We’re now well into the federal election season, and of course this is reflected in the Twitter-based news sharing activities captured in the Australian Twitter News Index as well. But – because as in previous elections the general public tends to fully connect with the campaign only in the final weeks before election day – that’s not the only topic emerging from the past month’s data, as we will see.
Unfortunately, our Twitter data for the month are also affected by two outages due to server maintenance (highlighted in grey in the graph below). As these occurred mostly during weekends, though, they have only a limited impact on the overall analysis.
The overall trends in the Twitter-based sharing of the news published by Australian sites have remained stable for the most part. After a difficult April, the Sydney Morning Herald has narrowed the gap to ABC News somewhat, and it is tempting to read this as a reflection of the additional interest sparked by the early election campaign. The Australian and the Australian Financial Review, as prominent platforms with a particular specialisation on political news, have also caught up to match general-purpose site news.com.au more closely. We may see this pattern continued through June and July as well.
Amongst the opinion sites, Crikey has leapfrogged The Saturday Paper and Independent Australia to claim third place during May, and this too is consistent with a gradual shift towards a greater focus on political news as the campaign gathers speed. The comparatively poor performance of The Saturday Paper is most certainly also due to the fact that it is disproportionately much affected by our server outages, which occurred on two Saturdays and therefore specifically affected the day of the week that is most important for Saturday Paper news sharing.
Before we delve into what ATNIX can tell us about the early weeks of the election campaign: I’ve tried, believe me, to find any widely shared stories about Australia’s unprecedented second placing in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. But none of the stories that were widely shared on 14 May or the days following it related to Dami Im’s performance, as it turns out.
This may be because the links shared on Twitter pointed to parts of the SBS site outside of the SBS News content that ATNIX tracks – but more likely, it’s simply because Eurovision is now so widely televised in Australia that Twitter users no longer feel the need to let their followers know about it. And given the delayed telecast in Australia, there may even be a tacit agreement not to post any spoilers about the eventual outcome.
But to weightier matters involving less photogenic contestants: while Eurovision was over within a few days, this year the Australian election campaign drags on for nearly two months. Plenty of time, then, for Twitter users to share the news reports that they think matter to public debate. Here, we’ll focus only on our two market leaders: ABC News and Sydney Morning Herald.
A review of the most shared articles for both sides during May reveals a very strong focus on climate change and environmental policy to date: seven of the ten most shared stories in May have an environmental angle.
The SMH report about sea level expert John Church being sacked in CSIRO’s cuts while on a research voyage in the South Polar Sea leads the field with some 2,700 shares; an SMH article about our passing of the negative milestone of 400 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere received some 2,000 shares; while more positively, an ABC News report about a new more efficient solar cell developed at UNSW received nearly 1,800 shares.
The processes of politics and the media dominate the next most prominent stories. We recorded 1,700 shares for an SMH article about the likely shutdown of the ABC’s Fact Check unit; nearly 1,500 were received by an SMH piece that suggested that the Coalition’s proposed PaTH interns programme was illegal under Australian law.
In spite of the continuing public debate about Australia’s refugee policy, articles relating to it were shared much less frequently in May. The one story that did receive nearly 1,400 shares was the ABC News report about a second refugee setting herself alight in the Nauru internment camp; outside of such horrific events, the treatment of asylum seekers is surprisingly absent from our data.
The remaining four most widely shared stories in May again cover environmental matters. Nearly 1,400 tweets referenced NASA’s appeal to CSIRO not to cut its climate research, reported in the SMH; 1,300 each linked to an ABC News piece about administrative hurdles to renewable energy projects and an SMH follow-up on the 400ppm carbon dioxide report; and on a somewhat different angle, an ABC News report about the 600 tonnes of radioactive fuel still missing after the Fukushima meltdown was shared some 1,100 times during May.
What has been shared here is an early indication of the themes and topics that Twitter users have found worth sharing with their followers; this serves as a useful counterpoint to the exploration of the themes being addressed in @mentions of political candidates in my recent post about social media in the federal election (which also covered a slightly later period of time).
But while our Twitter news sharing data may point to a growing engagement with Australian federal politics during May, the patterns on Australian users’ visits to news and opinion sites that are provided by our Hitwise data largely reflect the long-term status quo: to date, there is no significant rise in visits to the mainstream news sites yet. Indeed, as was to be expected, Nine News slips back somewhat as the increased flow of visitors created by the 60 Minutes kidnapping drama in Beirut in April washes out of the system in May.
There is no particular Eurovision bump to be identified in mid-May, either, nor should we realistically expect to see one – Eurovision remains too much of a specialty event, and is now too well televised in Australia, to generate an increase in visits to Australian news sites that would be notable against the general backdrop. SBS’s Website may well have received a greater number of visitors from its broadcast of the semi-finals and finals – but SBS News, as tracked by Hitwise, did not.
