Somewhat earlier than expected, Queensland finds itself in the throes of a very tightly contested state election campaign, which was called on 6 January and concludes with election day on 31 January. Just like candidates and the media, we in the QUT Social Media Research Group too have been scrambling to put in place the infrastructure to track and analyse the social media elements of the campaign in close detail, even more so because we’ve hoped to roll out several new technologies for this campaign, compared to our coverage of the 2012 state election. Some of these will now have to wait until the New South Wales state election instead.
One innovation we have already launched is our Queensland Election Social Index (QESI), which takes in Twitter and Instagram data and generates a live overview of the current balance of attention and interaction around the various parties contesting the election; you can see QESI in action over on the QUT Social Media Research Group site.
Here, however, I’m focussing on a closer analysis of the Twitter-specific activity on the election trail to date. The dataset for this analysis includes any tweets which contain the key hashtags #qldvotes and #qldpol, their variations, and related keywords, as well as mentions of the Premier and Opposition Leader and of any of the parties by name; further, we’ve identified the Twitter accounts of over 150 candidates and are capturing any public tweets directed at them, as well as any of their own tweets that include any election-related hashtags and keywords. In this post I’m covering the timeframe of 8-18 January.
What’s immediately obvious is that there is a great deal more discussion on Twitter about the incumbent LNP government than about the ALP opposition; over the course of this timeframe, we’ve picked up almost 82,000 tweets referring in some way to the LNP in the text of the tweet, compared to fewer than 29,000 tweets for the ALP. To date, Twitter discussion of the ALP has surpassed that of the LNP in numbers only for a handful of hours on 16 January, during Labor’s release of its economic policy.
Beyond this, there is only a smattering of discussion about any of the other parties, with the Palmer United Party (PUP) rising briefly especially during its campaign ‘launch’ on 18 January, as well as on 14 January when federal leader Clive Palmer and state leader John Bjelke-Petersen simultaneously retweeted @PalmerUtdParty’s announcements of all state candidate names. (I suspect from this that Palmer’s and Bjelke-Petersen’s accounts are operated by the same media team.)
Here is an overview of activity patterns to date (click to enlarge):
This focus of overall discussion on the LNP, in the first of the graphs above, is perhaps unsurprising given the speculations about a strong swing against the LNP, and the possibility of Premier Newman losing his own seat – under the circumstances, much more of the discussion in the media, too, has been about why the LNP’s massive majority from 2012 has been pared back in under three years, rather than about the electoral agenda of the ALP. Additionally, however, the difficulties in spelling Labor Opposition Leader Annastacia Palaszczuk’s name might also have meant that our tracker did not capture all of the tweets referring to her, and that our figures for in-text mentions of Labor may be slightly too low.
But the second of the graphs above, which focusses only on @mentions and retweets of candidate accounts, tells a markedly different story. Here, the advantage is with the ALP, whose candidates were @mentioned almost 25,000 times over the same timeframe, compared to only 18,000 @mentions for LNP candidates and a far lower level of attention to all the other parties. The LNP records a major spike only on the day of its campaign ‘launch’ (18 January), with the ALP’s largest spike again coming as it released its economic policy. (As I write this on 20 January, the ALP ‘launch’ is taking place, and we’ll explore its resonance on Twitter in a future update.) We are currently tracking 57 ALP and 60 LNP candidate accounts, incidentally – so the differences in activity around the candidates are not driven by cohort size.
Such @mentions are not necessarily in themselves indications of endorsement, of course; indeed, many of the @mentions of LNP candidates during the early days of the campaign are critical tweets directed at LNP MP Verity Barton, following revelations of her traffic infringements. Similarly, both Newman and Palaszczuk come in for a substantial amount of criticism (and vitriol) alongside more reasoned debate and support.
But our analysis also reveals some very substantial differences across the parties in the types of responses to candidates’ accounts: as the second of the graphs below clearly indicates, more than 42% of the @mentions received by ALP candidates turn out to be retweets, while only just over 7% of the tweets directed at LNP candidates are retweets. This points to a very different pattern of engagement with candidates’ accounts across the two parties – and as retweeting frequently indicates a certain degree of endorsement, it appears that a much greater number of Twitter users are prepared to publicly endorse ALP candidates’ than LNP candidates’ tweets at this stage of the election campaign.
