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ECPR 2011

European Consortium for Political Research conference, Reykjavik, 25-27 Aug. 2011

The Use of Twitter Hashtags in the Formation of Ad Hoc Publics (ECPR 2011)

European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR 2011)

The Use of Twitter Hashtags in the Formation of Ad Hoc Publics

Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess

As the use of Twitter has become more commonplace throughout many nations, its role in political discussion has also increased. This has been evident in contexts ranging from general political discussion through local, state, and national elections (such as in the 2010 Australian elections) to protests and other activist mobilisation (for example in the current uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, as well as in the controversy around WikiLeaks).

Research into the use of Twitter in such political contexts has also developed rapidly, aided by substantial advancements in quantitative and qualitative methodologies for capturing, processing, analysing, and visualising Twitter updates by large groups of users. Recent work has especially highlighted the role of the Twitter hashtag – a short keyword, prefixed with the hash symbol ‘#’ – as a means of coordinating a distributed discussion between more or less large groups of users, who do not need to be connected through existing ‘follower’ networks.

Twitter hashtags – such as ‘#ausvotes’ for the 2010 Australian elections, ‘#londonriots’ for the coordination of information and political debates around the recent unrest in London, or ‘#wikileaks’ for the controversy around WikiLeaks thus aid the formation of ad hoc publics around specific themes and topics. They emerge from within the Twitter community – sometimes as a result of pre-planning or quickly reached consensus, sometimes through protracted debate about what the appropriate hashtag for an event or topic should be (which may also lead to the formation of competing publics using different hashtags).

Drawing on innovative methodologies for the study of Twitter content, this paper examines the use of hashtags in political debate in the context of a number of major case studies.

The Politics of Editing Wikipedia

The final speaker in this session at ECPR 2011 is Thomas Roessing, who focusses on Wikipedia. His interest is in the politics of Wikipedia’s community of participants, which engages both at a meta level (on Wikipedia as such) and the discussion level (discussing the content of individual articles). Those two levels also interact, of course, and also influence the level of the articles themselves. Researchers can examine these processes by studying the records of online discussion for each article, which Wikipedia also keeps.

Making Sense of Online Media during French Presidential Elections

The next speakers at ECPR 2011 are Jean-Marc Francony and Françoise Papa, who take an information science approach. They begin by noting that their research encountered a number of major methodological difficulties – challenging problems to learn from for further research.

The Web has become more important for the communication of politics in France. TV and traditional mass media still remained the first channels of communication for political parties, and as a tool for politicians to present themselves, and Websites of political parties mainly pursued a top-down communication model in the 2007 presidential campaign, but this is slowly changing. The Web is now established as an additional channel for information; can this new media context change political communication?

Making Sense of Twitter Hashtags as Ad Hoc Publics

Our paper was next at ECPR 2011 – and we presented our thoughts on the role of Twitter hashtags in providing a space for ad hoc online publics. This also builds on some of the work we’ve done during our week-long workshop at the University of Münster last week. I’ll add audio shortly Audio included below, PDF available here:

Members of the European Parliament Online

The next session at ECPR 2011 is the one our paper is in, too – but we start with Darren Lilleker, whose focus is on the online communication strategies of Members of the European Parliament. One idea of this study was to examine the role which their various domestic political and media systems played in determining their communication strategies – but there was no obvious correlation at all. (Part of this might be due to the fact that all MEPs receive equal resourcing.)

So, the question becomes: what audiences are these MEPs targetting, and how? Darren and his team pursued this by examining the elements variously targetting general users, journalists, issue activists, and partisan supporters. They found that there is a sense of sophistication in using Web-based information sites; a quarter of MEPs have blogs embedded into their sites, for example, and a fair few allow comments as well (but they don’t tend to get many). Overall, the sites present a very professional picture, with very limited personal information.

Uses of the Internet in Political Campaigning in Italy

The final speaker in this ECPR 2011 session is Giovanna Mascheroni (or is it Alice Mattoni?), whose interest is in online politics in Italian regional elections during 2010. Her team developed a code book for assessing online party presence and performance during these elections, which is now also being applied to local and European elections. This included Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube as well as general online presence.

To what extent does the use of social media in Italian elections bear any traits of a convergence culture, with political debate taking on elements of transmedia storytelling involving different political actors? To what extent did candidates appropriate the interactive potential of social media?

Social Media Use by Candidates in Australian Federal Elections

The next ECPR 2011 speaker is Rachel Gibson, who focusses on online campaigning in the 2010 Australian federal election. Has the type of Web campaigning that candidates engage in changed over time, and who is using social media for their campaigning activities? And does it matter – in other words, does it convert to support?

Part of this is related to the normalisation vs. equalisation debate – does online campaigning level the playing field between larger and smaller parties, or do the larger, richer parties also spend more funds on online campaigning (and more effectively so)? Is this different again with the move from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0? And how effective are these different modes of campaigning in generating support for a party?

U.S. Political Candidates on Facebook

The next session at ECPR 2011 starts with Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, whose interest is in the performance of politicians on Facebook. There have been a few spectacular successes, of course (most obviously, Barack Obama), and social media have now become a key tool in political campaigning, but it remains unclear how widespread such successes really are. Most politicians who use social media are largely ignored, in fact.

Rasmus’s study tracked candidates in the 112 most competitive electoral districts in the U.S. House and Senate races (who might be assumed to have the most resources at their disposal, given the strong competition); however, most of them found only a relatively small audience. Engagement with candidates is concentrated on a small number of politicians; while most people (and most politicians) are online, only a few are actually successful with their online activities. These people may not be ahead of the curve as much as on top of the curve, Rasmus suggests. We should look for the implications of using online media through different lenses, therefore: by examining the institutional and indirect effects of social media in politics.

Norwegian Nationalist Parties Online

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Øyvind Kalnes, whose focus is on Norwegian nationalist parties online (very topical given recent events, of course). The three main nationalist parties in Norway are the Progress Party (around 16% of the votes), the Democrats, and the Coast Party (around 1% each). Local elections are coming up soon – so how are new technologies adopted by these parties?

Øyvind focussed on their online presences on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter since 2007, and also conducted interviews with key party personnel, he also engaged in some preliminary data analysis following the 22 July massacre. What is the timing and ambition of these parties’ adoption of online technologies, what interparty competition exists here, who drives these processes and what form and content does the Web presence take? How does this relate to offline politics?

Irish Parties Online in the 2011 General Election

The next presenter at ECPR 2011 is Matthew Wall, whose interest is on the 2011 Irish general election – with a specific focus on Sinn Féin. The 2011 elections reshaped the Irish party system (in response to the global financial crisis), and meant a further step for SF away from its close associations with the nationalist ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland and towards becoming a mainstream party in the Republic of Ireland.

SF has a mixed history in terms of online initiatives: they were the first Irish party to launch a Website, and had presences in Bebo and MySpace, but also still struggle to manage their message in conventional media as they’re regularly confronted with their terrorist links. Their candidates traditionally have poor individual Web presence (5% of candidates as opposed to 32% of other parties’ candidates had their own sites), and remain somewhat elusive to the media in general.


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