Social media and society

Social media and society

ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index, May 2016

AAP/Lukas Coch

We’re now well into the federal election season, and of course this is reflected in the Twitter-based news sharing activities captured in the Australian Twitter News Index as well. But – because as in previous elections the general public tends to fully connect with the campaign only in the final weeks before election day – that’s not the only topic emerging from the past month’s data, as we will see.

Unfortunately, our Twitter data for the month are also affected by two outages due to server maintenance (highlighted in grey in the graph below). As these occurred mostly during weekends, though, they have only a limited impact on the overall analysis.

The overall trends in the Twitter-based sharing of the news published by Australian sites have remained stable for the most part. After a difficult April, the Sydney Morning Herald has narrowed the gap to ABC News somewhat, and it is tempting to read this as a reflection of the additional interest sparked by the early election campaign. The Australian and the Australian Financial Review, as prominent platforms with a particular specialisation on political news, have also caught up to match general-purpose site news.com.au more closely. We may see this pattern continued through June and July as well.

Amongst the opinion sites, Crikey has leapfrogged The Saturday Paper and Independent Australia to claim third place during May, and this too is consistent with a gradual shift towards a greater focus on political news as the campaign gathers speed. The comparatively poor performance of The Saturday Paper is most certainly also due to the fact that it is disproportionately much affected by our server outages, which occurred on two Saturdays and therefore specifically affected the day of the week that is most important for Saturday Paper news sharing.

Australian Twitter News Index, May 2016. Axel Bruns / QUT Digital Media Research Centre

Before we delve into what ATNIX can tell us about the early weeks of the election campaign: I’ve tried, believe me, to find any widely shared stories about Australia’s unprecedented second placing in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. But none of the stories that were widely shared on 14 May or the days following it related to Dami Im’s performance, as it turns out.

This may be because the links shared on Twitter pointed to parts of the SBS site outside of the SBS News content that ATNIX tracks – but more likely, it’s simply because Eurovision is now so widely televised in Australia that Twitter users no longer feel the need to let their followers know about it. And given the delayed telecast in Australia, there may even be a tacit agreement not to post any spoilers about the eventual outcome.

But to weightier matters involving less photogenic contestants: while Eurovision was over within a few days, this year the Australian election campaign drags on for nearly two months. Plenty of time, then, for Twitter users to share the news reports that they think matter to public debate. Here, we’ll focus only on our two market leaders: ABC News and Sydney Morning Herald.

A review of the most shared articles for both sides during May reveals a very strong focus on climate change and environmental policy to date: seven of the ten most shared stories in May have an environmental angle.

The SMH report about sea level expert John Church being sacked in CSIRO’s cuts while on a research voyage in the South Polar Sea leads the field with some 2,700 shares; an SMH article about our passing of the negative milestone of 400 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere received some 2,000 shares; while more positively, an ABC News report about a new more efficient solar cell developed at UNSW received nearly 1,800 shares.

The processes of politics and the media dominate the next most prominent stories. We recorded 1,700 shares for an SMH article about the likely shutdown of the ABC’s Fact Check unit; nearly 1,500 were received by an SMH piece that suggested that the Coalition’s proposed PaTH interns programme was illegal under Australian law.

In spite of the continuing public debate about Australia’s refugee policy, articles relating to it were shared much less frequently in May. The one story that did receive nearly 1,400 shares was the ABC News report about a second refugee setting herself alight in the Nauru internment camp; outside of such horrific events, the treatment of asylum seekers is surprisingly absent from our data.

The remaining four most widely shared stories in May again cover environmental matters. Nearly 1,400 tweets referenced NASA’s appeal to CSIRO not to cut its climate research, reported in the SMH; 1,300 each linked to an ABC News piece about administrative hurdles to renewable energy projects and an SMH follow-up on the 400ppm carbon dioxide report; and on a somewhat different angle, an ABC News report about the 600 tonnes of radioactive fuel still missing after the Fukushima meltdown was shared some 1,100 times during May.

What has been shared here is an early indication of the themes and topics that Twitter users have found worth sharing with their followers; this serves as a useful counterpoint to the exploration of the themes being addressed in @mentions of political candidates in my recent post about social media in the federal election (which also covered a slightly later period of time).

But while our Twitter news sharing data may point to a growing engagement with Australian federal politics during May, the patterns on Australian users’ visits to news and opinion sites that are provided by our Hitwise data largely reflect the long-term status quo: to date, there is no significant rise in visits to the mainstream news sites yet. Indeed, as was to be expected, Nine News slips back somewhat as the increased flow of visitors created by the 60 Minutes kidnapping drama in Beirut in April washes out of the system in May.

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

There is no particular Eurovision bump to be identified in mid-May, either, nor should we realistically expect to see one – Eurovision remains too much of a specialty event, and is now too well televised in Australia, to generate an increase in visits to Australian news sites that would be notable against the general backdrop. SBS’s Website may well have received a greater number of visitors from its broadcast of the semi-finals and finals – but SBS News, as tracked by Hitwise, did not.

But back to the election: as we trundle through June and towards the 2 July election date, we would expect to see a gradual rise certainly in the volume of Australian news links being shared on Twitter, and perhaps also in the number of visits to Australian news sites that Hitwise captures. How pronounced such a rise turns out to be may well also reflect how close the Australian public perceive the electoral race to be, so we’ll watch further developments with great interest.

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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