Analysis Politics Twitter — willdawson, 20 January 2011

Now that the dust has (mostly) settled on the #twitdef controversy of late last year, I’m continuing my summer research project, and looking deeper into the reaction to Australia’s first twitter defamation case. We already know who the main actors are (see my first post for more info) in the debate; it’s now time to have a look at exactly what they were saying.

It’s worth mentioning why I’ve taken a continued interest in this topic. After the results of my first post showed that much of the traffic coming out of the hashtag was from what could be classified as ‘regular citizens’, it begged the question: Is the twitdef hashtag a true platform for the debate surrounding free speech and journalism in Australia, or is it just a sounding board to take pot-shots at Australia’s mainstream media outlets?

In the interests of consistency, I’m keeping the original data set from the first post. It’s only a week’s worth of tweets – by no means a large amount in the twittersphere – but it does indicate when the big ‘stories’ broke throughout during the height the controversy (Out of interest I grabbed the rest of the data from Twapperkeeper, and as expected it peters out dramatically after the 5th, with only a few spikes when new information arose).

The 29th and the 30th are by far the largest days in terms of sheer numbers of tweets (bearing in mind this data includes retweets). It’s easy to understand why; the 29th was the day the ABC posted the audio from the offending conference and its implications for the case, as well as the day that The Australian journalist Sally Jackson posted one of the paper’s first official stories on the topic. The 30th was the day that Jonathan Holmes posted his thoughts on The Drum, and also when The Australian admitted Posetti’s tweets were a ‘fair summary of what Wahlquist said’.

Now that we have the basic gist of when people were tweeting throughout the week, I’ve taken a more in-depth look at the content of the tweets themselves. I ran the tweets (minus retweets this time, to avoid skewing the results) through, a service that counts keywords in a particular body of text. From the results I developed four categories that had the most hits: legal aspects, free speech, new media and journalism as well as those focusing on Chris Mitchell and the Australian in general. Keywords were generated, and run through the gawk ‘filter’ script. These were the results:

For the legal aspects, I used the filter expression (defam|law|sue|suing); for The Australian (The Australian|The Oz); Chris Mitchell was (chris|mitchell), free speech was (free.?speech), to collect any variations of the theme, and New Media and Journalism was (new.?media|journ), to pick up all variations of ‘journalism’.

For a better comparison, here is the normalised graph:

Talk about the legal aspects of the controversy stayed pretty steady across the course of the week, but peaked in the days following the publishing of the audio from the conference. Interestingly, the topics of free speech and discussion surrounding new media hardly rated a mention, despite being the overall themes of the controversy. Instead, tweets about Chris Mitchell and The Australian in general took up much of the debate. Mentions of Mitchell in particular were at the highest at the beginning of the controversy; indicating that more of the conversation focused on his actions in particular, rather than the overall semantics of the case. This, coupled with the large number of ‘regular citizens’ using the hashtag, suggests that much of the conversation was simply an outlet for some Oz-bashing.

Even though these data itself may not present anything overly exciting, the fact that the volume of tweets in each theme remains relatively the same throughout the week suggests that perhaps the mindset of tweeters using the hashtag was already set at the beginning. Little changed when new aspects to the story emerged – for example, the fact that the audio backed Posetti’s tweets changed very little in terms of what users were talking about. It’s a far cry from the themes that came out of the election data, where the discussion varied widely throughout the course of the election.

Of course, there are some limitations to using the filters. Unlike the federal election, where there were defined policy topics to filter, the #twitdef hashtag is much more ambiguous. While the filters were designed to pick up as many keywords in a particular topic as possible, there are likely overlaps and tweets that have been missed. For example, ‘The Australian’ and ‘The Oz’ were used as keywords, simply because there were far too many mentions of ‘Australian’ in other contexts for it to be accurate on its own – however, it’s still likely that some tweets did not include the ‘the’ preceding the title of the paper.

Lastly, I wanted to look at the types of links that users were including in their tweets. In total, 40% of the tweets using the #twitdef hashtag contained some form of link. That’s quite a high number, which suggests in itself that people were often drawing more on the opinions on others or sharing existing information, rather than offering their own contributions to the debate. I used an array of filters (which Axel explains in his methodology post here) to obtain the URLs contained in the tweets (including any shortened links such as or tiny.url).

By far, the highest linked site was ABC News’ story revealing the audio from the conference, with 154 mentions. This was followed by the two opinion pieces written by Jonathan Holmes (host of the ABC’s Media Watch program and prominent tweeter) on The Drum, with 92 and 68 mentions respectively.

I then grouped all of the resolved URLs together, and ran some extra filters to find what sites people were linking to in general. These were the results:

Unsurprisingly, the highest links are those to official media outlets such as the ABC, the Australian website and Crikey. Of the 532 links to the ABC, 223 were links to their opinion section of the site, The Drum. There were also plenty of links to Julie Posetti’s own site, j-scribe, as well as to the University of Canberra’s site (most of which presumably led to the Vice Chancellor’s official statement). Even though it appears most people were just linking to articles written by professional journalists, there still is a significant number linking to wordpress, blogspot, facebook and tumblr sites. This suggests that some people were in fact offering their own contributions – but it is worth noting that some prolific bloggers such as @marcusod host their blogs on these sites.

Now that the controversy is over and the twitterati have turned their focus elsewhere, these data have provided an intriguing snapshot into a week in the twittersphere at its accusatory best. Whether the majority of users truly cared for the fate of free speech online is anyone’s guess, but the saga has highlighted the ongoing struggle between ‘new’ and traditional media. While many may have used the hashtag as a way of criticising the Australian, it has provided an opportunity for twitter users to voice their opinion and provide support for Posetti throughout the week. And of course we can’t forget Posetti herself, who continued to facilitate the debate, even if she was legally prevented from actually saying anything.

I’m jetting off overseas now, so that’s it from me. It’s been fascinating getting an insight to the ins and outs of the Australian twittersphere over the past couple of months, and I’d like to thank Axel and Jean for their excellent supervision. I’m really excited to see what comes out of the MOP project in the future.

About the Author

Will Dawson a 20 year old freshly-graduated Media and Communications student from QUT in Brisbane, Australia. Will is working on this project as a VRES (Vacation Research Experience Scholarship) student, which is giving him a chance to dive head first into the world of research. You can also find him on twitter: @willdawson90

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