Australian political observers will not need to be alerted to the fact that we have a new Prime Minister: Monday afternoon, former Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull unexpectedly challenged Prime Minister Tony Abbott for the leadership, and later that night won a party room ballot in a 54 to 44 decision. As with the previous leadership spills (from Rudd to Gillard in 2010, and from Gillard to Rudd in 2013), social media – and especially Twitter – once again played an important role in tracking this unfolding story across many different rumours and reports. Here’s how they did it.
For this analysis, we are drawing on a Twitter dataset tracking relevant hashtags such as #spill and #libspill; later in the afternoon, we also added a range of other hashtags and tracking terms as they appeared, as well as capturing @mentions of the accounts of Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, and a number of other prominent frontbenchers.
First, given the continued growth of Twitter as a platform in Australia since the earlier spills, it is unsurprising that we saw considerably more user engagement with this event compared to earlier spills. While in 2010, the #spill hashtag peaked at just under 500 tweets per minute, the 2013 spill reached 1,100 tweets per minute – but in 2015, #libspill alone jumped to over 2,500 tweets per minute as the results of the party room ballot were announced. (Throughout the following analysis, we are focussing on the period from 2 p.m. to midnight on 14 September 2015.)
Several other hashtags also attained considerable prominence, sometimes in combination with #libspill: the more general, very well-established #auspol hashtag also appeared, of course, and some Twitter users commemorated the prospective demise of PM Abbott with #putoutyouronions, referencing Abbott’s famous predilection for eating raw onions. Users also reflected on the fact that this was the second party-room attempt to remove Abbott by using #libspill2.
Others, curiously, aimed to divert attention from #auspol (with a lowercase L) by using #auspoI (with a capital i) instead. As these are virtually indistinguishable in sans serif fonts, many users unknowingly retweeted such #auspoI tweets – and I must admit I have no idea what purpose the ‘fake’ hashtag would serve.
Many breaking news hashtags, including #libspill, are used especially also to share and compile the latest news about the event they are tracking, and this provides us with a useful insight into the news sources that led the coverage. Amongst the most widely shared sources, the two national broadcasters led the way, followed by the Sydney Morning Herald and – perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, given its relatively recent entry into the Australian media market – Buzzfeed Australia. Interspersed is a blog operated by user @otiose94, which appears largely because of that user’s own relentless self-promotion (some may say spamming) in the #libspill hashtag.
But by far the leading recipient of links shared through Twitter on the night is Twitter itself: a substantial number of #libspill tweets used the platform’s embedded image functions to share real or photoshopped, newsworthy or comical images throughout the night. Leading the pack was a blast from the past, shared in almost 1,000 tweets:
Meanwhile, a current federal politician staged his own re-enactment of the #libspill:
Amid all the mirth, only the fourth most retweeted image finally reports the news as such:
As is often the case in such breaking news events, retweets played an especially crucial role over the course of the event, and were usually the most prominent type of tweet at any one moment. Only occasionally did original tweets overtake retweets and @mentions: this happened especially during the major televised moments (Turnbull’s initial press conference; Abbott’s and Hockey’s press conferences; and the announcement of the ballot results).
Again this is in keeping with past observations: during those times, users can rightly assume that most other participants will also be watching the live event on TV or streaming media, and retweets are not strictly necessary; rather, Twitter is now used predominantly as a second-screen commenting platform, at least during these brief moments.
Of course this begs the question of the accounts that received the lion’s share of these retweets and @mentions – and it will come as no surprise that the major actors in the drama were also the most visible: Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, as well as (as a more distant third) Julie Bishop received the majority of mentions. In each case, these were almost exclusively @mentions rather than retweets, as none of them posted to their Twitter accounts during the challenge itself – even if a handful of enterprising users dug up older tweets from the politicians that could now be used against them, such as:
Other than Malcolm Turnbull, the other major winner of the night was the ABC (someone ironically, given the outgoing PM’s well-documented dislike for certain of its programmes): its @abcnews and @abcnews24 accounts were easily the most @mentioned and retweeted media accounts in #libspill and related tweets, and even well-connected parody account @abcnewsintern still rated more Twitter mentions than @9newsaus. This also reflects the substantial TV audience for ABC channels during the spill, which ABC Managing Director Mark Scott has reported (via Twitter) in the meantime – during major political crises, Australian viewers clearly continue to turn first and foremost to the national broadcaster.
An unexpected presence in the list of most visible accounts, splitting @abcnews and @abcnews24, is SBS newsreader and fashion icon Lee Lin Chin, who has been using her Twitter account more and more effectively in recent months to connect to a younger, hipster audience. She posted a series of particularly snarky tweets over the course of the night, outlining her credentials as alternative PM, and gained some 5,000 retweets and @mentions in the process:
Indeed, outside of its standard news reporting, SBS gave the SBS2 comedy team free rein – and on a night which ended up being full of irony and sarcasm from journalists and regular punters alike, this tweet from @SBS2 was the single most widely shared post, with almost 1,400 retweets by midnight:
The perilous state of Australian political culture, with three Prime Ministers in a row failing to serve out a full term, might be cause for concern – but sometimes, you’ve just got to laugh.