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Two Weeks into #ausvotes, How Are the Parties Doing on Twitter?

We’ve entered week three of the 2013 Australian federal election campaign, and current opinion polls still have the major parties within a few points of each other. Time, then, for a close look at how the parties and their candidates are using Twitter as part of their campaigning strategies thus far.

To examine party activities, at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation we’re tracking as many of the Twitter accounts of sitting members and election candidates as we’ve been able to find – more than 400 at last count, and we’re still adding some more minor candidates whom we’ve only come across now that the electoral rolls have closed. We’re capturing all tweets from these candidates, as well as @mentions of them (including retweets as well as @replies), to develop a picture of where the action is. (More details in a previous post here.)

Unsurprisingly, the two main candidates for the Prime Ministership continue to tower well above all others as far as @mentions are concerned. Cumulatively and over the longer term (that is, counting all @mentions since the start of July), Kevin Rudd continues to lead Tony Abbott by a wide margin; a result, most likely, of his greater Twitter follower base as well as of his status as the incumbent PM. Here are the trajectories of the ten most frequently @mentioned accounts since 1 July:

@mentions of political leaders since 1 July.

However, the cumulative figures mainly show the lead in @mentions which Rudd had built up over Abbott during July. Since the election itself was called, the situation is considerably tighter. In terms of the total number of @mentions, Rudd won week one (from calling the election on 4 August to the first leaders’ debate on 11 August), but Abbott led during most of week two:

@mentions of political leaders since 30 July.

That increase in @mentions doesn’t necessarily imply approval, however, as a brief examination of the spike of activity around Tony Abbott’s account on Wednesday 14 Aug. demonstrates: a significant proportion of the @mentions that day referred to his description of same-sex relationships as “the fashion of the moment”, and/or commented (not always approvingly) on his ABC 7.30 interview with Leigh Sales that night.

Rather than mere support, if the total volume of @mentions indicates the amount of popular attention and scrutiny candidates receive, then the spotlight has firmly shifted towards Abbott during the second week of the campaign. Here is the cumulative picture again, but for week two of the campaign only:

@mentions of political leaders since 12 August (cumulative)

That’s some 4,000 @mentions more for Tony Abbott over Kevin Rudd during the past week – but again, with the attention paid to Abbott’s comments on marriage equality and continuing discussion of his “sex appeal” comments, those @mentions should not be seen as implying universal endorsement.

Notably, in any such activity patterns around the politicians, there is a strong disconnect from how they themselves are actually using Twitter to get the message out. Of the ten most @mentioned Australian politicians we have identified above, only three – retiring Labor Minister Craig Emerson, Greens leader Christine Milne, and Opposition communication spokesman Malcolm Turnbull – have tweeted an average of more than ten times per day since the start of July, while Rudd and Abbott are at the bottom of the group.

Tweets by leading politicians since 1 July (cumulative)

Instead of genuinely, frequently engaging with their votes, both Rudd and Abbott appear concerned mainly to maintain a steady level of activity: both have tweeted at least once each day since 1 July, and Rudd has posted up to four tweets per day while Abbott has peaked at seven tweets per day. This may well be a deliberate strategy designed to keep followers connected but avoid message overload, in keeping with these accounts’ obvious interests in reaching as large a constituency as possible. By contrast, the close to 90 tweets per day received from Craig Emerson or Christine Milne on especially active days might well have cost them followers who couldn’t cope with the barrage.

If this points to a divergence in Twitter strategies – a slow but steady approach from the overall leaders speaking to the general populace; more activity and activism from niche players connecting with niche audiences – then this is supported when we identify the most active Australian politicians on Twitter since the start of July. In addition to Emerson, Milne, and Turnbull, the most high-frequency Twitter users are significantly less prominent names: the @NoDirectAction account of Climate Sceptics candidate Bill Koutalianos, whom we’ve seen engaged in arguments with several major party candidates when we plotted the network map of @mentions last week, a handful of second- and third-tier Labor candidates, Batman Greens candidate Alex Bhathal, retiring Independent Rob Oakeshott (whose trajectory ends a little early as he has renamed his account to @RobOakeshott1), and Democrat Senator-turned-Queensland Greens convenor Andrew Bartlett.

Tweets by most active politicians since 1 July (cumulative)

The fact that Labor politicians are considerably more strongly represented here than Coalition candidates further supports the suggestion that the latter continue to pursue a comparative ‘small target’ strategy on Twitter, acting from their position as front-runners in the polls. Labor has to catch up, and needs to use social media as well as all other media channels to attempt to do so; the Coalition appears better advised to do nothing than do anything wrong.

And in keeping with this pattern, Labor’s Twitter activity seems to be spread considerably wider than that of the Coalition – a greater number of its rank-and-file candidates are actively using Twitter to try and connect with potential voters. If we aggregate the members’ and candidates’ tweets by party, this is the picture which emerges for the two weeks of the election campaign proper thus far:

Tweets by party since 4 Aug. (cumulative)

ALP and Greens politicians are considerably more active than their counterparts in the Coalition parties (split up here into Liberals, LNP, and Nationals). Also notable are the strong showings from the fledgling Pirate Party and Clive Palmer’s United Party (PUP) – and it should be noted that the Pirates are a late addition to our tracker now that the electoral rolls have closed, so their Twitter activity during the early days of the campaign may well be underestimated here.

So much for a quick overview of the Twitter action so far, then. Coming soon, we’ll take a look at the attention to candidates per electorate, to see where across the country the key election flashpoints appear to be.

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