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Trends in the Transformation of Electoral Processes

I'm spending the next couple of days in Sydney at the Australia-New Zealand Workshop on Campaign Management and Political Marketing, where I'm presenting a paper on the use of Twitter during the 2013 Australian federal election tomorrow. But we start today with an introduction by John Keane, who is reflecting on the history of elections during the post-war period.

He suggests that there are a number of big trends in this period. First, the electoral revolution: a huge increase in the number of countries which practice elections. Second, even despotic regimes use elections to legitimise themselves. Third, elections have been indigenised: the electoral process is being adjusted to take into account local traditions, from feeding the poor to driving away evil spirits.

Mapping the Twittersphere for the EU Election

The final speaker in the ASMC14 session is Axel Maireder, whose focus is on the structure of the Twittersphere surrounding the recent European Union election. His approach is to examine the follower networks of participants in relevant discussions, and to explore which factors explain their structural patterns – such as shared national and language identity, political ideology, or other factors.

The study captured all tweets containing keywords such as European Parliament, European Election, and relevant hashtags (in the various European languages), and gathered tweets from some 440,000 users in total. Filtering these to users with at least two tweets and at least 250 followers resulted in some 11,000 core users who were retained for the network analysis.

Online Media in the Italian Presidential Election

The second speaker in this ASMC14 session is Edoardo Novelli, whose interest is in the online activities around the recent election of the Italian President. While the President was elected by members of parliament, a great deal of alternative direct democracy activities took place online, driven especially by the Cinque Stelle movement of Beppe Grillo.

Edoardo conducted an analysis of social as well as mainstream media activities around the election, gathering data from newspapers and television, Internet and social media. During the election, the Net was used by various actors for official and unofficial forms of communication. This caused a change in the traditional flows of information and diffusion across a hybrid news system, impacted on traditional political communication practices, and allowed for the emergence of grassroots voices.

Largely, the Net has been used by parties and politicians for official and political communications. Cinque Stelle ran an online poll of its members as an alternative election to that of the President; important political meetings were broadcast live, and thereby turned into performances; Twitter was used very widely to convene demonstrations; social media were used to comment on events during the election process; political leaders were taking directly to social media to bypass conventional communication channels; party Websites and politican blogs also played a role.

Social Media and Scandinavian Politics

The next speaker in our ASMC14 panel is Anders Larsson, whose interest is in the professionalisation of politics – especially in the context of the increasing use of social media and other ICTs. Campaigns now regularly use social media for political marketing, and Anders's study focusses on the use of Facebook for such purposes – using Netvizz, he gathered activity around the Facebook pages of Swedish and Norwegian parties, party leaders, and other politicians.

Social Media and Australian Politics

The first session at ASMC14 is one I'm in, and focusses on social media and politics – and my QUT colleague Tim Highfield is the first speaker. His interest is in how diverse social media platforms have been integrated into election campaigns and related aspects. This involves a range of new and established actors, and a range of platforms which are used for various purposes from campaigning, activism, and backchannel discussions for televised events, through to being a third space for public discussion and engagement with established voices including journalists and politicians.

In Australia, a number of established Twitter hashtags exist for various purposes – including #auspol for explicitly political debate, and #qanda as a backchannel for a well-known political talkshow, as well as #[state]votes hashtags for specific state and federal elections. But there is plenty more political discussion, especially during election campaigns, outside of such explicit spaces. This tends to spike in volume on and around election day, for a range of reasons, and on that day especially around the time that first results of the vote begin to emerge.

Expanding the Twitter Universe through Link Analysis

The final speakers in this Digital Methods panel are Jürgen Grimm and Christiane Grill. They're interested in moving beyond the analysis of individual tweets to the aggregation of Twitter data which can be used reliably in media research. This requires the use of transparent and clear search or tracking strategies, and a further manual reduction of the data to weed out irrelevant material; further, the intertextual connections of tweets need to be identified and examined, both between each other and with external texts (e.g. from mass media).

The idea in this is to move from an atomistic Twitter universe, based on individual tweets, to a conversational and/or intermedial Twitter universe (variously recognising tweet relationships through @mentions and retweets, or through links and other pointers to external media texts). In the context of the Salzburg state election in Austria, for example, the former means focussing on conversations rather than individual tweets; the latter means identifying all links being shared by Twitter users and generating a hybrid network including tweets and other resources.

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.


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