Social media and society

Social media and society

ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index, December 2014

The final ATNIX for 2014 arrives with a slight delay due to the summer holidays, but covers an unexpectedly dramatic few weeks in Australian public life, due especially to the deadly siege in the Lindt Café in Sydney’s Martin Place in mid-December. This major breaking news story and its tragic aftermath are clearly reflected in the patterns of news sharing on Twitter and in the patterns of access to major Australian news sites as we’re seeing them in the data provided by Experian Marketing Services, but there are also clear differences between the specific response of Twitter users and the more general news access patterns which are instructive of how Internet users respond to such key events.

In the absence of any major events, what the Australian Twitter News Index should show us in December is a gradual decline of new sharing activity as we enter the slow news space of the Australian summer, with even market leader ABC News struggling to pass the 5,000 tweets/day mark. The December 2014 ATNIX diverges from that pattern several times, however: in addition to the roughly threefold increase in overall link sharing volume during the Sydney siege and its aftermath on 15 and 16 Dec., there is in fact also a similar spike in traffic one week earlier, on 8 Dec. (we did not capture any data for the first few days of December, due to server maintenance).

Australian Twitter News Index, Dec. 2014. Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

This first spike is caused by the unexpected death of writer, comedian, and disability rights campaigner Stella Young, which generated a substantial response from the Australian Twittersphere. Several of the stories reporting Young’s death and reflecting on the achievements of her life were very widely shared – including especially those published by ABC News, the Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age –, and the strong social media reponse to her death also became a story in itself. Young’s “Letter to Herself at 80”, published in Fairfax papers only a few weeks before her death and republished again in response, was also widely shared again.

Such a strong response reflects in part also the comparatively high-brow nature of news sharing interests in the Australian Twittersphere, where quality news sites tend to dominate. Notably, there is no corresponding increase in total site visits to Australian news sites during the same days: while the Twittersphere reacted strongly to Young’s death, therefore, it appears that the same is less true for the greater Australian public.

By contrast, there are matching spikes both in the number of links shared and in the number of visits to Australian news sites during and after the Sydney siege – and the range of URLs shared on Twitter during the event also differs considerably. Sites whose stories are featured prominently during the event include ABC News, and the Sydney Morning Herald, again (though not The Age, as a Melbourne- rather than Sydney-based publication), but also news.com.au, Yahoo!7 News, The Australian, the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph.

In most of these cases, the various live blogs and live streams these sites offered (including especially also the live streams for ABC News 24, on the ABC News site, and 7 News Sydney, at Yahoo!7 News) were especially widely redistributed, and would also have been shared in tweets by non-Australian Twitter users. While such international shares necessarily inflate the volume of link sharing activity capture by ATNIX, a comparison with the total volume of news sites visits as captured in our Experian Marketing Services data (which covers Australian users only) also shows the very substantial increase in domestic attention to Australian news sites.

Total visits to Australian news and opinion sites, Dec. 2014. Data courtesy of Experian Marketing Services Australia.

Notably, and again reflecting the more high-brow news focus of the Australian Twittersphere when compared to the overall Australian Internet user population, a somewhat different set of sites receive greater attention during the Sydney siege. Market leaders news.com.au and Sydney Morning Herald receive well over twice their average number of visits during the crisis, and NineMSN and ABC News also increase their audience substantially; as on Twitter, however, the Melbourne-based Age fails to attract similar numbers to its coverage.

Yahoo! 7 News records an even more dramatic increase: hovering normally just above the 100,000 visits mark, its coverage (initially produced from offices just across the road from the Lindt Café) attracts more than one million visits on 15 December. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph more than doubles its usual number of site visits, too, but its strongest day (with over 1.1 million visits) is 16 December, perhaps due to its controversial coverage of the siege aftermath. (Similar patterns apply to Brisbane’s Courier-Mail and to The Australian, incidentally.)

The divergent patterns we see across ATNIX and the Experian Marketing Services data on total site visits to Australian news sites during December offer useful insights into the ways that Australians found out about and engage with the news, especially around breaking news events. Twitter (and, by extension, other social media platforms) is clearly important in sharing breaking news – and indeed, some breaking news events, such as the death of Stella Young, clearly generate a much stronger echo amongst the specific demographics of the Australian Twittersphere than they do across the greater Australian public.

But the composition of what is being shared on Twitter, in terms of popular sites and sources, does not necessarily influence and reflect the broader usage patterns of the Australian Internet population: here, different sites tend to dominate the market, and this does not appear to change substantially even though Twitter users are strongly promoting specific sources of new information about unfolding events. It is difficult to conclusively ascribe causality here, of course: do visits to Yahoo!7 News’ coverage of the siege increase dramatically because Twitter users are sharing links to it to an unusual degree, or is the increased link sharing in fact caused by those unusually many visits? We’ll seek to explore the evidence for either interpretation in further analysis.

But whether Australians find out about breaking news through Twitter and other social media, or by other means: online news sites, and the live blogs and live stream they provide, clearly have become a key source of information by now.

Standard background information: ATNIX is based on tracking all tweets which contain links pointing to the URLs of a large selection of leading Australian news and opinion sites (even if those links have been shortened at some point). Datasets for those sites which cover more than just news and opinion (abc.net.au, sbs.com.au, ninemsn.com.au) are filtered to exclude the non-news sections of those sites (e.g. abc.net.au/tv, catchup.ninemsn.com.au). Data on Australian Internet users’ news browsing patterns are provided courtesy of Experian Marketing Services Australia. This research is supported by the ARC Future Fellowship project “Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere”.

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