What’s your thesis again?

Having recently completed my doctoral work a common question is “what is your thesis actually about again?” Well, here it is.

In my thesis (link) I look at the idea of the opinion leader – an average citizen who happens to care a lot about politics and pays attention to current affairs. In communication theory we assume opinion leaders act as a bridge between the political elite (think politicians and journalists) and the general public who don’t pay very close attention to what is going on politically. What I find is that digitally enabled opinion leaders actually work very hard to use their channels of communication to avoid anyone who is not already politically engaged. Digitally enabled opinion leaders (the one’s I interviewed at least) don’t like to be the bridge.

Let’s take a beat to unpack this.

Who cares if opinion leaders are or are not acting as a bridge?

You do! We know that there is a widening gap between the politically aware and unaware (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996). We know people use digital channels of communication to avoid information they dislike or are not interested in (Prior, 2007). And we know that when people are not aware policy making becomes less responsive to citizen’s needs (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996) and people feel disconnected from their political system (OECD, 2011). In other words, democracy stops working (Dahl, 2000).

What makes any of this interesting or relevant now?

We’ve got a bunch of new channels of communication available to us – that’s all of us, elite, opinion leader or average Joe who hears JT and thinks Timberlake but not Trudeau.

More channels means more opportunities for sharing information and opinion. It also sometimes means new approaches to communicating politically (just think about citizen journalism or hashtag campaigns.) When it comes to opinion leaders, we don’t have a grasp on what channels of communication they are using, how or with what impact. I am talking about Facebook and Twitter sure, but even text messaging and email still need to be included.

Note: I base my work in the context of what Chadwick calls the hybrid media system (2013). Basically, Chadwick explains that lots of different political players have access to lots of different (and often overlapping) tools and tactics of communication. Opinion leaders are one kind of political player.

Fine, but why do these new channels impact the role of the opinion leader?

A lot of people have studied how opinion leaders go about informing the general public and it comes down to personal influence (see Katz, 1957 for an initial review). They use social pressure and social support to change the opinions, attitudes and behaviours of their everyday associates. This is normally done via face-to-face interpersonal communication since other options like broadcast are out of the question (a printing press has a rather large price tag).

But, you say, social media is cheap. Email is cheap. You’re right. New technologies throw the whole theory into question because we don’t actually know what opinion leadership looks like once we’ve got new channels.

What we do know is that these channels of communication open the door for accessing wide segments of the population via interpersonal (emails with mom), impersonal (broadcasting) and quasi-personal (mentioning someone on Twitter) communication.

The thing is, we used to assume that opinion leadership works because opinion leaders have a special social tie to the people who they influence. They know them well and interact with them regularly. There are a bunch of social influence theories that help us understand why we are more likely to be influenced by people who are like us and people who we spend a lot of time with – wanting to be a cool kid, for example, is pretty hardwired in our brains.

We also know that the most new information comes from people with whom we have only a weak tie, like the colleague from another city you only see in person during the annual staff retreat or the man who sells you veggies at the market (Grannovetter, 1973). That is because of a social phenomenon called homophily which basically means we surround ourselves by people like us – you know, birds of a feather flock together (McPhersen, Smith-Lovin, Cook, 2001).

So, where do people who are not interested in politics get political information from? Possibly weak ties. What information is likely to change the opinion of someone whose closest friends all think like them? Probably information from weak ties.

I’m lost, don’t you study social media?

Yup. Here it is, social media allow us to access and maintain close personal ties in new ways. Social media also allow us to access new ties and connect with people who have very diverse experiences, opinion and access to information. I wanted to know the impact of those channels (and other digital media) on the role of the opinion leader. When they talk about politics are they still able to be a bridge when they don’t have to rely on face-to-face communication? Is their influence greater because they can reach a lot more weak ties or is it limited because they try to communicate in a way that doesn’t let them capitalize on their social placement (it would be like the cool kid going to a new school and seeing if anyone starts to dress like them).

So, what do digitally enabled opinion leaders do?

Well, they make use of a lot of channels of communication for accessing information. Importantly this consistently includes accessing at least some mainstream media on a daily basis (from following them on Twitter to subscribing to the online version to turning on the radio).

