#NSpoli, partisans patting themselves on the back?

This blog post and others in this series are part of our on-going research on information diffusion, political discourse and political polarization on social media. As part of this line of research we are exploring how new Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) such as Twitter are changing the ways in which people communicate and disseminate information, and how these changes impact the social and political norms of our modern societyThese posts represent our initial observations and thoughts on this subject.


When we think about tracking political discussion on Twitter, inevitably two questions come up. Who is talking? And what are they talking about? In our first post Who is #NSpoli?, we started to answer the “who” question. In that post we showed that the NDP and their supporters were more engaged in the #NSpoli chatter relative to other political parties and their supporters in the Twitterverse. 

Since that initial analysis of the Twitter conversations on #NSpoli, a lot has happened. The writ dropped (election was officially called), new candidates, journalists, volunteers, and citizens all joined the conversation about events they are to attend and policies they support. As a result, it is no surprise that during this past week the #NSpoli hashtag hit a three month high with 2,657 tweets on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 – the day of the Leader’s Debate.

The more things change the more they remain the same:

The top tweeters and most mentioned accounts have remained largely the same since the last post. (Compare the graphs shown in Who is #NSpoli? to the newer ones below.) Overall, we do see denser and more distinct communities forming or clustering around each of the three major party leaders, but at the same time we also see that there remains a fair amount of cross-partisan communication.

The network graph below shows the major clusters of accounts using #NSpoli. The light blue is home to both @nspc and @jamiebaillie. Chatter about these two accounts has increased the most compared to the accounts of the other two major parties and their leaders. @nsliberal and @stephenmcneil are found in the purple cluster at the top of the graph and @nsndp and @premierdexter are found in the pink cluster to the right. On the left in the dark blue cluster are a variety of advocacy groups, union representatives, and lobbyists. Before the election was called these groups were much less distinct. This suggests that users have started tweeting to and about others who are similar to themselves and might share common goals or interests.

#nspoli (Oct 1, 2013)

Partisans Patting themselves on the back?

With this in mind we are in a good place to start to answer that second question. What are #NSpoli users talking about?

Looking at the 12 most common topics on debate day we saw that health care and Cape Breton politics were the only two issues that came up. #NSpoli users, as a group, did not focus on any of the many other issues discussed during the debate. Instead, users were very interested in discussions of who was winning and who was losing. @jamiebaillie, @premierdexter, @stephenmcneil, @nsndp, and mcneil, were all terms most commonly used.

Mentions of a leader’s account tended to be positive, which suggests one of two things (or two things happening simultaneously): 1) the #NSpoli community is actually partisans patting themselves on the back or 2) undecided voters are expressing new-found support. Our content analysis paired with the growing density of communities around each party leader noted earlier, however, suggests that we are seeing groups of decided voters becoming increasingly vocal online, rather than undecided voters making their first foray into the Nova Scotia political Twittersphere.

That said, the term “McNeil” tells a bit of a different story. Most tweets containing the term “McNeil” were critical of him, his debating style, and/or his policy. On the one hand he gained much more exposure, in terms of number of tweets, than any other leader. On the other hand, that exposure was less positive. Questions for politicians arise. Is all press good press on Twitter? How do you engage with people who don’t support you (yet)? Is engaging with citizens who are not supporters even a goal?

Changes in the Topics:

The graph below shows a timeline of the most common words (Top 100 Concept/Word chart) used in #NSpoli tweets.  (Note: the more common a word, the more space it occupies in the graph.) At the halfway point, around September 11, 2013, we see a stark change in patterns of language use.The biggest game changer here is the introduction of new hashtags: #nsvotes and #nselxn13. The co-use of multiple hashtags is common on Twitter. For example, if you want to talk about federal Liberal Party Leader, Justin Trudeau’s visit to Nova Scotia you might use both #CDNpoli and #NSpoli to connect with national and provincial groups. In the case of the Nova Scotia election users have to decide which tag they want to use to indicate they are talking about the election. We see from this graph that during the first week of the campaign #NSpoli users were opting to simply tack on #NSvotes and or #NSelxn13.

#nspoli topics
Live visualization available at http://netlytic.org/embed/?c=93FL88HR3JEBFx4f&v=200 (Requires Adobe Flash)


#Hashtags and their Importance to Tweeters:

The appearance of these new hashtags in the #NSpoli dataset raises an interesting question, are we tracking the right tweets? How do we know we are actually getting a representative sense of what Twitter users think and say? Well, the truth is we don’t. It is one of the challenges of studying an event as it is happening. For those of you who are not familiar with Twitter lingo and convention, a hashtag is a form of user generated, community-driven metadata tag. They provide an opportunity for disparate tweeters who share a common interest to easily find each other on Twitter and share their thoughts. Because they are community driven, hashtags are not used in the exact same way over time; how they are used at any point in time is driven largely by members of the Twitter community, and they can be challenged by new tags (because there is only 140 characters to a tweet users can only add a limited number of hashtags per tweet), and many users choose not to use hashtags at all.

A Leader’s Debate is a perfect example of an instance when users might be especially motivated to use a hashtag since the event happens live and conversation might be especially difficult to follow without the hashtag. For journalists, candidates, and other political players, there is extra motivation to also use the hashtag because they know many eyes will be on that stream at that moment. Over the course of a normal day they might opt to go hashtag-less relying on their followers to re-tweet their posts in order to widely disseminate their message instead.

So, is all lost, should we pack up and head out? Not quite.

We are dealing with a limited set of users, users who have self-selected into a community (or communities). Though this means we can’t generalize widely, it also means we can gain some pretty rich insight into who those specific users are and what they care about.

More blog posts about this election will be forthcoming. Stay tuned for our regular updates and analysis of the #NSPoli Twitter community during this provincial election cycle.

Written by Elizabeth Dubois (@lizdubois) with contribution from Anatoliy Gruzd (@gruzd) and Philip Mai (@phmai).