Social media and society

Social media and society

ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index, January-March 2016

In spite of my best intentions, I’m afraid the Australian Twitter News Index continues to be a somewhat irregular affair for the moment, and so this latest update once again covers a number of months: in this case, it’s reporting on news sharing patterns in Australia for the first quarter of 2016. We begin, therefore, with some of the overall trends in the data. Most notable, perhaps, is that The Conversation has advanced to become Australia’s third most widely shared news and opinion site: the more than 260,000 tweets linking to its content during January to March 2016 bested even the performance of such established mainstream news sites as news.com.au, The Age, and The Australian.

It is important to remember here, though, that this figure captures the global volume of tweets linking to each site: The Conversation’s continuing expansion into new territories (now including the UK, US, France, and southern Africa) no doubt accounted for a substantial portion of all tweets linking to the site, and – following ABC News and the Sydney Morning Herald – it is now well on its way to becoming a globally recognised news and opinion site. By comparison, we may also assume that those sites it has leapfrogged since our December update (when it was ranked sixth) continue to be popular mostly with a domestic audience, and largely fail to make much of an international impact.

Australian Twitter News Index, January-March 2016. Axel Bruns / QUT Digital Media Research Centre

While there is not enough space to cover all the specific news events contained in the present dataset, a handful of other observations are also worth making. First, somewhat hidden in the data is a spike in link sharing activity for a number of sites around Australia Day – and as we will see from our Hitwise data below, this translates into a substantial increase in site visitors especially for commentary site New Matilda: its article on that day’s Google doodle – a stunning artwork commemorating the Stolen Generations – accounts for some three quarters of the 2,000 tweets linking to New Matilda that day, and drives the number of total visits to the site to more than 500,000, when on normal days it struggles to break 50,000. Not all of the link sharing spikes on Australia Day are related to that story, however: the most widely shared piece on Nine News, by contrast, is about a US dog “accidentally” running a half-marathon, and also gains some 2,000 tweets.

Later in the quarter, SBS (and its subsidiary channel, National Indigenous Television) generate substantial impact, by comparison with their average level of visibility on Twitter, with a collection of articles addressing International Women’s Day. In total, its series of articles highlighting a range of inspiring women – including especially also indigenous Australian leaders – as well as addressing continuing sexism and injustice towards women more than doubles the number of tweets linking to SBS content, to nearly 3,400 tweets on 6 March 2016.

Meanwhile, the most shared articles on the leading news sites paint a widely divergent picture of day-to-day politics. On ABC News, they reflect a strong focus on the environment: a 28 March story on the large-scale coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef received some 2,100 tweets, while a report on 31 January on the devastating impact of Tasmania’s summer fires gains 1,500 shares, and an article on 21 January about the International Whaling Commission’s highly critical report on Japan’s continued illegal whaling programme receives nearly 1,400 tweets.

At the Sydney Morning Herald, several issues vie for attention. Leading the back is the paper’s 23 March report that the New South Wales Liberal Party ‘concealed’ illegal donations before the 2011 state election, attracting some 2,500 shares; but a 26 March article on “why Finland has the best schools” is also in the running, with 1,800 tweets linking to it (including quite possibly some Finnish Twitter users). In third place, finally, is the SMH’s 18 January coverage of an Oxfam report on the growing global inequality between rich and poor; it received some 1,600 tweets.

As always, our Hitwise data on the total number of visits by Australian Internet users to each of the news and opinion sites we track paint a somewhat different picture, both in total numbers and in the distribution of attention. To begin with, here The Conversation is not ranked quite so highly, since the Hitwise figures do not include international visitors to the site; nonetheless, The Conversation ranks a strong second in the opinion category in Australia, following the Huffington Post’s Australian operation. HuffPo Australia, by contrast, is further ahead of competition such as The New Daily than its link-sharing performance on Twitter would lead us to believe: New Daily readers seem more willing to promote its content in their tweets at this stage.

Total visits to selected Australian news and opinion sites, January-March 2016. Data courtesy of Hitwise, a division of Connexity.

The overall ranking of the mainstream news sites in Australia has remained largely stable, and a notable gap in the number of total visits has developed between the top six sites and the remainder of all Australian news and opinion sites. Amongst that group, the Australian operation of the UK’s Daily Mail has dropped back again behind The Age and ABC News, following its excursion to fourth place during the November/December 2015 period; perhaps the particularly Australian focus of the news during the summer period (including the coverage around Australia Day and its various ceremonies and debates) has contributed to this renewed focus on more home-grown sites.

Also clearly visible in the Hitwise data is the substantial spike for New Matilda on Australia Day that we have already discussed above. Here, we see a clear demonstration of a site advancing – suddenly and briefly – well above its long-term baseline, but it is also notable that this does not have any lasting effect on New Matilda’s overall visitor numbers. It is quite possible, incidentally, that this increase was driven at least in part by Google itself: Google will often link to further information about the stories behind its doodles, and New Matilda’s story about it may well have been picked up as an article to link to, creating a feedback loop of attention.

What is striking about the key themes during the first quarter of 2016, then, is especially their focus on fundamental long-term topics, from the environment to reconciliation. As we return to the day-to-day politicking of a federal election year, we’re likely to see this replaced again by a considerably more narrow focus on short-term issues.

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 Hitwise, a division of Connexity. This research is supported by the ARC Future Fellowship project “Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere”.

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