This instalment of the Australian Twitter News Index covers the business end of the Australian federal election campaign, which culminated in election day on 2 July 2016 and was followed by a brief period of uncertainty over whether the Coalition government had in fact held on to enough seats in the House of Representatives to claim victory. As it turns out, however, this is not the most prominent topic to drive the sharing of news on Twitter over this two-month period.
To be sure, the election was a key theme during June and into July. Six of the ten most widely shared news articles from ABC News and the Sydney Morning Herald – the new Australian news outlets most widely shared on Twitter – related to the election and its aftermath. But there is no substantially heightened news sharing activity to be seen on Twitter ahead of the election; this is due most likely to the fact that there was blanket coverage of the campaign in the Australian media already, and that Twitter users therefore felt a need to share on election news only whenever something particularly unexpected happened.
Indeed, the single most widely shared URL during these two months (in over 3,700 tweets) was the generic short URL http://ab.co/electionlive, for ABC News’ daily liveblog covering the campaign – a significant endorsement for this still relatively novel journalistic format, and one that is not unexpected coming from the Australian Twittersphere, given the similarities in format between its frequently updated news feed and Twitter itself.
Other widely shared election stories include the Sydney Morning Herald’s exposé of links between the Liberal Party and software company Parakeelia (2,400 tweets), an ABC News fact check confirming the poor ranking of Australian Internet speeds in international comparisons (2,200 tweets), ABC News’ somewhat tongue-in-cheek status page on whether election analyst Antony Green had called the election yet (2,100 tweets), a second SMH story on the Parakeelia revelations (1,900 tweets), and an ABC News article covering the Coalition’s stance on negative gearing (1,900 tweets).
These articles are interspersed, however, with other, non-election-related events. An SMH story on WikiLeaks’ release of hacked U.S. Democrats emails later in July was shared some 3,600 times, a (post-election) ABC News article on a substantial mangrove die-back in northern Australia attracted 2,300 shares, and a 22 June piece on conditions on live animal export ships (based on a story aired on the ABC’s 7.30 programme) was shared 1,900 times.
While these stories are prominent throughout the two months, however, the most significant short-term spike in news sharing activity occurs from 25 to 27 July; during this time, ABC News receives some 4,000 to 5,000 more shares per day than its ordinary performance would predict.
This increase in sharing activity is centred to a large extent around the graphic footage of the abuse of inmates in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale juvenile detention centre, broadcast first on the ABC’s Four Corners programme. The leading ABC News article covering this story alone was shared on Twitter some 2,300 times – but as political, civic, and indigenous leaders reacted to these revelations, and as a Royal Commission to investigate the scandal was set up by the federal government, many more news articles emerged.
On the ABC News site, the nearly two dozen news items related to the Don Dale scandal were shared more than 10,000 times in total. This documents Twitter’s role especially as a medium for tracking the development of a fast-moving, breaking news story.
The past two months have also seen significant increases in the overall online news consumption of the Australian public, no doubt driven in good part by the federal election and other major events. Hitwise data reveal that the number of total visits to the Websites that we track in ATNIX rose from an average, over the preceding twelve months, of 329 million per month to almost 345 million in June and 386 million in July; this is a new record for the 2012-16 period.
Unsurprisingly, our Hitwise data for the past two months are dominated by considerable spikes in site visits on and after election day. These are concentrated on a handful of key sites, which indicates what are the most authoritative sources that Australian Internet users turn to at this critical moment.
In fact, a two-tier hierarchy emerges here: on election day itself, users overwhelmingly turn to ABC News, which jumps from around one million visitors on an ordinary day to nearly three million on 2 July, briefly becoming Australia’s most visited news site. A similar election-day boost, if from a considerably lower base, is recorded by The Australian, which rises from around 300,000 to 847,000 on election day.
But if these two sites are central to election-day coverage, several other sources join in on the following Sunday. ABC News remains the most visited Australian news site on 3 July, but the post-election coverage and analysis on news.com.au, the Sydney Morning Herald, and Nine News also attract substantial audiences beyond their long-term averages.
Several of these high-performing sites continue to enjoy above-average readerships throughout the following week as the final seat results are being declared and the election result gradually becomes clearer; by contrast, The Australian is unable to maintain its strong election-day performance and returns to standard levels more quickly.
Somewhat more surprisingly, given the substantial response in both mainstream and social media, the Four Corners revelations about the treatment of inmates in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory do not appear to affect total visits to Australian news sites in a particularly notable fashion.
This may point to the qualitative differences between this event and the federal election. Although the matters raised by Four Corners are clearly scandalous, as documented by the rapid establishment of a royal commission by the federal government, it appears that Australian Web users informed themselves about the issue as part of their day-to-day news diet, rather than seeking out additional information online.
Indeed, the Four Corners report and subsequent political and media response may themselves be responsible for this pattern: given the in-depth coverage in broadcast and print news, additional online news about the topic was perhaps not required by Australians who pay attention to the news media.
What emerges from these divergent patterns over the past two months is a picture of how mainstream news and social media news sharing complement one another: while Australian users rely on mainstream news sites for day-to-day coverage, and gradually increase their news consumption in the lead-up to foreseeable events such as the federal election, social media serve to rapidly disseminate information about breaking news events and quickly transforming stories such as the Don Dale scandal.
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 Hitwise, a division of Connexity. This research is supported by the ARC Future Fellowship project “Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere”.