It feels as if February 2017 has been a month of permanent crisis. Between the exceptionally controversial first steps of the fledgling Trump administration in the United States, the increasingly fragile relationships between the various factions within the Coalition government, and the renewed hostilities between government and opposition on the resumption of federal parliament, hardly a day has gone by without new developments on any number of controversies.
This is also reflected in the Australian Twitter News Index for the month – which sees plenty of newssharing activity, but without any one major story dominating the headlines.
The most shared ABC News stories for the month, for instance, include reports of 70-year-old Australian children’s book author Mem Fox being detained for hours at Los Angeles airport (shared in 2,400 tweets); of a new fennec fox cub being born at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo (2,000 tweets); of multi-million dollar executive salaries at Australia Post (1,100 tweets); of pre-election coal advertising being funded by ‘clean coal’ research funds (930 tweets); and – emerging only on 27 February, and no doubt set to carry over into March – of the release of Centrelink critics’ personal information to journalists (910 tweets).
Remarkably, there’s very little overlap with the most popular articles at the other most widely shared Australian news site, the Sydney Morning Herald; this further demonstrates the breadth of major news stories vying for our attention this month. Here, most shared links include a report of the federal government’s knowledge that renewables had nothing to do with the South Australian blackouts (3,300 tweets); an interactive game to ‘Spicer-ize’ your name, following the White House Press Secretary’s invention of Australian PM Trumble (3,100 tweets); a story on the homophobic and xenophobic speeches at a far right fundraiser in Sydney (2,100 tweets); an interactive special report on shoddy business practices at pizza chain Domino’s (1,000 tweets); and a story about Coalition MP Michael Sukkar’s ill-judged comments about housing affordability (910 tweets).
A handful of other news sites in Australia also captured public attention, if only for much briefer periods. Somewhat divergent from its usual profile, news.com.au tweets spike on 21 February with an article speculating on an impending NASA announcement (2,800 tweets). This would later turn out to be the discovery of seven new exoplanets in our immediate galactic neighbourhood, but the shared article was published before these details were released, and its success may be related to its mention of related debates on Reddit. An article from SBS News on the cancelled meeting between French far right leader Marine Le Pen and the Grand Mufti of Lebanon is shared in 2,400 tweets, most likely due to on-sharing in France and Lebanon. Finally, Laura Tingle’s strongly worded criticism of Tony Abbott’s latest forays into the federal leadership debate results in 1,600 tweets sharing her opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review.
As a representation of the fractured and restive environment we live in, and of the multiple crises and controversies that fill our news feeds, these stories capture the contemporary world fairly well – even if even they still leave out many other sources of uncertainty, from the Syrian conflict to the debate over budget policy.
Little wonder, then, that for most of the Australian news and opinion sites we cover here February 2017 has seen a further increase in total visits compared to the same period last year; news.com.au, Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC News alone received nearly 132 million visits from Australian users in the past month. In spite of the considerable number of breaking news stories emerging during that time, though, day-to-day patterns remained largely static, as our Hitwise data show.
Only Nine News appears to significantly diverge from the status quo, on 21 February. This spike in visits does not correspond to a similar spike in tweets sharing its news content; however, it is likely that it is related to the crash of a plane from Melbourne’s Essendon airport into the nearly DFO shopping centre, which accounts for a considerable number of the Nine News articles being shared on Twitter that day.
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”.