Politics Twitter — Snurb, 16 September 2013
#ausvotes: The Australian Federal Election on Twitter, Final Week

The 2013 Australian federal election campaign is (finally) over – and as the final vote counts in tightly contested seats conclude, the incoming Abbott government will presumably be sworn into office any week now, after a surprisingly low-key start to the post-election period. Time, then, to explore how the final week of the campaign unfolded on Twitter, and indeed to look back over the entire campaign period to chart the parties’ and candidates’ uses of Twitter and the response from the Twitter audience. This first overview will also form the basis for further, more detailed research which we’ll publish in the months to come of course, and for comparative analyses of the Australian (7 Sep.), Norwegian (9 Sep.) and German (22 Sep.) social media election campaigns in partnership with our overseas colleagues.

First, the obligatory reminder about what we’re examining here: we are tracking all tweets by and @mentions of sitting members and candidates in the 2013 federal election. As more (especially minor party) candidates have become known, we’ve progressively extended our list as far as possible. My previous posts with week-by week analyses of the Twitter activity patterns are also available here (week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4), and there are a few more posts on the networks of @mention and retweet interaction and two posts on the electorate-by-electorate distribution of Twitter activity.

Let’s begin this week’s analysis with another look at the @mentions directed at the key political leaders, now covering the entire campaign from the official declaration of the election on Sunday 4 Aug. to the Sunday following the election day on 7 Sep. As in previous weeks, a clear two-class system is evident: the two candidates for the Prime Ministership, incumbent Kevin Rudd and (successful) challenger Tony Abbott, are well ahead of their various party colleagues and the minor party leaders. Rudd, in turn, is well ahead of Abbott in the total number of @mentions he received over the course of the election campaign, although it should be noted that after the first week of the campaign the two leaders tracked one another very closely, and Abbott even pulled ahead of Rudd in week-by-week mentions for a while in mid-August. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, as it became clear that he would be the next Prime Minister of Australia Abbott also received significantly more mentions than Rudd on the election weekend itself. (As always, click the graphs to see a larger version.)

Leaders since 4 Aug. (c)

It’s tempting to read more into these figures, but we simply don’t yet have the comparative evidence that would support such interpretations. For example, Abbott’s @mentions increased especially strongly in mid-campaign as he was fending off some criticism for a number of controversial and ill-advised statements, so we might speculate that on balance, a greater volume of @mentions is actually an indication of voter disenchantment rather than  support; Rudd pulled ahead again in @mentions during the final week of the campaign just as his standing in the polls dropped. More detailed semantic analysis of @mentions will be required at a later date to examine the overall tenor of these tweets (and with automated sentiment detection still very, very unreliable, this will mainly need to be manual), so it’s impossible to make any firm claims about this at this stage.

The increase in @mentions of Abbott’s account during the election weekend, at any rate, is related to his success in the election, of course, as Twitter users are coming to terms with the change of government, congratulate the winner or warn him not to abuse his mandate, and tweet at Abbott to call for action on a broad range of policy issues. Interestingly, at the same time former PM Julia Gillard’s @mentions also increase notably again: this is almost entirely due to the fact that she broke her campaign-long Twitter silence on election night and tweeted her commiserations to the Labor election team, resulting in a substantial number of retweets and @replies.

The day-to-day figures show some of these trends in some more detail. We see Rudd and Abbott track each other quite closely for most of the campaign, with synchronised spikes in the @mentions of both leaders especially on the days of the three televised debates. Rudd receives a strong boost in numbers (if not necessarily in electoral support) in the days following the Labor campaign “launch” on 1 September (and Deputy PM Anthony Albanese also spikes briefly as he plays a leading role during the event), but it’s Abbott who wins the election weekend and to whom the focus shifts especially dramatically on the post-election Sunday. Minor party leader Clive Palmer also receives substantial @mentions on election day as reports emerge of his likely win in his own electorate of Fisher.

Leaders since 4 Aug

Interestingly, though, while PM-elect Abbott is the clear frontrunner in @mentions during the election weekend, his party’s other candidates don’t fare anywhere near as well. In the following graph, we’ve added up @mentions of all party candidates except for Abbott and Rudd (who are clearly in a league of their own), and it becomes evident that Labor candidates are mentioned significantly more often than their Liberal counterparts during the campaign as a whole, and even more frequently on the election weekend itself.

Again, it is all too tempting – but, in the absence of content and sentiment analyses, premature – to read too much into this. Possibly, Twitter users are simply lining up to say “good riddance” to a range of MPs who’ve just lost their seats – but just as possibly, they’re commiserating with them, thanking them for the past six years of government, or expressing their views about how the Labor Party should reposition itself for the future as it seeks to regain government in coming elections.

