Politics Twitter Visualisation — Snurb, 20 August 2015
ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index, June/July 2015

I must begin this Australian Twitter News Index update with an apology – we’ve had to skip May due to unforeseen server maintenance, and this has also affected part of our data-gathering for June. Consequently, this post covers the period of both June and July 2015, with future updates returning to a more regular monthly pattern again.

It is also worth noting that the Australian media landscape continues to be in flux: in addition to Daily Mail Australia, Guardian Australia, and Buzzfeed Australia last year, we’ve now also seen the launch of Huffington Post Australia (about which I’ve had more to say here), as well as the rebranding of nineMSN as 9 News. Because our approach to tracking the sharing of links to these sites depends on URLs for these Australian publications that are distinct from those of their overseas parents, we are at this stage unable to track Daily Mail, Guardian, or Buzzfeed in Australia. The local spin-off of Huffington Post, on the other hand, is using a distinct .com.au domain, and will be included in next month’s ATNIX.

In spite of these continuing changes to the Australian mediasphere, overall patterns of sharing links to the Australian news and opinion sites that we track through ATNIX have remained remarkably stable. While we are unable to observe directly how many links to sites like Guardian Australia or Daily Mail Australia are being shared, then, the indirect observation is that this is not a zero-sum game: one more Guardian link shared does not necessarily mean one less ABC News or Sydney Morning Herald link shared as a consequence, for instance.

While the long-established two-tier distribution of attention on Twitter – with ABC News and Sydney Morning Herald as clear leaders well ahead of all other sites – is stable, then, a notable feature of these two months’ activity patterns is a marked slump in sharing links (particularly to the ABC) during the first week of July. This is almost certainly related to the winter school holidays, during which attention to the news inevitably flags. The various states’ and territories’ holiday timeframes overlapped for the period of 4-12 July, therefore affecting the national broadcaster most during this time; New South Wales’s holidays covered 26 June to 13 July, and consequently this constitutes a slightly slower phase for the SMH.

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Immediately after this holiday slump, however, we are seeing the most pronounced peaks in sharing activity during this two-month period, with the ABC particularly involved. Link sharing during the period of 13-17 July is dominated by an interview with controversial former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis on Late Night Live (shared in more than 2,100 tweets), and a comprehensive interactive piece on the latest images from NASA’s Pluto probe New Horizons (over 1,300). From past experience, it seems quite likely that the popularity of these stories would also have been boosted by overseas Twitter users – in the Varoufakis case for example by Greek and other European users.

Significant spikes are also visible for news.com.au, where on 17 July its ‘exclusive’ coverage of new footage from the immediate aftermath of the MH17 downing received some 1,800 links in tweets, and on 26-27 July a story about teen band Five Seconds of Summer was shared a whopping 5,100 times, almost certainly also by users outside of Australia.

By comparison, it is surprising that articles about the festering political crisis which dominated public debate during the second half of July – parliamentary Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s ‘choppergate’ scandal – do not appear amongst the most highly shared links. Perhaps this is explained by the common but somewhat counterintuitive pattern, which we have observed before, that widely covered issues in the media receive relatively little additional amplification through audience tweets: Twitter users seem to assume, perhaps correctly, that such major stories require no further boost in visibility.

On the other hand, the very ubiquity of this story may also have led to the sharing of many individual articles, rather than a focus on any one piece in particular. On 20 July, for example, an ABC News report about Prime Minister Tony Abbott putting the Speaker ‘on probation’ manages only some 200 tweets, and an opinion piece by Paula Matthewson about the scandal is shared another 280 times.

Counting up shared links to the many further articles about the issue across the Australian media would no doubt reveal ‘choppergate’ as a major controversy on Twitter, as much as in wider political discourse – but in the form of rolling coverage, with no one single update emerging as central. A simple count shows that there were more than 50,000 tweets during July that linked to one of the news and opinion sites we cover in ATNIX and contained the name ‘Bishop’, for example; almost 35,000 that contained ‘Bronwyn’; and 10,000 that contained the word ‘Speaker’ – but none of the individual articles shared in these stories managed 1,000 or more tweets in their own right.

Interestingly, the patterns in overall visits to Australian news and opinion sites as captured by Experian Hitwise do not particularly indicate any impact from the holidays, indicating perhaps that the general population does continue to keep an eye on the news even during the break, but switches off from the more active form of engagement with the news that tweeting and retweeting links to these news stories requires. As expected, we are also seeing no significant increases in Australian-based access to ABC News content during the time of the Twitter spikes around the Varoufakis and New Horizons stories, supporting the thesis that these spikes are largely driven by international users.

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However, there is a pronounced spike in visits to sites such as news.com.au, Sydney Morning Herald, ABC News, and The Age on 20 July, declining gradually over the following days. This may indicate the heightened overall news interest triggered by the ‘choppergate’ affair and the PM’s response to it, even if that interest did not result in specific individual stories emerging as widely shared articles in ATNIX.

Elsewhere, the Experian Hitwise data continue to point to a persistent disconnect between The New Daily’s overall readership (netting some 2.5 million visits over these two months) and its Twitter presence. The New Daily receives more than three times as many visits as Crikey, for example, but only about one third of the number of tweets linking to its content. This unusual discrepancy suggests that the site has somehow managed to attract a particularly non-tweeting audience for its content.

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”.

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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