Hunt did not respond to questions about Senator Rennick’s Facebook activity, instead sending the ABC a statement announcing a decision to reduce the threshold for claiming under the Commonwealth’s vaccine indemnity scheme from $5,000 to $1,000.

The government says that will give people yet to get vaccinated more “comfort” to do so.

Senator Rennick has said he’ll now support the government on procedural votes in parliament, but is still holding out on backing government bills. 

Facebook said it tries to strike the right balance between supporting freedom of expression and keeping the community safe from harmful misinformation.

“We don’t allow anyone, including public figures, to share misinformation about COVID-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm or misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines that have been debunked by public health experts,” a spokesperson for Facebook said.

They would not confirm whether any of Senator Rennick’s posts had been removed, stating privacy reasons: “Pages or accounts who repeatedly breach these rules will have restrictions placed on their Page, and repeat offenders will be removed from Facebook.”

Conservative MPs dominate Facebook engagement

Sentor Rennick may have clamoured his way to the top of Facebook engagement rankings, but conservative and fringe politicians often find themselves in a similar position.

When politicians are ranked by their total Facebook interactions, One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts and Pauline Hanson can usually be found near the top of the list.

So far in November they rank second and third respectively.

Mr Morrison’s page draws the fourth-highest number of interactions, with Anthony Albanese behind him.

Senator Jacqui Lambie and Queensland Coalition MP George Christensen follow, with Labor’s Richard Marles, Nationals Senator Matthew Canavan and Sydney Labor MP Tanya Plibersek rounding out the top 10.

This is not a new pattern: MPs on the political fringe also dominated Facebook conversations in the leadup to the 2019 election.

However, that strong engagement on Facebook did not necessarily translate to strong electoral support at the ballot box.

Senator Rennick said he thinks vaccines and mandates are issues that will change that.

“This has now for many people become a single issue topic, and this will be at the next election, I think, will be the issue they vote on,” he said.

“In all of my time I’ve never had an issue that has just fired people up.”

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