When it comes to sharing information two distinct strategic approaches emerge. Some opinion leaders, who I call enthusiasts surround themselves with others who are equally passionate about politics. They use channels like Twitter and discussion boards to hone their arguments and to get a sense of what people with conflicting opinions think. It is something of an echo chamber of the politically engaged. On the other hand there are champions who act much the same except in situations of heightened political tension like a scandal or an election. Then these champions take it upon themselves to use every channel and tactic of communication they can to try and inform and influence people who are uninformed. They borrow the strategy of communications professionals and political elite to get their message across when they think it matters most.

Both enthusiasts and champions are trying to avoid the social risk of talking about politics with someone who won’t care.

What does this mean?

  1. Digital channels of communication are enabling a highly strategic opinion leader.
  2. Personal influence is not necessarily tied to interpersonal communication and so we need to think about the different types of influence these opinion leaders employ.
  3. Digitally enabled opinion leadership today is contributing to a much wider phenomenon where the vast majority of the public only become informed of political issues at moments of heightened tension (what I’ve been calling a just-in-time informed citizenry).

Communication theory and strategy both need to be responsive to these shifts.


A note on methods.

I am quite the methods geek which means a big part of my doctoral work was figuring out the best way to measure these things. I collected about 411 000 #CDNpoli tweets and created a friendship network of the users. Next, I conducted an online survey among #CDNpoli users. Finally, I did an in depth analysis of the communication practices of 21 opinion leaders from that network and 26 of their associates through interviews and analysis of Twitter and Facebook activities. There are obviously a lot of advantages and disadvantages to this mixed-methods approach so if you want to know more I am happy to chat. I’ve also published two journal articles on my methods and am happy to send you a copy of my thesis if you want to tackle the 336 page PDF.

Research questions.

In case you are interested,

RQ1 What are the modes of access to and dissemination of political messages by digitally enabled opinion leaders?

RQ2 What drives channel choice among digitally enabled opinion leaders when disseminating political information?

This question is broken down into six sub-questions (in my theory chapter I connect each to a specific body of existing research beyond the broader bodies of work noted above):

  • RQ2.1 How does the richness/leanness of media channels influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choice?
  • RQ2.2 How does the social appropriateness of exchanging political messages (given a particular channel) influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.3 How does the political climate influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.4 How does one’s sense of community (given a particular channel) influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.5 How does the strength of social ties to their audience influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
  • RQ2.6 How does knowledge about one’s audience influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?

RQ3 What are the impacts of the channel choices made by opinion leaders on their political role?


  • Chadwick, A. (2013). The hybrid media system: Politics and power. Oxford University Press.
  • Dahl, R. A. (2000). On Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Delli Carpini, M. X., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans don’t know about politics and why it matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78 (6), pp. 1360–1380.
  • Katz, E. (1957, March). The two-step flow of communication: An up-to date report on an hypothesis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 21 (1), 61–78.
  • OECD. (2011). Civic engagement and governance (How’s Life?: Measuring Wellbeing). OECD Publishing.

Trace Interview Workshop at #SMSociety15

This morning Devin Gaffney and I ran a workshop on trace interviews at the Social Media and Society Conference. Trace interviews involve collecting and visualizing trace data (in this case, social media data, like tweets or likes). The researcher brings visualizations into the interview setting and invites the interviewee to help interpret the data. Since the interviewee is the person who left the trace data in the first place, their insight is valuable for understanding the context of communication, the validity of data and the meaning behind traceable online interactions.

Heather Ford and I describe the strengths and weaknesses of this approach in our International Journal of Communication article.

You can also check out the slides we used for this workshop. I will add a full bibliography shortly.

This is a mixed-methods approach in development. We would love to hear your feedback, suggestions, questions and concerns. We’d also love to hear about other research using similar techniques. Feel free to comment below, tweet or email.

Here is a simple network graph which visualizes the relationships among some of our workshop attendees. Each node (circle) is an attendee. The edges (lines) represent times one attendee has mentioned the other.


Research update 4: Confirmed, I am not down a rabbit hole.

