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What Do Twitter Patterns around Elections Actually Tell Us?

The second speaker this morning at Digital Methods is Andreas Jungherr, who shifts our focus back to Twitter: he is interested in how we may use observations from this platform to understand what happens in society as such. What, if anything, may we read out of, for example, the patterns around an election which could help us predict the outcome of the election?

In the German election 2009, for example, Andreas found substantial activity around the Pirate Party, but this is an artefact of the specific demographics of Twitter in the country at the time rather than a sign of genuine pandemic interest in the party. In the same campaign, the volume of political news being shared during the campaign clearly shows the gradual growth of interest ahead of Election Day, and pinpoints key moments like debates and state elections in the run-up.

Twitter in the Regional Elections in Flanders

The next AoIR 2013 paper is by Pieter Verdegem and Evelien D'Heer, who shift our focus to regional elections in Flanders. The role of Twitter in politics has been described from both optimistic and pessimistic perspectives; the Twittersphere has been seen by many to reflect existing social structures. Is there a move from formal and representative politics towards networked politics, though? From broadcasting to convergence logic?

Pieter and Evelien captured all @mentions in the #vk2012 debate, engaging in both content and network analysis. The hashtag was promoted by the public service broadcaster in Flanders, so it provides a useful point of entry into election-related discussions on Twitter and was frequented by politicians, journalists, and ordinary Twitter users. There was a significant spike in tweets on Election Day (14 Oct. 2012), with far less activity on other days - usually around 200 tweets per day. Activity picked up somewhat during the final week of the campaign.

Twitter and Minor Parties in the US Election

The next presenter on this AoIR 2013 panel is Christian Christensen, whose interest is in the minority parties in the US presidential election. He examined the tweets of four minority parties, defined as parties which had enough ballot listings across the states to technically be able to win the election: the Libertarians, the Greens, the Constitution Party, and the Justice Party. This, then, is a study of third party politics - and such parties have traditionally adhered to a polarising and populist style of politics.

In combination, the four parties' candidates had some 129,000 Twitter followers, led by the Libertarians with 100,000. They tweeted only a limited amount of time during the campaign, mostly during the debates and on the day before Election Day. Retweets of their tweets were often centred around a small number of original tweets, and were more or less proportional to their total number of followers.

Twitter Humour in the US Election Debates

Well, with our Twitter and Society book officially launched, I'm now in a final AoIR 2013 session on politics and Twitter. First off, Kevin Driscoll is presenting on the role of Twitter in the US presidential election, noting how much "Twitter's opinion" was used as a yardstick for overall public opinion. There is some slippage here: "Twitter" as the Twitter community, "Twitter" as Twitter, Inc., and "Twitter" as a source of opinion data.

Kevin and his colleagues examined the Twitter activity around the three US presidential debates, following the live Twitter streams as the debates happened and dynamically adding more and more keywords to track on Twitter. They divided these tweets into retweets and original tweets. Some 0.01% of all users accounted for around 25% of all retweeted posts - and these users included politicians, pundits, journalists, comedians, and a variety of other accounts; 62 comic accounts were the source of 4% of all retweets.

How Partisan and Polarised Is #auspol?

This AoIR 2013 also contains a paper by Theresa Sauter and me, on the tone of debate in the #auspol hashtag for the discussion of Australian politics. Here are the slides - audio to follow now online as well...

Exploring Emotions on #auspol: Polarity and Public Performance in the Twitter Debate on Australian Politics from Axel Bruns


Social Media in the 2013 Norwegian Elections

The final paper in our panel at AoIR 2013 is by Anders Larsson and Bente Kalsnes, looking at the Norwegian election on 9 Sep. Their work examines the use of Twitter by citizens, politicians, and journalists. One starting point for this were the #valg2013 and #valg13 hashtags, to identify what users are being mentioned in these hashtags - which showed that then-PM Jens Stoltenberg was @mentioned frequently but did not often reply, while the Greens party both sent and received many hashtagged tweets. Amongst the retweeters, one-off messages which receive substantial retweets can become prominent, but more frequently retweeted users tend to be celebrities (comedians, journalists, etc.)

A second approach was to examine the Twitter uses by some of the key party leaders. As it turns out, during the month before the election there was a strong focus on @replying, especially from the leaders of the smaller parties. Their communication is mainly with their own supporters - there are very few users who received @replies from two or more leading politicians (and these are largely journalists and other media figures, not everyday citizens).

Social Media in the 2013 German Elections

The next paper in our AoIR 2013 panel is by Julia Neubarth and Christian Nuernbergk, covering the German federal election two days after the Australian one. The Net is playing an increasingly important role in political communication in Germany, but there is still very little active participation by citizens, and active participants are mainly male, younger, and left-wing. Politicians are getting more active - some 60% of federal parliamentarians are on Twitter, although Chancellor Merkel still isn't.

German politicians on Twitter will find a mixed audience - use in the country is growing, but still limited; however, active participants are especially interesting as they represent journalists and other media personnel as well as especially politically interested users.

Social Media in the 2013 Italian Elections

The next panel at AoIR 2013 is one which I'm presenting in as well - we've brought together a number of presentations on the use of Twitter in national elections. The first presenter is Luca Rossi, whose focus is on the 2013 Italian election. He and his colleagues have examined activity on Twitter and Facebook during the month before the February election, gathering some 2 million @mentions and finding Facebook content which its own metrics reported some 25 million users talking about.

Is such activity related to the eventual election results at all? Can it predict the election outcome, in fact? This would mean taking the role of opinion polls, which in this election also turned out to be incorrect, partly due to the shifts in the party systems resulting from the rise of the Cinque Stelle party.

Some Recent and Upcoming Work

When this site goes quiet, it’s usually because work is exceptionally busy. My apologies for the long silence since the launch of our major collection A Companion to New Media Dynamics – a range of projects, variously relating to the uses of social media in crisis communication, of Twitter in a number of national elections, of social media as a second-screen backchannel to televised events, and of ‘big data’ in researching online issue publics, have kept me occupied for the past eight months or so.

Now, I’m about to head off to Denver for the annual Association of Internet Researchers conference and on to a number of other events, and you can expect the usual bout of live blogging from these conferences – but before I do so, here’s a quick update of some of the major publications and papers I’ve completed during the past few months. For some more frequent updates on the work of my colleagues and me, you can also follow our updates at Mapping Online Publics and the site of the QUT Social Media Research Group, of course. On the SMRG site, we’ve also posted a list of the presentations we’ll be making at AoIR and beyond – hope to see you there!


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