How Australia Tweeted the latest Liberal Leadership Spill

3 minute read

The importance of Twitter as a form of public communication is realised as major political events unfold. Monday’s Liberal Party leadership spill where Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott and won in a party room ballot with 55 to 44 votes was evidence of this. Twitter played a key role in the developments of Turnbull becoming Australia’s new Prime Minister.

As social media researchers Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess have argued that the use of hashtags on Twitter represents the formation of issue publics. These communities centre around specific breaking news events, such as the Liberal Party Leadership Spill which dominated news coverage. Bruns and Burgess (2011) describe this as the formation of ad hoc publics. Hashtag communities are “not separate, sealed entities, but as embedded and permeable maso-level spaces which overlap both with the macro-level flow of messages across longer-term follower/followee networks and with the micro-level communicative exchanges conducted as @replies between users who may or may have not found one another through the hashtag itself, as well as with other, related or rival, hashtag communities at a similar meso-level,” (Bruns & Burgess 2011).

Bruns (2008) argues “What we see emerging, then, is not simply a fragmented society composed of isolated individuals, but instead a patchwork of overlapping public spheres centred around specific themes and communities which through their overlap nonetheless form a network of issue publics that is able to act as an effective substitute for the conventional, universal public sphere of the mass media age.” There is thus a decline of mediation of the political process by the traditional mass media through the paradigm of a unified public sphere where Twitter shifts the power balance giving the audience more control in the news dissemination process. It allows the audience more direct involvement, particularly around major events in the Australian polity.

For this specific blog post, the hashtag #libspill was tracked using DMI-TCAT. The other popular hashtags used were #libspill2, #spill and #putoutyouronions but for the purposes of this analysis only the #libspill hashtag was tracked. For comparative purposes, tracking multiple hashtags can be useful in finding differentiation of the discussions being played out in these ad hoc issue publics. For example, the #putoutyouronions hashtag was used as a means of mocking Abbott’s potential loss of Prime Ministership by referencing the occasion when he was famously pictured eating a raw onion.

Turnbull announced he would challenge Abbott for the leadership just after 4 P.M. AEST and I began tracking the #libspill hashtag at 5:15 P.M. From the time the tracking of the hashtag began until midnight, I captured 226,359 tweets from 55,142 distinct users.

The graph below shows how users tweeted the #libspill hashtag hour by hour. 2740 tweets occurred at 9:50 P.M. Unsurprisingly, this spike was the moment it was announced that Turnbull had won the party room ballot becoming Australia’s new Prime Minister. There were 2498 distinct users tweeting at this very moment using the #libspill hashtag. Another interesting aspect of the tweets using the #libspill hashtag was that 13.2% of the tweets captured contained links. This gives an indication that there was much conversation being had surrounding the political events unfolding and is indicative of a breaking news event on Twitter.

It’s also interesting to find out the Twitter users who received the most @mentions and retweets using the #libspill. Bruns (2012) has shown that journalists can “Maintain positions of authority and centrality in social media environments.” We can also see which news accounts have the most @mentions. This is evidence of which media outlets best make use of Twitter. However, there are limitations in that Twitter represents a specific demographic which may mean some sources are preferred over others. Just like in other hashtag research that has been carried out, the ABC seems to almost always top the most @mentioned news organisation.

This is an example of how Twitter is a powerful communicative medium that has significant research potential, especially for breaking news events such as the latest Liberal Party leadership spill.