Humanities research is currently experiencing a ‘computational turn' (Berry, 2010) towards ‘big data' research (boyd & Crawford, 2011), drawing especially on the substantial datasets now readily available through the APIs of Web 2.0 platforms. The study of Twitter user activities, in particular, provides an opportunity for researchers to explore at scale how information circulates in the network; this offers new insights into the role of social media as a source of information both in the context of breaking news events and as a part of everyday information consumption.
This paper presents the results of a year-long study of how and in what contexts links to Australian news and news commentary sites circulate on Twitter. Since late 2011, we have captured all tweets linking to the Websites of the public broadcaster ABC, major newspapers The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age, and public commentary sites Crikey, National Times, The Punch, and The Conversation (including tweets where links to such sites are present only as short URLs, for example as t.co or bit.ly links). We analyse a) the relative volume of tweets referring to these sites over time (providing an equivalent to the circulation figures of newspapers or the audience ratings of television programmes), b) the major themes around which links were shared, and c) the networks of users which exist around each of these sources. Together, these describe the role of Twitter as a technology for news dissemination.
In the first place, we examine the relative visibility of the eight sites within our dataset over the course of the entire period, and connect this with domestic and international events during this time. This provides an insight into the relative presence of these mainstream media sources within Twitter conversations, and indicates whether specific sites are more likely to be drawn upon as sources in specific thematic contexts. With one of the sites, the Murdoch-owned The Australian, now placed behind a paywall system which reveals only the first paragraph of articles to non-registered visitors, the relative circulation of links to the site before and after the introduction of the paywall will be of particular interest.
Second, we examine both the themes of the most widely shared articles for each of the eight sites, and the contexts (in the form of hashtags and other keywords) in which articles from these sites have been shared. This indicates the themes and areas of interest for which each of the sites is seen as the most authoritative (or in some cases, the most notoriously biased) source of information. An examination of hashtags and keywords, in particular, is expected to find both thematic keywords relating to an article's content, and descriptors which indicate the tweeting user's evaluation of the article's or site's quality and reliability as such. Additionally, an examination of keyword patterns for the whole dataset will also reveal the overall topical interests of Australian Twitter users, and their changes over time.
Finally, we explore who shares which links, examining the interconnection (or lack thereof) between the groups of users referring to each site. The Australian and Crikey, for example, are widely seen to serve opposite ends of the mainstream political spectrum in Australia; we examine whether this is reflected in usage patterns, or whether Twitter users freely share links to both sources, if perhaps with differing connotations. Similarly, The Punch is aligned with News Ltd., which also publishes The Australian, while National Times is published by Fairfax alongside The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald; we examine whether such shared imprints are reflected in their Twitter audience footprints.
Our approach in this paper provides a new perspective on the flow of news and information on Twitter. By tracking links to the leading news and commentary sites in Australia, we are able to examine how the Australian Twittersphere intersects with the mainstream media, which of its themes and topics it draws on most readily, and how it responds to and frames these mainstream media news and commentary articles. This provides a substantially more detailed picture of how mainstream and social media are now intermeshed.
boyd, d., and Crawford, K. (2011) “Six Provocations for Big Data.” Paper presented at A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, Oxford Internet Institute, 21 Sep. 2011.
Berry, David. (2011) “The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities.” Culture Machine 12.