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ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index, February 2015

February 2015 has been a tumultuous month in Australian news, not least because of the continuing leadership debate (and defeated spill motion) in the federal Liberal Party following the LNP’s unexpected defeat in the Queensland state election on 31 January. As expected, these and other events also affect the patterns observed in our Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX) and in the overall Australian online news readership patterns tracked by Experian Hitwise.

That said, the unsuccessful motion for a leadership spill on 9 February fails to generate any truly exceptional spikes in the patterns of newssharing on Twitter: we can identify some slightly elevated levels of activity around a number of news sites (chiefly, ABC News, the Sydney Morning Herald, and news.com.au), but for most sites that Monday does not even constitute their most active day of the week, let alone the month.

A likely reason for this is the blanket media coverage of Liberal leadership speculation since the Queensland state election (or even since the Australia Day news of a knighthood for Prince Philip). The Liberal spill motion was nowhere near as unexpected as the first Rudd/Gillard spill, for example – and as we have seen time and again, Twitter users are less likely to share news items when they can reasonably assume that these are widely known already.

(Abbott loyalists might also want to construe this lack of significant additional activity as an indication that Australians have no interest in all of these “Canberra insider” machinations – but that argument is undermined by the fact that we do see a very substantial amount of day-to-day sharing of articles that discuss the Abbott government and its troubles. It’s just that on 9 February there was no significantly further elevated level of sharing than on other days.)

Australian Twitter News Index, Feb. 2015 Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

This view is also supported by the fact that a number of the more dramatic spikes in sharing activity are directly related to continuing controversies over Abbott’s leadership and government policy: in other words, in sharing links to news articles Twitter users focussed more on the underlying troubles than on the spill motion which resulted from them.

One of the most surprising boosts from such activity is received by The Australian, which – partly due to its paywall – usually struggles to gain more than 2,000 Twitter shares per day: it is linked to in 4,900 tweets on 21 February, largely as a result of its coordinated attack on Abbott that Saturday, consisting of stories about Abbott’s supposed idea of launching a unilateral military intervention in Iraq, about his subsequent denial of such rumours, and about the extent of his chief of staff Peta Credlin’s power over government decisions.

Similarly, SBS draws on its growing stable of news satirists to record a spike well above average on 4 February, with a comedy piece reporting that Julia Gillard had been rushed to hospital with an acute case of Schadenfreude. Meanwhile, The Age gains particular prominence on 26 February with its coverage of the government attacks on Gillian Triggs and the Human Rights Commission, and opinion articles reflecting on the broader implications for evidence-based policy-making and for the status of women in political leadership roles.

Amidst such domestic controversies, other news stories remain somewhat less prominent. The increasing desperation over the impending executions of convicted Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia is manifested in only two widely shared articles: a Herald-Sun story about Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s resistance to calls for clemency on 12 February, and The Age’s coverage of protests and boycotts against Indonesia on 16 February. It is likely that we will see more such articles being shared as the legal and diplomatic efforts to avert the death penalty continue in March, however.

As always, Experian Hitwise data on the total visits to Australian news sites during February paints a somewhat different picture, compared to our ATNIX data on what articles are eventually shared on Twitter. Here, the Liberal leadership spill on 9 February results in small but pronounced increases in visits for most leading news sites – news.com.au, Sydney Morning Herald, nineMSN, The Age, and ABC News all receive clear boosts to their numbers.

Total visits to Australian news and opinion sites, Feb. 2015. Data courtesy of Experian Marketing Services Australia.

More notable, however, is the substantial spike in visits to the Courier-Mail site on the following day, which is almost certainly related to the final stages of the transition of government in the state, as signalled by Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk’s visit to the Queensland governor that afternoon. A simultaneous spike in visits to the Herald-Sun site does not have any similarly obvious explanation.

Overall, however, what is more obvious here is the relative stability of overall trends – there are few major spikes in activity, suggesting that following the holidays readers have now settled back into their daily routines of reading news online. This is also reflected in the volume of total visits across the sites, which is almost identical to last month’s patterns – news.com.au, Sydney Morning Herald, and Daily Mail Australia retain their overall leadership positions, and their gaps from each other.

The only significant movement is amongst the opinion sites: The New Daily’s strong run over recent months is fading, and it falls further behind The Conversation (but remains a clear second); New Matilda surpasses The Morning Bulletin to claim fourth place on the leaderboard; and Independent Australia considerably increases its share of visits (from 86,000 in January to 400,000 this month), catching up to the leadership group.

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”.

ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index, January 2015

Ordinarily, January is a relatively slow news month in Australia. That’s far from true for January 2015, however: first, the Queensland premier Campbell Newman surprised journalists, the opposition, and quite a few of his own colleagues by calling an almost unprecedentedly early state election. Then, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “captain’s call” of awarding a knighthood to Prince Philip as part of the Australia Day honours generated first disbelief, then significant criticism of Abbott’s leadership style. Finally, the Queensland Liberal/National Party lost what almost everybody had considered an unloseable election on 31 January – resulting in further recriminations and finally an unsuccessful leadership spill motion in the federal Liberal Party (but that’s a matter for next month’s article).