For the moment, my reading of the dramatic boost in @mentions for Labor politicians during the election weekend (and especially also on the post-election Sunday) tends towards the positive rather than negative: my sense is that it shows that, while they’ve removed it from government, voters (or at least those voters who are active on Twitter) haven’t completely tuned out the ALP, but are in fact very actively tweeting at its politicians to influence the party’s future direction. But that’s no more than an inkling for now – future research will need to explore this in more detail.

Parties since 4 Aug. (KR & TA removed)

But let’s shift our attention from the activities of rank-and-file Twitter users to those of politicians themselves. It’s worth repeating an observation we’ve made throughout the campaign: for the most part, the volume of @mentions of the political leaders has very little to do with how much those leaders themselves have tweeted. If it did, we should expect to see Greens leader Christine Milne well ahead of everyone else, since she (assisted by her campaign team, presumably) has been the most active of all major politicians throughout the campaign. Another minor party leader, Clive Palmer, is also well represented here: encouraged perhaps by the social media response to some of his more notorious campaign stunts, his Twitter activity took off from about mid-campaign onwards.

More generally, it is notable that (where they did tweet at all) the major party frontbenchers have tended to be rather more active on Twitter than their leaders: Albanese, Turnbull, Bishop, and Wong have tweeted considerably more than Rudd or Abbott, and a number of them have also shown an upward trajectory in activity over the last week or so of the campaign. Bishop was especially active on election day itself, while it’s again all too tempting to suggest that Albanese’s increased activity might also be a first step in his tilt at the leadership of a post-Rudd ALP.

Rudd’s and Abbott’s far more restrained activity, by contrast, looks to me to be part of a deliberate attempt to be active throughout the campaign, but not to be so active as to overwhelm their followers with constant tweets (as Milne’s high-volume tweeting may have done to her less committed followers, for example). By comparison, though, my sense is that the apparently so social media-savvy Rudd and his team might have underdone it a little – especially as the underdog in the campaign, I would have thought he’d use Twitter and other social media more forcefully (and that also means more frequently) to argue his case for re-election. Perhaps his greater volume of tweets during the second half of the campaign is an acknowledgment of this shortcoming, in fact – it’s as if in late August they suddenly discovered that they needed to do more on Twitter.

Leaders' Tweets snce 4 Aug. (c)

But yet again, the leaders’ activity provides only a very incomplete picture of the total volume of tweets originating from the various parties’ candidates. In aggregate, Labor politicians tweeted significantly more than their counterparts in any other party, even if their leader’s social media activities remained surprisingly restrained: ALP candidates tweeted even more than their colleagues from the Greens (though it should be acknowledged that, representing a minor party, the total number of tweeting Greens candidates was also smaller).

Tweets by Parties since 4 Aug. (c)

This reflects the greater need for Labor to utilise social as well as all other forms of media to get its electoral message across, compared to its major rivals in the Coalition parties, and ties in well with perceptions of a “small target” campaign pursued by the Coalition: better to keep Coalition candidates from engaging with social media than to risk any negative repercussions from potential gaffes (indeed, at least for less experienced Coalition candidates this strategy appears to have extended to mainstream media engagements as well).

Overall, then (and excluding its leader’s own Twitter activity), Labor’s approach to social media seems to have resembled that of a minor party seeking any kind of media exposure more than that of a major party using social media merely as an add-on to mainstream media coverage – like the Greens, the Pirates and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (with the latter two running considerably fewer tweeting candidates, however), Labor appears to have encouraged its candidates to tweet, and tweet a lot.

As we now know, this didn’t change the eventual outcome of the election, of course (and neither should we expect any one medium to do so in the contemporary, multi-channel media landscape, barring any especially major gaffe). Whether local Labor candidates’ social media performance helped to limit the losses by highlighting local contests over the Rudd/Abbott battle for the Prime Ministership, though, that’s a very different question – and one which will require a great deal of further analysis beyond the Twitter data themselves.

About the Author

Dr Axel Bruns leads the QUT Social Media Research Group. He is an ARC Future Fellow and Professor in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. Bruns is the author of Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage (2008) and Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production (2005), and a co-editor of Twitter and Society, A Companion to New Media Dynamics and Uses of Blogs (2006). He is a Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. His research Website is at snurb.info, and he tweets as @snurb_dot_info.

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. Great insight as always Axel. Love your data work.