But back to the election: as we trundle through June and towards the 2 July election date, we would expect to see a gradual rise certainly in the volume of Australian news links being shared on Twitter, and perhaps also in the number of visits to Australian news sites that Hitwise captures. How pronounced such a rise turns out to be may well also reflect how close the Australian public perceive the electoral race to be, so we’ll watch further developments with great interest.
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 Hitwise, a division of Connexity. This research is supported by the ARC Future Fellowship project “Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere”.
The QUT Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC) has been running various digital methods training workshops internally as well as externally through the CCI Digital Methods Summer School and the Association of Internet Researchers Conference last year in Phoenix and coming up again this year in Berlin as part of #AoIR2016.
As an extension to these workshops and the free Social Media Analytics course we are running on the FutureLearn platform (starting on 18 July), we are sharing some exercises that will allow you to examine different parts of a network graph generated from Twitter data. We assume people following these exercises are already familiar with both Tableau and Gephi and have completed one or more of our workshops, or have enrolled in and completed our FutureLearn course.
We are assuming that you are working with a dataset that you have created in earlier steps of the course or workshop, and that you have already undertaken preliminary analysis on your data. The following exercises are a step-by-step guide to techniques that can be used to explore Twitter networks in more depth, as well as to better understand social network analysis concepts such as betweenness, eccentricity and centrality.
You can download or view the exercises in PDF here:
We’re now well into one of the longest Australian election campaigns in recent memory, and close enough to election date that we should expect the general public and not just the usual political junkies to begin engaging with the parties’ campaigns. Time, then, to examine how the parties are faring on social media to date.
We’re focussing here on Twitter, where we have been tracking the tweets posted by and @mentions (including retweets) directed at all the election candidates we have been able to identify to date. Because candidate nominations only closed on 9 June, with the major parties publishing their confirmed candidate lists somewhat earlier, our substantive tracking commenced on 25 May, with more minor party candidates added as their Twitter accounts are being identified. The focus of this first update, therefore, is especially on activities around Labor and Coalition candidates.
The overall patterns we have been able to observe to date largely reflect long-term trends in Australian political campaigning via Twitter. Candidates fielded by the Australian Labor Party have been more active in posting tweets by a very large margin: ALP accounts posted about twice as many tweets as Liberal and National Party accounts put together.
A substantial number of their posts were retweets, too: some 47% of their tweets were retweets, compared to under 44% and under 38% for Liberal and National accounts, respectively. So far this is a significantly greater percentage than in 2013, when about 38% of ALP and only 25% of Coalition tweets were retweets. While this indicates a more coordinated social media campaign on both sides of politics, and reflects perhaps also a tighter political situation where getting one’s message out through all channels is crucial, the relatively limited level of activity from Coalition accounts also points at a continuing ‘small target’ strategy that may not be all too well suited to 2016’s much tighter electoral race.
The @mentions of candidates’ accounts, on the other hand, show a very substantial departure from, and reversal of, the 2013 picture. Coalition accounts are @mentioned and retweeted more often than ALP accounts by a factor of nearly two to one, while in 2013 ALP accounts led the Coalition by a ratio of only just over four to three. This could be read as an indication that the 2016 election is widely seen as the Coalition’s to lose: its outcome will largely be a verdict on the Abbott/Turnbull era, rather than a reflection on the performance of Bill Shorten’s opposition team – much as 2013 was arguably a Labor defeat more than a Coalition win.
However, also notable in this context is the comparatively substantial volume of retweets received by Labor accounts. At more than 17,000 since 25 May, ALP accounts have already received more than twice the number of retweets they gained in the entire 2013 campaign, while the Coalition’s 6,200 retweets to date still rank below its 2013 mark of 6,700 retweets. While in 2013, less than 3% of all tweets directed at ALP and Coalition were retweets, in 2016 more than 14% of all tweets mentioning ALP candidates are retweets.
Even if retweets do not always represent endorsements, it is clear from this pattern that in the Australian Twittersphere there is a much greater degree of engagement with, and even support for the tweets of the opposition party this year than there was for the opposition at the previous election.Themes of Debate
It’s still too early for a detailed discussion of the major themes of the social media discussion around the candidates – we’ll need to do some more in-depth processing of the data to identify and group the relevant keywords and capture some of the unexpected themes that may arise from time to time. However, using a set of predesigned keyword collections relating to some of the defining topics in longer-term Australian political debate, we can at least begin to sketch out the themes that emerge as prominent so far.
