Follower Accession: How Australian Politicians Gained Their Twitter Followers

By Axel Bruns, Queensland University of Technology

This post follows on from a number of research activities we've covered here in the past. Last week, we released our CCI report Social Media in the Media, which shows the gradual acceptance and integration of social media into the practices of political communication. And in a recent post at Mapping Online Publics on Twitter research methods, I outlined a new method for retrospectively determining the follower growth for specific Twitter accounts, using the account of resurrected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as a test case.

The logical next step, then, is to trace how social media have been adopted by Australia's leading politicians over time, and how the public have responded to them. We do so by examining the Twitter careers of a dozen key Australian federal parliamentarians on the basis of their follower accession patterns – which shows when these leaders first began to experiment with Twitter as a platform for political communication and reveals a number of key moments of heightened Twitter growth. (We gathered these data before the recent Labor leadership change back to Kevin Rudd, so they don't yet take into account the impact of Rudd's return. Gathering these data is a slowish process, so we'll follow up again with a look at the impact of the latest spill later.)

As outlined in my post which introduced the idea of Twitter follower accession graphs, we've sought to filter what appear to be spam followers by excluding any accounts which followed their target account within 90 minutes of being created; this may have removed a number of genuine followers as well, but as it's done so across all accounts it won't affect the validity of our results. Also, the obligatory caveat: through this method, we can only estimate when current followers joined. There is no way to identify when ex-followers joined or left again.

To begin with, then, let's get a sense of the overall trajectories of the twelve accounts:

Australian politicians: overall follower growth

The graph above clearly shows the advantage of incumbency: both former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his successor Julia Gillard have managed to attract substantially more followers than their former and current opponents, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott – even in spite of the latter's commanding lead in recent opinion polling. The incumbents' roles in actual (rather than just shadow) government may explain this to some extent; Twitter followers, at home but especially also outside of Australia, may not be as interested in the Twitter feeds of the challengers until they assume power. (Another explanation may be that progressive politicians are currently 'better at Twitter' than conservatives; we'll only be able to explore the validity of that suggestion after a change of government, however.)

The incumbency thesis is strengthened especially by the rapid increase in the number of followers for Julia Gillard in the weeks after her successful challenge to Kevin Rudd. Gillard joined Twitter considerably later than Rudd, Turnbull, Abbott, and several other leading politicians, but within a month of becoming PM had surpassed all but Rudd in her number of followers. This steep follower accession curve becomes even more obvious if we focus only on the first 50,000 followers for each account – which also helps us identify a number of early events in the follower careers of these accounts:

Australian politicians: overall follower growth (first 50,000)

The use of Twitter by leading Australian politicians clearly begins in earnest towards the end of 2008; the annotations below the graph show the Twitter join data for each of our dozen leading politicians. Then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd are amongst the first to set up accounts (and are joined in this by Rob Oakeshott, at that time a comparatively unimportant independent MP). Neither immediately gain substantial numbers of followers, which leads me to assume that they experimented with Twitter as a medium for political communication for a little while – perhaps even under a pseudonymous Twitter handle, or using a 'private' Twitter account – before making their accounts public.

The difference between Rudd and Turnbull – and with it, the power of incumbency – is also evident from the graph above: while the Prime Minister's account goes stratospheric soon after its existence becomes known, the Opposition Leader's follower numbers grow steadily, but at a much slower pace. We'll see this repeated with Julia Gillard's follower numbers in 2010.

The next major event, though, is Tony Abbott's assumption of the Coalition leadership on 1 December 2009, as Turnbull fails to recover from his role in the Utegate affair and narrowly loses a leadership ballot. Abbott's own Twitter account is created that very day, and almost immediately picks up some 1,500 followers; new Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey also gains a similar amount of new followers, while somewhat perversely Turnbull's follower curve also ticks up. (Again it should be noted here that we cannot determine when previous followers unfollowed an account, though – it's possible that Turnbull lost more than he gained on that day, therefore.)

The next spill, then, is in the Labor ranks, as Julia Gillard succeeds Kevin Rudd (at least temporarily, as we now know). Interestingly, Gillard had had a Twitter account since late October 2009, but had picked up virtually no followers; this is likely a sign that the account had been using a name other than @JuliaGillard for its first months of existence, and/or that it had been set to 'private' rather than public. It's only with Gillard's ascension to the top job that her account is made public and rapidly gains followers; between the 23 June spill and the 21 August 2010 election, her follower accession curve is perhaps even steeper than Rudd's when his account was first launched. Notably, the election itself also plays an important role in this: Abbott, Hockey, Turnbull (somewhat surprisingly, perhaps), and even then-Deputy Greens leader Christine Milne all experience above-average follower growth during this time.

The hung parliament in the weeks after the election provided a chance for less well-known political actors to take centre stage in Australian politics; this is true for the political scene on Twitter as well. Independent and now kingmaker Rob Oakeshott's @OakeyMP account had been created in mid-October 2008, as one of the earliest of the dozen accounts we're examining here, but had failed to gain any significant audience; as soon as his crucial role in deciding the next Prime Minister of Australia became clear following the election, however, a substantial number of Twitter users began to follow him. This trend continued for some time, but as it became clear that in spite of its precarious electoral situation the Gillard government would be a stable and (almost) full-term one, follower growth appears to have slowed down somewhat.

Buoyed by their colleagues' experience, perhaps, we see some further leading politicians join Twitter in subsequent months. (Then) Deputy PM Wayne Swan is one of the next to join, and gains followers at a somewhat faster rate than many of his colleagues; especially in 2012, there's also a pronounced uptick as he delivers that year's federal budget to the nation. Bob Katter, Craig Emerson, and – somewhat belatedly – one of the other key independents, Tony Windsor, also follow suit. Between them, Barnaby Joyce's Twitter account (created in February 2010, but apparently not made public until September 2011) also finally takes off. And as always, leadership changes boost follower numbers for their beneficiaries: new Greens leader Christine Milne gains from Bob Brown's retirement, for example – on Twitter as much as in other ways.

As I've noted above: we gathered these data in mid-June, before the most recent Labor leadership challenge and the return of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. That event, both because of the use of Twitter in commenting on the spill and because of the added attention to the various politicians' Twitter accounts that it would have brought, will have had a further effect on the follower numbers of these accounts. Additionally, we'll also expect to see a number of account renamings in its wake – a Twitter handle like @SwannyDPM is no longer accurate, for example, and who would be surprised if @KRuddMP became @KevinRuddPM again?

Such name changes to existing accounts don't affect follower numbers directly, but their press coverage might – so we'll wait until the dust has settled and will re-examine the most recent follower accession trends in a new update in the not-too-distant future.

Axel Bruns does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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