Reality check: we taught AI to spot the most used props this election. Here’s what it found | Australian election 2022

The novelty check has long been a mainstay of the political “photo op” but a Guardian Australia analysis of photos posted during the 2022 and 2019 election campaigns suggests giant checks are on the way out, while hi-vis workwear and photos of dogs are on the rise.

During our work building the automated systems behind the pork-o-meter which tracks election campaign pork barreling as it occurs, the Guardian’s data team found ourselves asking an important question. Could we teach a robot to spot photos of novelty checks?

We were already using machine learning to flag text from politicians’ Facebook posts as likely grant announcements and election promises, but having another model in place to find big checks and certificates in photos might pick up things we’d missed in the text.

Giant checks have made news in previous years – in 2019 when the former Liberal candidate for Mayo, Georgina Downer, presented a grant to a bowling club despite this practice usually being the domain of the sitting MP. A novelty check again made headlines in 2020, when Senator Pauline Hanson announced a $23m grant for Rockhampton stadium.

With this in mind, we trained an object recognition model to spot giant checks. And from there it was a short step further to look at other common tropes of election campaign photo ops: hi-vis workwear and hardhats, cute dogs, and footballs.

We chose these as they were either already available in pre-trained models such as Cocoor had publicly available image datasets for model training.

Then we collated every photo posted by a major party candidate, MP or senator to Facebook in the 2022 and 2019 election periods using the Facebook API, and ran our object detection models on these images.

Anthony Albanese speaking to the media at a Toll warehouse
Safety first: Anthony Albanese speaks to the media at a Toll warehouse. Photograph: Facebook

So what did we find?

First, some important caveats about our method.

While many of the images do constitute pictures from photo ops, many photos are also just things politicians shared on their pages. For the prime ministerial candidates, the Facebook photo dataset also doesn’t include every photo op they’ve done on the campaign trail – we were able to cross-check this thanks to AAP’s comprehensive election coverage.

So the dataset is not necessarily all the photos the politicians want to go on the news, but definitely the ones they want to share with voters on social media.

We also first checked each image for the presence of a person before running the object detection. This excludes photos that only had a dog, for example. Our method also can’t tell if the politician is the one wearing the hi-vis, so if a politician shares a photo of someone else in workwear, it will be counted.

These detection methods also don’t have 100% accuracy, so it’s best to treat the following numbers as a minimum count.

Here’s the total number of all photos featuring each thing, along with the proportion of all photos in that campaign year:

photo ops summary

It suggests that politicians are leaning even more heavily into the hi-vis photo opportunity, and leveraging the broad appeal of the cute dog. Novelty checks however are relatively scarce in this campaign period, and footballs and other sports balls are down on 2019.

Now let’s look only at the photos posted by the leaders of the major parties – the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese. For this one, we checked against their actual Facebook feed for any photos our models had missed.

2022 leaders

Both leaders have had a few campaign moments with dogs, so there’s no surprises there.

But Morrison has a higher hi-vis count than Albanese, despite Labor being more usually associated with blue-collar workers.

It’s possible that Albanese’s missed days on the campaign trail due to Covid-19 account for this. However, could it be that Albanese’s makeover and relatively lower hi-vis count – new suits, glasses and so on – is part of a strategy to make the Labor leader more appealing to business leaders? And could it be the reverse for Morrison – is the party of business making a visual appeal to voters outside their traditional base? This is only speculation, but it’s something to consider.

Scott Morrison speaks to staff TEi Services in Townsville, in matching hi-vis.
Scott Morrison speaks to staff TEi Services in Townsville, in matching hi-vis. Photograph: Facebook

These types of photo opportunities are an inexpensive way to get voters’ attention and communicate a politician’s position on an issue, according to Luke Mansilo, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Sydney.

“Dog licks politician’ is a very low-cost way of getting attention, as opposed to paying for advertisements,” he said.

“And going to a factory that makes you wear a hi-vis vest does make a really quick, visual short cue for someone who’s not always necessarily paying attention to the news to think, ‘This party is representing the interests of people like me’ .”

Anthony Albanese leveraging the universal love of dogs on the campaign trail.
Anthony Albanese leveraging the universal love of dogs on the campaign trail. Photograph: Facebook

Finally, here are the top 10 politicians ranked by the number of hi-vis and hardhat photos posted during this election campaign:

top 10 leaderboard

In the lead is the Liberal candidate for Paterson, Brooke Vitnell, who has posted photos from a number of factory visits in the New South Wales electorate where she’s campaigning.

Notes and methods

Facebook photos for all Labor and Coalition MPs, candidates and senators were scraped for the 2019 and 2022 campaign periods. In 2022 this includes photos posted up to 10 May for everyone except party leaders, who we have updated to 18 May. A number of assumptions have been made in comparing 2019 and 2022, such as that people haven’t deleted photos and generally share photos in the same way in both years.

For the object detection machine learning process we used the ImageAI Python library, which is based on TensorFlow. For each of the categories of hi-vis workwear, hardhats and novelty checks we trained a custom YOLOv3 object detection model. Hi-vis was based on a publicly available dataset of 800 photos, while hardhat detection was based on a publicly available dataset of 1,500 photos. We collated and labeled 310 images of giant checks to train the check-detection model. Dogs, sports balls and people were detected using a RetinaNet model pre-trained on the Coco dataset.

Detection thresholds for the key photo op objects were set deliberately low to increase the chance of finding most objects, with false-positives removed by visually inspecting the output.

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