It always starts with a tweet, always!
As with many things on twitter, a random conversation can turn into all sorts of things and one evening a discussion between @Info_Aus, @slsandpet and I in regard to a very interesting thesis turned into something we all wanted to read. Though at nearly 400 pages... Not to disparage Ehsan Dehghan's obviously hard slog here, IT IS A THESIS, so a tad hard to breakdown for the lay person so the lovely Dr Sally agreed to read and give us all a bit of a breakdown, something us non-academics could hopefully glean some information from, sort of like a book review, but different 🤔
Anyhow, great thanks to Dr Sally for taking the time to do the below.
Enjoy! I am sure it will generate many conversations 😉
This is a doctorate about Twitter so I couldn’t resist a look. I am also aware that this is a “thesis”, not a book, and therefore cannot be reviewed as if it is for a general audience. I, therefore, gloss over or ignore the more theoretical/academic elements of the enterprise.
HIS BIO: Ehsan Dehghan is a lecturer in Digital Media at the School of Communication, QUT, and a member of the Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC). His PhD in Digital Media from QUT was awarded this year (2020), and he has a background in Discourse Studies and Philosophy. His main research interests are in the inter-relationship of social media and democracy. Twitter: @EssiDeh
It is well written, scholarly and earnest; all the things it needs to pass at an academic level.
It engages in a snapshot of Australian Twitter via three case studies or issues expressed as # hashtags: These are #RoboDebt, #18C and #Immigration (sometimes including #refugees). The time period covered is 2016 to 2018 and it examines 250,000 accounts which are described as “best connected”. It is a great pity it could not include the backdown and repayment of the illegal debts scooped up by the Government via RoboDebt, or the recent marches against racism #BlackLivesMatter. But, every thesis has to end somewhere!
This is the way Dehghan defines Twitter:
“Defining what Twitter is, or even reaching a comprehensive typology of all the ways it is used, is a practical impossibility. The broadest and simplest definition of ‘Twitter’ is that it is a microblogging service. One can also consider Twitter simply as a material space, a tablet of sorts on which discourses, interests, opinions, feelings, and so on can be inscribed. Throughout its lifespan, Twitter has been used in different ways. It is shown that this platform is a useful tool for journalistic practices—whether professional or amateur citizen journalism—and a way for users to share and be aware of news. Twitter is also proven to be a very effective tool in communication during crises such as floods and earthquakes”
The thesis is “discourse analysis” examining which discourses are dominant and where and if there is cross over or interaction between discourses and, therefore, groups or antagonists. There is concern here about whether one group is exposed to the discourse of the Other.
“This research examined the dynamics of discursive struggles in the Australian Twittersphere. The findings presented in this thesis contribute to our understanding of the inter-relationship between social media and democracy through the theorisation of the concepts of ‘networked discursive alliances’ and ‘active passivity’.”
The researcher looked for the use of #hashtags, keywords, peaks in use, integration of URLS and who shared what. He describes Twitter as being “initially highly promising for democracy” but finding polarised antagonistic spaces.
While I am skipping over the several chapters devoted to an exposition of the theories underpinning the thesis, because they are part of the academic enterprise, I think it is possible to argue that there is potential here for this kind of research to inform political strategy especially since the dominant concern here is around achieving a political consensus. Indeed, the final comments include Chantal Mouffe’s call for a “leftist populism” where opponents are acknowledged and not silenced.
However, while this search for democracy and inclusivity may be laudable it is clearly not achieved except in one possible case, around #RoboDebt, which, I argue, the author falsely implies is not directly political.
Tweeters in this thesis are grouped into significant players across these key hashtags. The nominal groups chosen are:
The Progressive Cluster
The Hard Right
The Progressive cluster in the Australian Twittersphere is approximately three times larger than the Hard-Right cluster.
There are distinct differences between hashtags used by the “Hard Right” and the “Progressives”. Twitter users make strategic discursive choices regarding what hashtags to use and to avoid. These are then used to frame debate. Specific URLS (mostly linked news articles) are also utilised in the same way.
“an examination of the hashtags collectively used by the actors and communities involved in a debate provided this study with valuable information about the discursive positions and strategies used by different communities in framing, representing, and channelling the debate”.
More than anything hashtags afford visibility.
The more users incorporate a hashtag the more likely it is to be a “trending topic”. This amplifies a discourse (and an issue) leading it to be picked up by MSM. The collective use of hashtags enhances visibility.
Dehghan also used hashtags as a “ primary source of data collection for studies of this platform.” (methodology) But he acknowledges, quite rightly, that many tweets on an issue do not include hashtags so are therefore not included.