Time, then, to examine how any of these events affected news sharing and news reading patterns in Australia, as tracked by our Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX) and Experian Hitwise. We begin as usual with the day-to-day patterns of news sharing on Twitter, across the 36 major Australian news and opinion sites we are tracking (as always, click to enlarge the graphs).

Australian Twitter News Index, Jan. 2015 Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the major spike in tweets sharing links to Brisbane’s Courier-Mail on 4 January relates to an early scoop foreshadowing Campbell Newman’s decision to call an election – but you’d be wrong: as is so often the case with such major spikes in sharing activity, this one relates instead to a story which has gone viral well beyond the usual online readership of the Courier-Mail. In this particular case, the paper’s article inviting viewers to vote for “the biggest sports jerk of the week” also included Saudi Arabian footballer Nasser Al-Shamrani as one of the options, and tweets flagging this were widely retweeted within the Saudi Twittersphere (where Twitter is particularly popular at present). Even a smaller, secondary spike on 7 January is still related to this article – by contrast, the Courier-Mail’s articles about the coming election are not shared particularly widely during the same week.

This is not necessarily a surprise, however: the Courier-Mail is traditionally not a strong performer when it comes to readers sharing its content on Twitter, and in spite of the surprise at the early election date, it is very common to see only limited user engagement with election coverage during the early weeks of a campaign. As we approach the tail end of the Queensland election period, there’s a significant increase in sharing activity – especially as it relates to ABC News, which records its strongest performance on 30 January, the Friday before election day. Although no one single article emerges as the major driver of this increase, many of the most widely shared ABC articles that day relate to the Queensland election.

In between these dates, we find the inevitable spike in shared links that occurred on Australia Day, 26 January, as the Prime Minister’s knighthood decision was made public. Here, the Sydney Morning Herald and (to a lesser extent) its stablemate The Age win the contest to provide the most salient and shareable content, as they receive the greatest number of additional tweets. A quick look at what exactly is being shared also reveals an interesting transformation of the story over the course of the day, from a simple news report about the knighthood decision through articles pointing out Prince Philip’s many gaffes, reports about Abbott having to defend his choice, and furious reactions from his Coalition colleagues, finally to coverage of the social media reaction to the knighthood.

Experian Hitwise’s overall patterns of access to these Australian news sites, beyond the sharing of their links, also point to the substantial controversy which Abbott’s knighthood decision caused: again, we see a pronounced spike in site visits across multiple news sites on Australia Day, with the Sydney Morning Herald receiving a particularly above-average number of visitors. This is especially unusual in the context of a public holiday and long weekend, during which we would usually expect a significant drop in attention to the news. As news.com.au, Daily Mail Australia, The Age, ABC News, and Guardian Australia also show patterns of heightened activity on Australia Day, it also becomes obvious that the response to the knighthood was not merely a Twitter storm (or an outbreak of “electronic graffiti”, as the PM described it), but reflects considerably more broad-based disapproval.

Total visits to Australian news and opinion sites, Jan. 2015. Data courtesy of Experian Marketing Services Australia.

By contrast, the early Twitter spike for the Courier-Mail’s “sports jerk” article is not replicated in the Hitwise data: this spike clearly was a phenomenon related directly to social media activities, and driven by users outside of Australia. As our Experian Hitwise data show general site visits by Australian users only, such international activities are unlikely to register here.

Finally, the small but notable uptick in site visits on 31 January, the Queensland election day, which the Hitwise data also reveal, points to a very select distribution of user attention on the day. While most of the news sites experience their usual weekend slump, ABC News and the Brisbane Times actually gain visitors on the Saturday, most likely because of their rolling coverage of the emerging election result and its implications. Left out from this trend, however, is the major Queensland newspaper, the Courier-Mail, which does not see any gains. The available data do not provide sufficient basis for a conclusive judgment on this point, but we may speculate whether the disconnect between the paper’s strong opposition to Annastacia Palaszczuk and the very evident voter backlash against Campbell Newman may be a reason for this comparatively weak performance on election 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 Experian Marketing Services Australia. This research is supported by the ARC Future Fellowship project “Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere”.

#qldvotes: A Final Social Media Round-Up

By any measure, it’s been an extraordinary weekend here in Queensland. The same electoral tsunami that brought the LNP to power in March 2012 has washed the government away again in January 2015. Premier Campbell Newman has lost his own seat of Ashgrove, and Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk looks poised to form government – although whether Labor can govern in its own right or will need to depend on the support of the crossbenchers still remains to be determined as late counting continues.

This post is the final step in our analysis of social media activities surrounding the Queensland election, following on from previous updates here and here. A reminder about our methodology: the dataset for this analysis includes any tweets which contain the key hashtags #qldvotes and #qldpol, their variations, and related keywords, as well as mentions of the Premier and Opposition Leader and of any of the parties by name; further, we’ve identified the Twitter accounts of over 150 candidates and are capturing any public tweets directed at them, as well as any of their own tweets that include any election-related hashtags and keywords.

