As the world grapples with the unfolding corona crisis, attention turns once again also to the information being shared through social media. Reports of mis- and disinformation spreading through the various social media platforms are common, though – as my QUT colleagues and I have pointed out – some social media platforms are also playing a critical role in disseminating timely information about the latest developments in the fight against the virus, and in sharing valuable advice about how to cope with quarantine, self-isolation, and other restrictions to our personal and professional lives.
Sharing news and information through social media had become a central part of everyone’s social media habits well before the crisis, of course, so my interest in this article is to explore how those habits have been adjusted and heightened in the current situation. The Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX) has been tracking the sharing of links to some 35 major Australian news outlets on Twitter since 2012, and provides a useful indicator of how much of our interest in the daily news is now consumed by COVID-19.
For the purposes of this analysis, I am considering any recent tweet in the ATNIX dataset that contains the terms ‘corona’, ‘virus, ‘COVID’, ‘epidemic’, ‘pandemic’, ‘Wuhan’, or ‘Hubei’ in the tweet text or the link URL as related to coronavirus. Across the entire dataset, this shows a gradual but substantial shift in focus towards the crisis:
While, since the conclusion of the bushfire crisis in January, the overall volume of tweets sharing Australian news content has remained fairly stable (at 25,000+ tweets/day), a growing percentage of those tweets relate to the corona outbreak. During February, while COVID-19 still seemed a distant problem, some 10% of tweets per day addressed the virus; since the start of March, however, that percentage has increased dramatically: over the past ten days, around two thirds of all tweets sharing Australian news shared corona-related information. The virus is now the dominant topic in Australian news (and news sharing) in a way that we have rarely ever seen before.
This sharing is somewhat unevenly distributed across the Australian news sites covered in ATNIX, however. Of the five most widely shared sites, SBS News was an early frontrunner: even in early February, the Twitter users sharing its content focussed strongly on coronavirus-related reports. This is almost certainly due to the substantial audience that SBS has amongst Asian-Australians and in Asia itself, who would already have been more concerned about the outbreak at this time than other audiences.
More recently, outbreak coverage by ABC News and especially news.com.au has become particularly important: in recent weeks, some 70% of all tweets sharing ABC News stories on Twitter, and some 80% of all tweets sharing news.com.au stories, related to the coronavirus crisis. The Conversation, with its focus on the scientific facts surrounding the virus and the measures to contain it, is similarly prominent: some 75% of all tweets sharing its content focus on corona stories at the moment.
By contrast, the Sydney Morning Herald (and its sister publications in the Nine/Fairfax stable) are surprisingly less prominent here: even during the turbulent last fortnight, only just over half of the tweets sharing SMH links related to the virus crisis. It is difficult to interpret this: on the one hand, it might indicate that the SMH has continued to cover more other topics beside the crisis, but on the other it could also point to shortcomings in its corona coverage that have led Twitter users to prefer other sources.
The collective effect of such sustained news sharing cannot be measured by our data alone: Twitter does not provide details on the level of user engagement with tweets. As a rough indication, however, we can calculate the theoretical maximum reach of these tweets, by adding up the total number of followers that each tweet could have reached. This indicates the maximum number of impressions it could have created.
This is necessarily an inflated number: of all followers, only some small percentage would have been online at the time of posting, or would have encountered the tweet by scrolling back through their timelines. But in comparison it still provides us with a useful metric that takes into account not only how often stories were tweeted, but also how many followers the tweeting accounts had.
What emerges from this picture is a clear demonstration of the importance of ABC News. Its coronavirus stories were quite simply shared by Twitter accounts with significantly larger numbers of followers, thereby substantially amplifying the potential reach that such stories might have achieved. This includes the widely followed @abcnews account itself, but also the accounts of politicians, celebrities, public health experts, and other key voices during this crisis.
As a result, while tweets containing links to the corona coverage in other news sources might generate a maximum of nearly 50 million impressions on a strong day, those for ABC News reached nearly triple that figure. And even though that number is only theoretical, and assumes that all Twitter users will read all tweets from those they follow: if we supposed that only 5% of all possible impressions are actually realised, then on the same day this would still mean 7.5 million impressions for corona tweets with ABC News links compared to 2.5 million for its closest competitor.
These observations of news sharing during the crisis so far should not make us complacent about the threats from mis- and disinformation shared via social media, of course. But they do show that information from mainstream news sources also circulates widely, and is amplified by accounts with large follower bases – in Australia, with a particular focus on the country’s official emergency broadcaster, the ABC.