Politics, Twitter, and the MSM: What to make of it all?

Highly recommend an essay by Jean Burgess and Axel Bruns in a recent issue of Journalism Practice. It’s called “(Not) The Twitter Election: The dynamics of the #ausvotes conversation in relation to the Australian media ecology”. [Like most scholarly publishers, the publishers of this paper insist on locking this up behind a paywall so you’ll have to seek out your favourite library, I’m afraid]  Here’s the abstract:

This paper draws on a larger study of the uses of Australian user-created content and online social networks to examine the relationships between professional journalists and highly engaged Australian users of political media within the wider media ecology, with a particular focus on Twitter. It uses an analysis of topic-based conversation networks using the #ausvotes hashtag on Twitter around the 2010 federal election to explore the key themes and issues addressed by this Twitter community during the campaign, and finds that Twitter users were largely commenting on the performance of mainstream media and politicians rather than engaging in direct political discussion. The often critical attitude of Twitter users towards the political establishment mirrors the approach of news and political bloggers to political actors, nearly a decade earlier, but the increasing adoption of Twitter as a communication tool by politicians, journalists, and everyday users alike makes a repetition of the polarisation experienced at that time appear unlikely.

Some quick notes after reading the paper:

    • The #ausvotes hashtag is roughly similar, based on the authors’ description of it, to #elxn41 and even to #cdnpoli. #elxn41 is a hashtag that became a conversation point for Canada’s 41st general election, held on May 2, 2011. #cdnpoli is an all-purpose meeting point on Twitter for conversations about Canadian federal politics. (Provincial cousins include #bcpoli and #onpoli)
    • In Australia, the authors tell us, a battle quickly emerged between the MainStream Media (MSM) and non-professional political geeks using blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. We’ve seen this in #cdnpoli where MSM organizations and MSM journalists have come under fire. But in Australia, the Rupert Murdoch-controlled press fought back by actually threatening to sue some for their Twitter content. Don’t think we’ve seen that in Canada. If the MSM has “fought back”, it’s happened generally in more traditional ways, i.e. on MSM newscasts, newspapers, blogs.
    • Participants to #ausvotes (and, I think this observation extends to #elxn41) are a very small subset of all voters. They tend to be political geeks and those with a strong interest in technology.
    • Political discussion on #ausvotes (and #elxn41) has a heavy emphasis on MSM criticism. “What is striking,” the authors write after analysing 400,000 tweets at #ausvotes, “is how much of this activity is concerned with the metalevel of media (including social media) around the election, rather than with substantive policy issues. This is unsurprising .. because we know that, historically, a huge amount of communication in any emerging medium is concerned with the medium (or ‘‘metamedium’’) itself.” Ditto, I’d say, for #cdnpoli and #elxn41.
    • The authors do a great job looking at the “tone” of the tweets at #ausvotes and they find that, generally, the tone of tweets is sarcastic and snide, and generally disdainful of politicians and, to a degree, of many mainstream media organizations and journalists in particularly. (Again: I see this, too, on #cdnpoli). Why this tone? Here’s Burgess and Bruns: “…reacting to politics (and even @replying to politicians and journalists) in this immediately sarcastic tone rather than addressing them in good faith may indicate that Twitter users from the outset have little hope that their Twitter-based comments will be heard and taken on board; in the face of both politicians’ and journalists’ perceived indifference towards the electorate, citizens may decide that they are left with no other option than to outwardly show their disdain for the current state of Australian politics.”
    • So what is Twitter good for, then, when it comes to #ausvotes/#cdnpoli? To the authors again: “[There seems to be an] important role for Twitter in not simply as a space in its own right, but as a means of disseminating information alternative to the mainstream media coverage and mass-mediated political discussion, and connecting such information to current debates. In this, Twitter would fulfil an important bridging role between mainstream political media … and alternative news and political commentary…”
    • The #ausvotes hashtag was dominated, in the authors’ analysis, on a day-to-day, even minute-by-minute, focus of process over substance. As a heavy #cdnpoli user/contributor, I’d plead guilty to that charge but I’d also suggest that I and a lot of contributors to #cdnpoli focus on substance in other online, published and broadcast work where, in a blog, a newspaper story or a newscast, I’m not limited to 140 characters. Twitter’s basic limitation — 140 characters — seems to me to work against detailed substantive discussions.


Have you got some thoughts about #cdnpoli? About #elxn41? Jump in the comments section below.

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