Australian public affairs have continued to be turbulent during August 2015 (to say nothing of September, which will be covered in our next update), and the arrival of Huffington Post Australia as the latest overseas entrant has had the potential to disrupt the media market, too. Time then to see how the Australian Twitter News Index for August reflects public attention to the news during this month.
First things first: Huffington Post Australia itself has so far failed to set the world on fire. After a brief opening flurry in the days following its launch on 19 August, the site has received comparatively few tweeted links per day, lagging behind established local entries such as The New Daily or Independent Australia. That said, the total figure of some 3,300 tweets during August which is indicated in the graph below should not be compared to the rest of the competition just yet, since HuffPo only launched mid-month.
If HuffPo take-up on Twitter in Australia has been limited to date, though, my sense is that this may have some thing to do with the comparatively limited online promotion work the site has done itself so far. Unlike other recent entry Buzzfeed Australia, whose Political Editor Mark Di Stefano has quickly become a fixture in the Australian Twittersphere – his Twitter activity played an important role in alerting users to the recent #BorderFarce controversy, for instance – HuffPo editors and contributors seem to have been much less active in promoting their work on Twitter to date.
(Sadly, of course, the lack of a distinct Australian domain name for Buzzfeed Australia means that we have been unable to track tweets linking to the site as part of ATNIX, so this analysis remains anecdotal.)
In this it should be remembered that Buzzfeed has been operating in Australia since early 2014, however, and has had the time to develop its Australian audience – by contrast, with the paint still wet on the Huffington Post Australia logo, the site’s editors may have chosen to wait with any serious online promotion until operations are fully bedded down. As we will see from Experian Marketing Services’ Hitwise data below, total visits to Huffington Post Australia are certainly already looking reasonable: more Australian users have visited Huffington Post Australia in its first weeks of operation than went to Crikey during the entirety of August.
Well ahead of these minor players, ABC News has had another strong month, with its stories shared in over 300,000 tweets during August. And the most widely shared ABC News stories this month provide a handy indication of what has exercised Australian political observers this month: from Bronwyn Bishop’s resignation as Speaker at the start of August (1,100 shares) to Border Force’s controversial announcement of Operation Fortitude (1,200 shares) and its swift cancellation following public outrage (1,700 shares), this has been a month of public controversies.
Further, the ABC’s Factcheck unit published a couple of particularly widely shared articles – on Joe Hockey’s claim that the abolition of the carbon tax has lowered electricity prices by $550 (verdict: wrong; 1,500 shares) and a union claim that the China Free Trade Agreement threatens Australian jobs (verdict: true; 1,600 shares) –, and a special feature which tested what personal information could be extracted from reporter Will Ockenden’s telecommunications metadata was unsurprisingly popular with the tech-affine Australian Twitter community (1,700 shares).
The most shared ABC article this month, however, was an opinion piece in The Drum that reflected on the still unresolved implications from the findings to date of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse, focussing especially on abuses committed by Catholic clergy in Ballarat (1,900 shares). Entirely absent from the top ten ABC stories, on the other hand, is any coverage of the controversy surrounding Trade Union Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon (which broke on 13 August and was at least temporarily resolved on 31 August by Heydon’s decision not to stand down as Commissioner), as are any articles relating to Bill Shorten’s performance as opposition leader. The Twittersphere’s eyes, it seems, are trained firmly on the federal government.
Similar patterns can be observed for the most shared Sydney Morning Herald stories in August: here, too, the implications of data retention rank highly as an opinion piece by Quentin Dempster receives more than 1,500 shares, but we also do see more substantial interest in the Dyson Heydon affair. This is not surprising since SMH political journalist Latika Bourke first broke the story, receiving some 1,300 shares in the process; a follow-up report gained another 1,000 shares.
But at the SMH, public attention on a number of opinion pieces criticising the Abbott government is also strong: in addition to Dempster’s article, pieces attacking new initiatives to limit environmental “lawfare” (1,400 shares), highlighting the political implications of the “Border Farce” fiasco (900 shares), and raising questions over Abbott’s own future as PM (800 shares) appeared amongst the top ten this month. Meanwhile, again, as all eyes are on a federal government apparently in permanent crisis mode, the opposition leader appears to enjoy a relatively free ride.
It will be interesting to see how this week’s change of Prime Ministers affects these trends.
Finally, our Experian data on total visits by Australian Internet users to these sites continue point to a fairly stable situation with few surprises. Buzzfeed Australia is now firmly entrenched in the top ten news sites, whatever some of the more entrenched players in the news industry may think about its irreverent attitude and unconventional story styles; Huffington Post Australia has slotted in at a considerably lower spot in the rankings, but again it must be remembered that the site has only operated since 19 August, and would therefore be expected to rank more highly once we have a full month of visits data to work with.
In September, then, we might expect its visitor numbers to come closer to rival competitors like The Conversation and The New Daily, which continue to lead our opinion sites category; The Conversation, in fact, might constitute a particularly valid benchmark, since it has grown from its Australian origins to an international platform and can therefore offer a similarly wide selection of stories as new international entrant Huffington Post. More next month, then!
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”.
