Twitter has become a major instrument for the rapid dissemination and subsequent debate of news stories. It has been instrumental both in drawing attention to events as they unfolded (such as the emergency landing of a plane in New York’s Hudson River in 2009) and in facilitating a sustained discussion of major stories over timeframes measured in weeks and months (including the continuing saga around Wikileaks and Julian Assange), sometimes still keeping stories alive even if mainstream media attention has moved on elsewhere.
More comprehensive methodologies for research into news discussion on Twitter – beyond anecdotal or case study approaches – are only now beginning to emerge. This paper presents a large-scale quantitative approach to studying public communication in the Australian Twittersphere, developed as part of a three-year ARC Discovery project that also examines blogs and other social media spaces. The paper will both outline the innovative research tools developed for this work, and present outcomes from an application of these methodologies to recent and present news themes, including the 2010 Australian federal election and the current Wikileaks controversy.
Our methodology enables us to identify major themes in Twitter’s discussion of these events, trace their development and decline over time, and map the dynamics of the discussion networks formed ad hoc around specific themes (in part with the help of Twitter #hashtags: brief identifiers which mark a tweet as taking part in an established discussion). It is also able to identify links to major news stories and other online resources, and to track their dissemination across the wider Twittersphere.