There is also the issue of Twitter’s control over how much, and what data one can collect from its API (John & Nissenbaum, 2018); and, in case of highly discussed topics, the data carries the risk of being rate-limited. Twitter’s free to-use APIs allow for the collection of 1% of all tweets posted on the platform at any given time, or approximately a week’s worth of tweets if one is interested in historical data. Therefore, if more than 1% of tweets on the platform contain a specific hashtag while data is being collected, the researcher cannot collect anything exceeding this rate.
Using this method (of data collection and hashtags) Dehghan is able to discover who the “opinion leaders” were at this time in relation to the three topics included. He called them “curators” and “agenda setters”.
Table 6-14: Most active accounts in #RoboDebt
Username No. of Tweets
@lyndsayfarlow 1,883 166
For this case study, I began the data collection using five keywords8 : - Centrelink/Centerlink: I used both American and Australian spellings of the name of the agency to account for the various spellings that users might have used. - Tudge: Alan Tudge, the minister for Human Services, was a key figure in the discussions of the issue. Users frequently referred to him in regard to both the debate and his position in it, and the leaking of personal information of the blogger to the press. - Robodebt/#Robodebt: The term ‘robo-debt’ and its hashtag was the name given by activists to the automated debt notices sent to recipients. The media also used this term in reporting on the issue. - NotMyDebt/Not My Debt/#NotMyDebt: Along with robodebt, this was another term created as part of the protest. A Twitter account and a website of the same name were also created by activists for people who had received unjustified debt notices to gather and campaign.
Table 6-15: Most retweeted accounts in #RoboDebt
Username No. of Received Retweets
RoboDebt is actually very interesting here as an issue because it is identified as displaying the least amount of polarisation between the two communities actively tweeting about the issue (Progressive Politics and Hard-Right). Whereas, these two groups show distinct polarisation tendencies in the other case studies examined here.
RoboDebt included #NotMyDebt and it is described as a multifaceted issue including social justice, trust in technology, in the organisation – Centrelink and in politics.
When cross-referencing the accounts in this retweet network with the map of the Australian Twittersphere, it is evident that almost half of the accounts in each of the two antagonistic communities in the Australian Twittersphere have actively tweeted about the #RoboDebt controversy. For the Progressive Politics cluster, 2,342 of the 4,024 accounts participated in the #RoboDebt discussion; for the Hard-Right cluster, 409 of the 1,443 accounts participated.
Despite their inherent discursive differences, these antagonistic communities actively retweeted each other and the central accounts in the network, thus forming the star-shaped network of retweets.
The researcher argued that robodebt had this unique non-antagonistic feature because it was not political. Here, I disagree. It is a policy of the Liberal Party, overseen by Stuart Robert with an algorithm designed to exclude human oversight and a desire to punish those on welfare (at any point in the recent past).
BUT it is a “local issue” without a global referent that could affect anybody of any political persuasion in the same way! It is not gendered or ethnically specific and has caused pain to a wide cross section of Australian society.
Counterpose this to the most divisive issues – 18C and Immigration.
For this case study, my initial focus was on the notion of ‘free speech’ and discussions around it in the Australian Twittersphere. I started the query by searching for any tweets in the TrISMA database that contained the phrases ‘free speech’ or ‘freedom of speech’ (with and without spaces). I then undertook a keyword analysis (Section 4.3.3) on periods of time with the highest tweeting activity in the dataset. Different topics were perceived as related to this notion in the dataset. However, the highest number of tweets posted about freedom of speech was related to the discussions of Section 18C of the RDA. These tweets either directly addressed the question of whether or not 18C should be repealed, or were related to the high-profile 18C cases in Australia, such as the case of the QUT students or Bill Leak. - RDA/#RDA: acronym for Racial Discrimination Act. - Racial Discrimination Act
Table 6-18 Most active Hard right and Progressive 18C pp.172-173
Table 6-20: Highest retweets 18C p. 175
On this topic the Progressive cluster was three times the size of the Hard Right.
Although the Progressive and Hard-Right communities are not the only highly active clusters discussing the immigration debate, they are the most active ones.