As the first of the graphs above shows, LNP candidates have also been sending substantially fewer election-relevant tweets than ALP candidates; this would explain to some extent the difference in the total numbers of retweets each party’s candidates have received, but not the vast divergence in the ratio of @mentions and retweets we have seen here. It is important again to stress that the number of tweets sent which we’re presenting here is not a total number of all tweets originating from candidates’ accounts, but counts only those tweets which also contain election-related content (hashtags, keywords, @mentions of other candidates’ accounts, etc.). It is possible, therefore, that the LNP numbers underestimate candidates’ full activities if those candidates fail to include hashtags like #qldvotes or #qldpol in their campaign tweets – but if so, those non-hashtagged tweets will also be more difficult to find for regular Twitter users, not just for our tracking infrastructure.
On the other hand, if ALP candidates are indeed substantially more active on Twitter than their LNP counterparts, that also points to a clear divergence in the campaign strategies. The early election date and short campaign timeframe proposed by the Queensland Premier already indicate a desire to run a relatively streamlined campaign, probably operated comparatively tightly by head office rather than encouraging individual candidates (most of them sitting MPs) to run their own, individual local campaigns. By contrast, the ALP’s lack of representation in the current parliament necessarily means a much stronger focus on local electoral races, as its candidates seek to win (or win back) their seats, and this must necessarily mean a much greater engagement by local candidates.
I would not be surprised if the ALP had looked closely at independent Cathy McGowan’s campaign in Indi during the last federal election, which combined dedicated on-the-ground effort with strong social media efforts to unseat a sitting MP against the overall national swing – and if the high level of activity from ALP candidates we’re seeing in our data was an expression of such a local-centric campaigning style.
Finally for this first analysis, an update on the major hashtags we’ve seen trending in our dataset to date – these are hashtags which have been used alongside generic hashtags such as #qldvotes or in tweets about and at the candidates. The graph below shows the ten most prominent of these hashtags, which offer a reasonable picture of themes in the campaign so far (multiple hashtags in the same tweet mean that the totals add up to above 100% at times).
Early on, the #imwithstupid hashtag dominated, reflecting an incident in which an anti-LNP protester and Twitter parody account operator wearing said slogan was charged with public nuisance for standing in the vicinity of an LNP stall, causing some degree of controversy). Federal politics made its way into the campaign with a flare-up of debate under the #medicare hashtag over the federal government’s proposed, then quickly withdrawn $20 reduction of Medicare rebates, while the absence of Prime Minister Tony Abbott from the LNP campaign is likely to be a driver of the #abbott hashtag which has been a persistent undercurrent of the Twitter debate. A similarly persistent debate continues over coal-seam gas policy, under the #CSG hashtag.
The prominent hashtags also bear out the overall focus of general discussion on the LNP rather than ALP: hashtags such as #lnp and #lnpfail are prominent throughout the Twitter stream so far, while campaign slogan #strongchoices makes an appearance only on the Sunday of the LNP campaign ‘launch’ (and then as often as not with critical rather than supportive connotations). The significant presence of #ashgrove also points to persistent discussion of Campbell Newman’s chances of retaining his own seat.
Finally, the significant visibility of #nswpol in the Queensland election debate points to the fact that not all tweets we are seeing here are necessarily coming from Queensland-based political observers; the implications of the Queensland election outcomes for the coming New South Wales poll as well as for federal politics are already being hotly debated. And of the news organisations, Nine News has been most successful in attaching its hashtag to the Twitter coverage, with its journalists religiously attaching the #9news hashtag to their updates, and many users amplifying its visibility through retweeting.
The final ATNIX for 2014 arrives with a slight delay due to the summer holidays, but covers an unexpectedly dramatic few weeks in Australian public life, due especially to the deadly siege in the Lindt Café in Sydney’s Martin Place in mid-December. This major breaking news story and its tragic aftermath are clearly reflected in the patterns of news sharing on Twitter and in the patterns of access to major Australian news sites as we’re seeing them in the data provided by Experian Marketing Services, but there are also clear differences between the specific response of Twitter users and the more general news access patterns which are instructive of how Internet users respond to such key events.
In the absence of any major events, what the Australian Twitter News Index should show us in December is a gradual decline of new sharing activity as we enter the slow news space of the Australian summer, with even market leader ABC News struggling to pass the 5,000 tweets/day mark. The December 2014 ATNIX diverges from that pattern several times, however: in addition to the roughly threefold increase in overall link sharing volume during the Sydney siege and its aftermath on 15 and 16 Dec., there is in fact also a similar spike in traffic one week earlier, on 8 Dec. (we did not capture any data for the first few days of December, due to server maintenance).
