As the world turns its attention to the slow-motion car crash that is this year’s U.S. presidential election, September in Australia was a comparatively ordinary, intermediate month for news. A number of continuing scandals and controversies – including the donations affair engulfing Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, the Country Fire Authority pay dispute in Victoria, and the growing opposition to a costly nationwide referendum on same-sex marriage – played out through the month, but none of these managed to fully capture the nation’s attention; distractions including the NRL and AFL finals series and the spring school holidays saw to this.
The Australian Twitter News Index for September 2016 therefore points to a gradual decline in the sharing of links to Australian news sites on Twitter, especially as the school holidays commenced in the majority of states and territories on 17 or 24 September; far from the caricatures sometimes drawn by self-interested political operatives, Australian Twitter users have families, too.
The stories from the leading Australian news sites that were most widely shared on Twitter during the past month document the diversity of topics currently exercising the Australian social media community. A Sydney Morning Herald piece accusing Liberal Party members of orchestrating a dishonest campaign opposing same-sex marriage appeared in some 1,400 tweets; the referendum was also addressed in an SMH article that covered the handwritten message to Malcolm Turnbull delivered by a same-sex couple’s 13-year-old son, which received 1,100 tweets.
Elsewhere, the Chinese donations scandal centring on Labor Senator Sam Dastyari generated a number of claims and counter-claims about Chinese influence on Australian politics, and led a May 2016 exposé on political donations to Australian politicians from Chinese interests from the Sydney Morning Herald to re-emerge as the second most widely shared article in September (1,200 tweets). It was accompanied by widely shared SMH stories on the Chinese links of Liberal MP Stuart Roberts (1,200 tweets) and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (1,200 tweets), which in combination seemed to deflect the issue away from Dastyari alone and to raise broader questions about the integrity of the Australian political process.
Such broader issues were also addressed in other leading stories during September: the SMH also questioned Attorney-General George Brandis’s appointment of a major Liberal Party donor to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal just before the commencement of the pre-election caretaker period (1,100 tweets), while ABC News’ interactive data journalism piece on the expenses claimed by federal politicians of all stripes was circulated on Twitter in more than 1,000 tweets during September.
Rounding out the top ten SMH and ABC News articles for the month are articles on the government’s embarrassing procedural mistakes in the Senate (SMH, 1,200 tweets), as well as the only two pieces not dealing with party politics: the plan to register a roadworthy solar car in Queensland (ABC News, 1,100 shares), and the commencement of construction of twelve new solar power plants across Australia (ABC News, 1,000 shares).
The comparatively modest numbers of tweets achieved by each of these leading articles also paints the picture of a month in which user attention was broadly distributed, however: none of these issues, and the many other topics also being addressed in news articles from these and other Australian sources, managed to rise to particular prominence.
The patterns in domestic user visits to Australian news sites captured in our Hitwise data also bear this out. Across the Australian news and opinion sites we track here, activity from week to week remains almost uniform, with very few aberrations; indeed, repeating a pattern we have found in previous years, even the commencement of the school holidays does not appear to affect the number of visits to these sites – it seems that Australian users still follow the news online during the holidays, but are less interested in sharing on news articles during this time.
The one major spike in activity – especially for Nine News and ABC News, and to a much lesser extent also for Adelaide Now – occurs towards the end of the month, on 28 September. As the Adelaide connection indicates, this is almost certainly tied to the major power outages occurring in South Australia on this date, as the result of a number of major storms bringing down crucial powerlines.
Occurring so late in the month, the subsequent political debate over the role of South Australia’s dependence on renewable energy in this outage is unlikely to have substantially affected the statistics on article sharing on Twitter that we track in ATNIX – we will see in the October instalment whether this emerging debate generated enough news sharing activity to appear in that month’s list of leading articles.
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”.