For this update, let us begin with a closer look at how election day itself unfolded. An overview of the major hashtags used in election-related tweets over the course of the day is useful for this purpose (as always, the totals here will add up to more than 100% because some tweets contained multiple hashtags). Starting our analysis from 8 a.m. on Saturday, we see the #putlnplast hashtag make much of the early running, as part of Labor’s (and some of the minor parties’) last-ditch campaign to ensure that no preferences are lost to the count. There is also significant use of the #ashgrove and #brisbane hashtags, pointing to the obvious importance of the urban Brisbane electorates to the eventual outcome of the vote.

Trending #qldvotes hashtags on election day Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

By 5 p.m., the Nine News / Galaxy exit poll predicting a substantially worse than expected result for the LNP government has captured the majority of the attention: both #9news and #breaking begin to trend, and #breaking continues over the following hours as the discussion moves on from Nine’s exit poll to first booth results but the surprise about the unexpected election trend persists. Finally, as the evening progresses we see a very notable shift in focus: beyond the shock about the Queensland government’s demise, discussion now turns increasingly to its implications across the nation. #nswpol and #wapol come to trend (as the two states next in line for state elections), alongside #vicpol, and the broader discussion about the future direction of the #lnp also gathers steam.

Longer-term patterns in the data show the usual election day spike in tweeting activity, which sets in especially after polling booths close and television broadcasts begin to present first exit polls, predictions, and increasingly robust voting trends. On Saturday, in fact, this happened slightly earlier than usual, as Channel Nine – going against established media conventions – reported its exit poll even while polling booths were still open, thus potentially influencing the choices made by late voters.

Volume of Twitter activity during #qldvotes Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

Interestingly, even as an unexpectedly strong election performance by the ALP became more and more of a certainty over the course of the evening, the divergent patterns in Twitter activity that we’ve noted throughout the election remained stable: a substantially greater number of tweets mentioned terms related to the LNP than to the ALP in their content (as shown in the first graph above), but somewhat more tweets directly @mentioned or retweeted ALP candidates’ accounts than those of LNP candidates (as is evident from the second graph above) – with the accounts of independent or minor party candidates mentioned far less still.

My reading of this continues to be that Twitter users were significantly more happy to talk about the LNP than they were to directly engage with their candidates, and conversely far more happy to @mention and retweet ALP candidates than to talk about the ALP as such. Of course this also seems to be borne out by the eventual election results – while Twitter is inevitably not directly representative of overall popular opinion, here it appears to be reasonably closely aligned with it.

It is useful to compare this again with the candidates’ own tweeting activities, too. The graphs below clearly show that ALP candidates were substantially more active and more popular than their LNP and minor party counterparts, even in spite of the electorate’s overall focus on discussing the LNP government.

The first of the three graphs indicates the total number of tweets referring to the various parties – and here we see more than 2 ½ times more tweets about the LNP than about the ALP. The balance is reversed in the second graph: tweets @mentioning or retweeting ALP candidates outperformed those to LNP candidates by a factor of 1.25 – and while @mentions came out roughly even in the end, ALP candidates received more than seven times the number of retweets that LNP candidates did – this points to a substantially greater willingness to endorse candidates’ statements.

Party mentions during #qldvotes Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

Finally, ALP candidates were also quite simply a great deal more active than those of the LNP or any other party: overall, they posted more than 7,400 tweets over the course of the campaign, compared to just over 3,000 tweets from everyone else (of which just under half were posted by LNP candidates). Clearly this very active use of Twitter gave ordinary users a greater opportunity to endorse ALP candidates’ statements by retweeting them, and thus to increase their visibility on Twitter and beyond (since tweets are often also cross-posted to Facebook and other social media platforms).

As with any election, it would be foolish to say that its social media activity (or any other single factor, for that matter) won Labor the election, of course – the ALP was also very active on Twitter during the previous Queensland state election in March 2012, for example, and during the Australian federal election in September 2013, but it seems certain that no amount of social media action could have prevented the landslides it suffered in those cases.

In a campaign as close as this year’s, however, surely the ability to spread additional election messages through social media won’t have hurt Labor’s candidates. It’s a truism in marketing that messages delivered by trusted friends through word of mouth are considerably more effective than generic advertisements, and this is true also for the particular form of marketing that elections represent: trusted Twitter or Facebook contacts sharing on a Labor candidate’s call to number every box and put the LNP last, for example, are likely to be a great deal more effective than the various party banners plastered all over the polling booths.

In the 2015 Queensland state election, then, it is similarly likely that no amount of social media activity from LNP candidates would have prevented a very significant correction of the previous election’s extraordinary result. However, by remaining largely inactive – in comparison to their major challengers – the LNP and its candidates essentially ceded the social media space to the ALP and the other opposition parties altogether; even LNP supporters on Twitter had very little party content that they could have used to counter the many retweets received by ALP candidates’ tweets. Giving up the social media contest in this way, right from the start of the campaign, must be seen as another failure of the LNP campaign – and in an election as close as this, every last mistake matters.