This first spike is caused by the unexpected death of writer, comedian, and disability rights campaigner Stella Young, which generated a substantial response from the Australian Twittersphere. Several of the stories reporting Young’s death and reflecting on the achievements of her life were very widely shared – including especially those published by ABC News, the Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age –, and the strong social media reponse to her death also became a story in itself. Young’s “Letter to Herself at 80”, published in Fairfax papers only a few weeks before her death and republished again in response, was also widely shared again.
Such a strong response reflects in part also the comparatively high-brow nature of news sharing interests in the Australian Twittersphere, where quality news sites tend to dominate. Notably, there is no corresponding increase in total site visits to Australian news sites during the same days: while the Twittersphere reacted strongly to Young’s death, therefore, it appears that the same is less true for the greater Australian public.
By contrast, there are matching spikes both in the number of links shared and in the number of visits to Australian news sites during and after the Sydney siege – and the range of URLs shared on Twitter during the event also differs considerably. Sites whose stories are featured prominently during the event include ABC News, and the Sydney Morning Herald, again (though not The Age, as a Melbourne- rather than Sydney-based publication), but also news.com.au, Yahoo!7 News, The Australian, the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph.
In most of these cases, the various live blogs and live streams these sites offered (including especially also the live streams for ABC News 24, on the ABC News site, and 7 News Sydney, at Yahoo!7 News) were especially widely redistributed, and would also have been shared in tweets by non-Australian Twitter users. While such international shares necessarily inflate the volume of link sharing activity capture by ATNIX, a comparison with the total volume of news sites visits as captured in our Experian Marketing Services data (which covers Australian users only) also shows the very substantial increase in domestic attention to Australian news sites.
Notably, and again reflecting the more high-brow news focus of the Australian Twittersphere when compared to the overall Australian Internet user population, a somewhat different set of sites receive greater attention during the Sydney siege. Market leaders news.com.au and Sydney Morning Herald receive well over twice their average number of visits during the crisis, and NineMSN and ABC News also increase their audience substantially; as on Twitter, however, the Melbourne-based Age fails to attract similar numbers to its coverage.
Yahoo! 7 News records an even more dramatic increase: hovering normally just above the 100,000 visits mark, its coverage (initially produced from offices just across the road from the Lindt Café) attracts more than one million visits on 15 December. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph more than doubles its usual number of site visits, too, but its strongest day (with over 1.1 million visits) is 16 December, perhaps due to its controversial coverage of the siege aftermath. (Similar patterns apply to Brisbane’s Courier-Mail and to The Australian, incidentally.)
The divergent patterns we see across ATNIX and the Experian Marketing Services data on total site visits to Australian news sites during December offer useful insights into the ways that Australians found out about and engage with the news, especially around breaking news events. Twitter (and, by extension, other social media platforms) is clearly important in sharing breaking news – and indeed, some breaking news events, such as the death of Stella Young, clearly generate a much stronger echo amongst the specific demographics of the Australian Twittersphere than they do across the greater Australian public.
But the composition of what is being shared on Twitter, in terms of popular sites and sources, does not necessarily influence and reflect the broader usage patterns of the Australian Internet population: here, different sites tend to dominate the market, and this does not appear to change substantially even though Twitter users are strongly promoting specific sources of new information about unfolding events. It is difficult to conclusively ascribe causality here, of course: do visits to Yahoo!7 News’ coverage of the siege increase dramatically because Twitter users are sharing links to it to an unusual degree, or is the increased link sharing in fact caused by those unusually many visits? We’ll seek to explore the evidence for either interpretation in further analysis.
But whether Australians find out about breaking news through Twitter and other social media, or by other means: online news sites, and the live blogs and live stream they provide, clearly have become a key source of information by now.
Standard background information: ATNIX is based on tracking all tweets which contain links pointing to the URLs of a large selection of leading Australian news and opinion sites (even if those links have been shortened at some point). Datasets for those sites which cover more than just news and opinion (abc.net.au, sbs.com.au, ninemsn.com.au) are filtered to exclude the non-news sections of those sites (e.g. abc.net.au/tv, catchup.ninemsn.com.au). Data on Australian Internet users’ news browsing patterns are provided courtesy of Experian Marketing Services Australia. This research is supported by the ARC Future Fellowship project “Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere”.