Comparative Politics

What a Party Coup Looks Like on Twitter: Australians React to Return of Rudd

Jun 26 '13

The news media today have been atwitter about the ouster of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in an intra-party leadership vote, 57-45 (see here, here, and here for example). So the press has clearly taken notice.

But what about the people? For this question, we can turn to social media. By a fortunate coincidence, the NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab has been collecting Twitter data for the last two weeks on Australian politics in anticipation of this September’s parliamentary election. Thus we are able to look at the amount of activity on Twitter in the lead up to the vote as well as in the aftermath of the vote. The following figure details the number of tweets mentioning Gillard and Kevin Rudd, the ex-Labor PM – himself ousted from power by Gillard in a similar manner three years ago – who will now be replacing her.

[Figure by Pablo Barbera; Data from NYU SMaPP laboratory]

The figure clearly demonstrate an enormous upsurge in Twitter activity surrounding the two principal figures in the drama in the hours following the vote. Indeed, tweets mentioning the two candidates grow from under 1000/hour to over 20,000 per hour for Rudd and as high as 25,000 per hour for Gillard (although, by comparisons sake, this is still nothing compared to the 3,000 tweets per minute recorded during recent Turkish protests).

Another thing we can do with social media data is to look at the networks of who seems to be retweeting whom. The following figure shows these networks for the past 48 hours in Australia, with the colors representing four different components of the network.

[Figure by Pablo Barbera; Data from NYU SMaPP laboratory. To view more clearly, click on the figure for the larger version and then zoom in, which will allow you to see the labels of accounts that were retweeted more than 200 times in the past 48 hours.]

What’s interesting about the figure is how it doesn’t seem to resemble an “echo chamber” – with people only talking to similar other people – as we might expect in a normal political discussion. Instead, we find that the internal networks are quite connected to each other, making the whole figure look more like amorphous blob than a highly segmented set of networks. Moreover, rather than represent ideological factions, our best guess at these networks is that they represent different sources of information: the green nodes on the north-west part of the figure are foreign news sources, the red in the middle seem to be Australian news sources, and the green in the south east corner are politicians.

Interestingly, another source for information that seems to be highly retweeted are either parody sites (KevinRuddExPM, GI_Gillard, Queen_UK) and, in one case, a jobs website (seekjobs) that sent out the following popular tweet:


What to make of all this? First, it seems that intra-party disputes might engender a different sort of response on Twitter than traditional inter-party disputes. In particular, we might be seeing more radio silence among politicians in the Twitter-sphere than publicity hungry politicians usually exhibit. For example, even though the ex-Prime Minister Gillard can be seen in the retweet network, here is her most recent tweet, which clearly predates the vote:


Second, the network illustrates that even with events that are highly covered by the main stream media, Twitter also serves as a way to disseminate information, both for media and non-media sources alike.

Finally, there are apparently quite a few Australians enjoying a laugh at the expense of the Labor Party today. As @Queen_UK put it:


Who says intra-party leadership battles can’t be fun?

[h/t to SMaPP summer intern Alexander Peel for assistance in preparing this post and to Pablo Barbera for the data analysis.]