Australian political observers will not need to be alerted to the fact that we have a new Prime Minister: Monday afternoon, former Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull unexpectedly challenged Prime Minister Tony Abbott for the leadership, and later that night won a party room ballot in a 54 to 44 decision. As with the previous leadership spills (from Rudd to Gillard in 2010, and from Gillard to Rudd in 2013), social media – and especially Twitter – once again played an important role in tracking this unfolding story across many different rumours and reports. Here’s how they did it.
For this analysis, we are drawing on a Twitter dataset tracking relevant hashtags such as #spill and #libspill; later in the afternoon, we also added a range of other hashtags and tracking terms as they appeared, as well as capturing @mentions of the accounts of Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, and a number of other prominent frontbenchers.
First, given the continued growth of Twitter as a platform in Australia since the earlier spills, it is unsurprising that we saw considerably more user engagement with this event compared to earlier spills. While in 2010, the #spill hashtag peaked at just under 500 tweets per minute, the 2013 spill reached 1,100 tweets per minute – but in 2015, #libspill alone jumped to over 2,500 tweets per minute as the results of the party room ballot were announced. (Throughout the following analysis, we are focussing on the period from 2 p.m. to midnight on 14 September 2015.)
Several other hashtags also attained considerable prominence, sometimes in combination with #libspill: the more general, very well-established #auspol hashtag also appeared, of course, and some Twitter users commemorated the prospective demise of PM Abbott with #putoutyouronions, referencing Abbott’s famous predilection for eating raw onions. Users also reflected on the fact that this was the second party-room attempt to remove Abbott by using #libspill2.
Others, curiously, aimed to divert attention from #auspol (with a lowercase L) by using #auspoI (with a capital i) instead. As these are virtually indistinguishable in sans serif fonts, many users unknowingly retweeted such #auspoI tweets – and I must admit I have no idea what purpose the ‘fake’ hashtag would serve.
Many breaking news hashtags, including #libspill, are used especially also to share and compile the latest news about the event they are tracking, and this provides us with a useful insight into the news sources that led the coverage. Amongst the most widely shared sources, the two national broadcasters led the way, followed by the Sydney Morning Herald and – perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, given its relatively recent entry into the Australian media market – Buzzfeed Australia. Interspersed is a blog operated by user @otiose94, which appears largely because of that user’s own relentless self-promotion (some may say spamming) in the #libspill hashtag.
But by far the leading recipient of links shared through Twitter on the night is Twitter itself: a substantial number of #libspill tweets used the platform’s embedded image functions to share real or photoshopped, newsworthy or comical images throughout the night. Leading the pack was a blast from the past, shared in almost 1,000 tweets:
— Nick Rippon (@nickrippon) September 14, 2015
Meanwhile, a current federal politician staged his own re-enactment of the #libspill:
Amid all the mirth, only the fourth most retweeted image finally reports the news as such:
— ABC News (@abcnews) September 14, 2015
As is often the case in such breaking news events, retweets played an especially crucial role over the course of the event, and were usually the most prominent type of tweet at any one moment. Only occasionally did original tweets overtake retweets and @mentions: this happened especially during the major televised moments (Turnbull’s initial press conference; Abbott’s and Hockey’s press conferences; and the announcement of the ballot results).
Again this is in keeping with past observations: during those times, users can rightly assume that most other participants will also be watching the live event on TV or streaming media, and retweets are not strictly necessary; rather, Twitter is now used predominantly as a second-screen commenting platform, at least during these brief moments.
Of course this begs the question of the accounts that received the lion’s share of these retweets and @mentions – and it will come as no surprise that the major actors in the drama were also the most visible: Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, as well as (as a more distant third) Julie Bishop received the majority of mentions. In each case, these were almost exclusively @mentions rather than retweets, as none of them posted to their Twitter accounts during the challenge itself – even if a handful of enterprising users dug up older tweets from the politicians that could now be used against them, such as:
Other than Malcolm Turnbull, the other major winner of the night was the ABC (someone ironically, given the outgoing PM’s well-documented dislike for certain of its programmes): its @abcnews and @abcnews24 accounts were easily the most @mentioned and retweeted media accounts in #libspill and related tweets, and even well-connected parody account @abcnewsintern still rated more Twitter mentions than @9newsaus. This also reflects the substantial TV audience for ABC channels during the spill, which ABC Managing Director Mark Scott has reported (via Twitter) in the meantime – during major political crises, Australian viewers clearly continue to turn first and foremost to the national broadcaster.
An unexpected presence in the list of most visible accounts, splitting @abcnews and @abcnews24, is SBS newsreader and fashion icon Lee Lin Chin, who has been using her Twitter account more and more effectively in recent months to connect to a younger, hipster audience. She posted a series of particularly snarky tweets over the course of the night, outlining her credentials as alternative PM, and gained some 5,000 retweets and @mentions in the process:
— Lee Lin Chin (@LeeLinChinSBS) September 14, 2015
— Lee Lin Chin (@LeeLinChinSBS) September 14, 2015
Indeed, outside of its standard news reporting, SBS gave the SBS2 comedy team free rein – and on a night which ended up being full of irony and sarcasm from journalists and regular punters alike, this tweet from @SBS2 was the single most widely shared post, with almost 1,400 retweets by midnight:
The perilous state of Australian political culture, with three Prime Ministers in a row failing to serve out a full term, might be cause for concern – but sometimes, you’ve just got to laugh.