Given the multifaceted nature of the immigration debate within the Australian Twittersphere, and the fact that it is intertwined with Australia’s asylum policies, I queried TrISMA for any tweets containing one or more of the following terms: - (Im)migration/(Im)migrant: the generic terms used for the collection of tweets discussing the topic of immigration - Asylum/refugee: to account for tweets discussing the topic of asylum seekers and refugees 128 The Three Case Studies - Boat people/boat person: historical terms used to refer to maritime arrivals to Australia - Manus/Nauru: - People smuggler: a phrase widely used in the official discourse about Operation Sovereign Borders - CloseTheCamps/close the camps/BringThemHere/bring them here: phrases and hashtags used by activists, calling for the detention camps to be dismantled and their residents welcomed to Australia - Illegal arrivals/illegals: another official term to refer to immigrants who enter Australia by boat without first applying for visas
Table 6-25: Most active Progressive accounts in Immigration p.180
Username No. of Tweets
Table 6-26 Most active Hard-Right accounts in Immigration p. 181
Username No. of Tweets
Sub hashtags are linked to political position - #refugees, #Nauru, #Manus, #bringthemhere, #humanrights versus #muslims, #Islam, #Illegals, #sacktriggs, #Repeal18C
Interesting patterns can be picked up in relation to the hashtags used, what is included and omitted, and, the SOURCE of information - Australian or overseas.
Another interesting pattern in the discourse of the Hard-Right in the Australian Twittersphere is their active avoidance of discussing the offshore detention camps. Unlike all the other clusters investigated in previous sections, where the term ‘Nauru’ was among the top keywords used by all the different communities, the discourse of the Hard-Right does not make any references to the offshore detention camps in Australia. Rather, there is a strong international focus in their tweets, which often discuss the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe; they connect this crisis to discussions of terrorism, and their support for stronger borders.
Table 6-27: Most retweeted accounts in Immigration p.182
Username No. of Received Retweets
For Robodebt the highest use of an URL was of The Guardian Australia. The news sources were shared by the different groups. However, when it came to both 18C and Immigration the URLs or outside sources used diverged significantly. The “Hard Right” preferred News.com.au, The Herald Sun, and The Spectator; also drawing more on international sources and discourses such as Voice of Europe, YouTube, and Breitbart.
Unfortunately there’s very little discussion of this here.
This researcher has a genuine desire to see where social media can provide a coming together of ideas and issues, where a debate can be had between opponents rather than avoiding the other in a response described as “active passivity”. He does make one finding that cheered me a lot, the observation that no “echo chamber” exists.
Since this is one of the biggest sneers made about Twitter users by political players and some journalists it was gratifying to be told that we do not appear to operate in a “confirmation space” to the exclusion of outsiders. Instead he finds that “the majority of users have a rich and diverse media diet”. TRUE 🙂
Is this thesis limited by its own quest – that social media platforms bring people together within a democracy, rather than accentuating their differences?
I think so. There is a degree of naivety here about the way antagonistic groups operate on Twitter and their oppositional characteristics. While the groups identified as “Progressive” were able to identify similar issues to the group identified as “Hard Right” when it came to “RoboDebt”, where anyone could be caught up in the failed Government attempt to find welfare debt. There is no way these groups could coalesce around the issues of 18C, free speech and immigration. Why would we imagine that they could?
Dehghan himself indicates that the Progressive groups are inclined to discuss issues within the Australian context while the Hard Right identify with overseas Rightwing groups such as Breitbart.
He mentions but does not understand the complexity of Cambridge Analytica , or Facebook promulgation of misinformation campaigns and just how insidious these are. He also maintains a rather naive position on journalism .
“The professional norms dictating the work of journalists generally prevent them from taking an explicit political position, and require them to mainly focus on a balanced sharing of news”.
Recent comments by Age journalists certainly put paid to these assumptions.
New: Journalists at the Age express alarm over increasing politicisation and loss of independence https://t.co/63PbQ1pNlD— amanda meade (@meadea) June 14, 2020
Journalism has never been “objective”, the editorial process, the choice of stories covered and the angle of that coverage are just a few of the indications of the limits to objectivity, or “just News”. This is before we introduce Ownership and control. Who benefits? – follow the money. Where is the recognition of the Murdoch enterprise? Look at the URLs listed, there’s no discussion of who owns what or of any positionality other than describing some as “left leaning”.
This leads me to my final comments about the absence of media studies and social and economic history here. I think the thesis would have benefited from some background in these disciplines.
But, this thesis is a limited “discourse analysis” and a snapshot in time not a social history of Australia. It provides a methodology for examining what issues are circulating at a given point in time and what weight is given to them and by whom.
by Dr Sally
TV tragic, news junkie media PhD, Enviro Board and Director, human rights, hate injustice; dog lover wine lover Daughter of #farmer & #TradeUnionLeader @slsandpet
Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (2001). Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democratic politics (2nd ed.). Verso.
Mouffe, C. (1999). Deliberative democracy or agonistic pluralism. Social Research, 66(3).
Mouffe, C. (2018). For a left populism. Verso
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