At Oxford the last step before you submit your final doctoral thesis is called “Confirmation of Status.” Essentially it means: you think you have collected all your data and made a solid plan for writing, we are going to check you haven’t completely gone off the rails. You submit two full chapters, abstracts for all the rest and a plan for when you are going to finish writing. The experience has the potential to be fundamentally crushing. This is normally the first time anyone other than you and your supervisor reads your work as a (soon to be) whole.  While the fear of having turned down the wrong path is heavy, the experience can also be invigorating. They read your work and try to see the full story you have been dedicated to telling!

For me, Confirmation was just that, invigorating. I had exceptional assessors who had clearly not only read but taken time to think about what I had written. They were motivational even in their critiques and concerns. They were open to my explanations and treated the interview as a conversation about how this work could become as meaningful as possible.

I am looking at how political opinion leaders in Canada source and share political information. In particular I focus on what motivates these opinion leaders to choose different channels of communication for sharing facts and discussing politics (e.g. why Facebook over face-to-face conversation, or text message over Twitter). These opinion leaders are thought to be important political players because they help keep the non-engaged citizenry politically aware through personal influence. Since opinion leaders have a lot more channels of communication to choose from, the mechanism of influence is in question.

My assessors and I left the interview most excited about the strategic approach my interviewees take when it comes to communicating about politics. I am also pretty excited about the “trace interviewing” approach Heather Ford and I developed which helps contextualize social media trace data and gives a voice to the creator of those traces/acts of communication. We bring visualizations of a person’s social media data into an interview setting and jointly interpret those data which means we can explain things like why a person tweeted what they did and what that person thinks a Facebook like actually means. (Note: our paper is in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of International Communication but you can email me for a draft copy.)

Since passing confirmation at the start of February I’ve been busy writing back in Toronto where I am living for the year. I work out of the iSchool at the University of Toronto most days but also spend time at Ryerson’s School of Professional Communication.  I’ve also had the opportunity to present parts of my methods and discussion chapters and am headed to a doctoral workshop for late stage candidates at Princeton next month. It never ceases to amaze me how much easier it is to write once I have presented to an audience.

Desk at U of T

Internet School Podcast!

Last week I got to chat with two future Masters of the Internet (they are in the MSc in the Social Sciences of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute aka OII). They are starting up an awesome new podcast called the Internet School Podcast, or ISP for short (get it?). Here it is!

Why is this podcast so awesome? These two (brilliant and articulate) women are taking a look at the impact of the Internet of social life is a really interesting way. They have a perspective that you just can’t get elsewhere. They are young and eager. They are living and studying in the heart of Internet studies (ok, ok, I may be a little bias towards the OII…) but instead of burrowing down into the depths of academic study they are opening up and looking out at the world. They are connecting academia, news, and their own experiences as Internet users to reflect on what this all means.

Check it out.


How the Party Leaders Use Twitter: Digital Diplomacy and E-Democracy

From September 15, 2014 to January 19, 2015 I collected all tweets from @PMHarper (the English language account of Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Steven Harper), @ThomasMulcair (NDP leader Thomas Mulcair) and @JustinTrudeau (Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau). I wanted to know what topics these accounts covered and whether they had more of an internal or external focus (looking in at Canada and issues facing Canadians or looking out at the world and Canada’s place internationally).

I found that @PMHarper focuses on international issues while @ThomasMulcair and @JustinTrudeau focus on local, provincial and federal policy issues. I reported these findings in a Globe and Mail article published on Feb. 5, 2015.

Notes on methods and other comments

Silly girl, posting tweets is for staff.

Having worked for a Member of Parliament in her Ottawa office I know that politicians and their staff each take different approaches to dealing with social media. Some MPs make all their own tweets, others work with their staff to create a pre-determined schedule and others rely on staff to make tweets on their behalf. I didn’t ask the party leaders what they do, and while I have personal hunches about how it plays out that is not the point of this analysis.