This accounts for only one fifth of all the tweets posted by and directed at the candidates, because many such tweets do not contain any major keywords: they are posted in context, and may express agreement or disagreement with a previous statement without repeating the key points.
Amongst those tweets that can be clearly associated with specific topics, just over one quarter focus on the environment. This is unsurprising given the recent coverage of a significant coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef, news reports about the Turnbull government’s intervention to redact warnings about the state of the reef from an UN report, and the ongoing controversy about devastating cuts to the CSIRO climate research teams.
Social policy – which covers topics such as health and education funding, the future of Medicare, and the implementation of the Gonski reforms, as well as the paid parental leave and national disability insurance schemes – runs a close second, at just under one quarter of al tweets with identifiable themes.
At some distance from these leading themes are discussions about the budget deficit and potential measures to address it, at less than 15% of all identifiably themes tweets; this theme also includes discussions about superannuation and the GST rate. At under 13%, the state of the National Broadband Network and Australian broadband policy more generally follows closely behind; this is unsurprising given Malcolm Turnbull’s close involvement with the NBN in recent years, and Labor’s perception that this represents one of its most popular initiatives.
Refugee policy appears yet further down the list, with less than 10% of all themed tweets. Notably, although this issue was thematised more strongly during the early days of our dataset, it has been pushed to the background more and more by other topics. This may indicate that Labor has – for the moment – succeeded in neutralising this issue, which is seen as one of its most crucial weaknesses. Discussion about threats from ISIS and other Islamist terror groups, finally, account for only 3% of all themed tweets. If the Coalition had hoped to highlight this issue as one of its areas of strength, then at least on Twitter it has failed to do so.
How the balance between these themes, with their respective opportunities and threats for the different parties, continues to shift during the remainder of the campaign may well provide us with an indication of the likely electoral perspectives for both camps, so we’ll continue to watch these trends closely over the coming weeks.Postscript: The Political Reaction to the Orlando Attack
I write this in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attack by a single terrorist on an Orlando nightclub, which killed some 50 people. As civic and political leaders from around the world have reacted to this tragedy, so have Australia’s politicians – and their statements, and the social media response to these statements, are also evident in our data for the past day. While Australian electioneering and politicking must fade to insignificance in the face of a crime as devastating as this, I present some immediate observations about the Australian response here for the record.
From what we know so far, the nightclub targetted in Orlando was especially popular with the gay and lesbian community, and it therefore appears that this terrorist attack may also be understood as a hate crime. This has been a focus of many of the political statements made on Monday, and of the social media responses to these statements. On Monday, nearly 60% of all the tweets directed at political candidates that could be allocated to a given theme addressed LGBTQI matters, and especially same-sex marriage; in the period from 25 May to 12 June, meanwhile, only 3% of all tweets had done so.
The vast majority of these @mentions were directed at Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Of the more than 24,000 @mentions and retweets of candidate accounts made this Monday, Turnbull received almost exactly half; of these, in turn, a significant majority discuss LGBTQI rights and same-sex marriage.
If he does monitor his Twitter account himself, Turnbull will be very well aware of the fact that nearly 7,000 of the @mentions he received on Monday were as a result of the widespread retweeting of four tweets by singer Troye Sivan, who linked Turnbull’s statement of support for the Orlando victims with Australia’s continued stance against same-sex marriage. Each had received more than 1,800 retweets by midnight on Monday, with the following generating the most resonance:
@TurnbullMalcolm Who is ‘us’ if LGBT people in your county are still treated like second class citizens?
— Troye Sivan (@troyesivan) 13 June 2016
A statement by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, by contrast, had received fewer than 250 retweets to date and has not attracted similar controversy:
Australians offer every support to our American friends following this horrific attack on our common humanity. pic.twitter.com/Cjo9QkrGEC
— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) 13 June 2016
Clearly this difference in responses is related to the distinctions between the Coalition’s and Labor’s stance towards same-sex marriage – and while this should not be the primary concern right now, the Orlando attack has the potential to restart the public debate in Australia about LGBTIQ rights. It is likely that Turnbull will continue to be pressed on the discrepancies between his personal support for marriage equality and his party’s more complicated position, which promises a referendum some time after the election. Labor, by contrast, may see this as an issue where its policy is more closely aligned with overall public sentiment – yet over the coming weeks, it must also avoid the perception that it is exploiting an unprecedented tragedy for political gain.
It is also unclear how much the sentiment expressed on Twitter about Turnbull’s statement reflects the wider public mood. Political analysts can be quick to declare unexpected events to be ‘gamechangers’ in an ongoing election campaign, but to do so in this case is inappropriate both because of this uncertainty, and – more importantly – because the horrific nature of the attack should give us pause for reflection before we return to the base political calculus of the current campaign.