I was interested in the messages that get sent to followers of specific accounts, regardless of who crafts those messages. If I were studying press releases or even speeches there would be value in understanding the content of the messages that get sent out attached to the names/titles of those leaders. The same is true with Twitter. This is content coming from their offices which makes it (in my mind) interesting. Sure, knowing who wrote the tweet, who came up with the tweeting strategy, and who has final say on what goes out are also interesting questions but I think they are interesting for different reasons.

Why not Green Party leader Elizabeth May (@ElizabethMay)?

I did a small sample of May’s many many tweets (she made nearly 3000 in the same amount of time the others made 200-300 each) and the vast majority are replies to other people which means that topically they are often pretty ambiguous. In other words, had I done the full set, the results would not have been as insightful for her because she uses it so differently from the other party leaders. It would end up not being a fair comparison.

How did you collect and analyse the tweets?

I used Twitter’s public API (specifically GET statuses/user_timeline). This means that I did not collect any tweets that were made but later deleted. I created a coding schedule which is essentially a list of the things I was looking for and the categories tweets could fall in (for example, international, national or provincial/local focus). Next I read each and every tweet and “coded” them which means I decided which categories they fell into. If I were to publish these findings in an academic journal I would probably want to have someone else also code each tweet so we could compare our answers and calculate the reliability of this approach. But for now, I am asking you to trust my interpretation of what constitutes “national” and what does not. Once I’d done that I had a nice spreadsheet containing all my data, I used that to create a series of graphs which I used to interpret the data. You can see some Globe and Mail versions in the article.

Why does this even matter? This isn’t particularly newsworthy or profoundly deep analysis.

Journalists and others in the media industry tend to focus on the now, the new and the exciting. This is very important for informing the citizenry on the issues of the day and making sure the public has access to the most important political information at that time. Us academics, particularly social scientists, often focus on abstract and/or fundamental social trends over a much longer term (and most of our work rarely goes beyond the boundaries of academia).

What is missing is a reflection on that middle ground. Everyday politics is actually a huge portion of where public opinion is developed and where citizens get to interact (even if it is one-way) with their political representatives. Yes, elections and scandals and policy announcements matter. But so does the more subtle framing of what issues should be talked about and what issues a leader and their party want to engage with or promote. And yes, understanding what makes the leaders act as they do (i.e. a much deeper analysis) is intriguing and potentially very valuable. But that doesn’t mean mapping out the contours of social media use isn’t.

Here is the text of the article (you’ll need to follow the link above to check out the graphs):

In an era of digital diplomacy and e-democracy, politicians are expected to play their political role both online and offline. Twitter is one tool which politicians around the world have embraced as a way to connect with those they represent and broadcast information to the public. Canada’s major political party leaders are no different – and the leaders’ different approaches say a lot about how they communicate in the months ahead of a federal election.

A political party leader is expected to be vocal on any and all political issues facing their constituents. The leader is looked to to set their party’s agenda, to communicate issues to the public, to garner a following, and to understand the needs of that following and of Canadians more broadly. Of course the leader has many other responsibilities, these are just some of the main ones which Twitter is particularly good at facilitating.

Canada’s political party leaders are all active on Twitter but their patterns of use are not the same. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is known for her prolific Twitter account. Her 20,600 tweets since joining Twitter in September 2008 is nearly seven times as many as either the Prime Minister’s English-language account (@PMHarper) or NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s (@ThomasMulcair) all-time totals, and over three times as many as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau). But even among the three party leaders who tweet considerably less, there are telling differences.

By the numbers

From Sept. 18, 2014, when members returned to Parliament after the summer break, to Jan. 17, 2015, @PMHarper has made 283 tweets. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau both have only one account which posts both English and French tweets, with 288 and 574 tweets made respectively. Notably both leaders often opt to post direct translations of tweets, so the following analysis considers unique tweets only (193 for Mr. Mulcair and 319 for Mr. Trudeau).

Over the course of the fall there are some expected ebbs and flows. (See chart above.) The start of the session prompted all three accounts to post multiple tweets a day which slowed as the weeks passed. On the week following Christmas, all three accounts refrained from posting and on weekends there were often, but not always, fewer tweets made. Mr. Trudeau’s account was the only one from a leader to consistently tweet at relatively stable levels throughout most of the sampling period. For example, Mr. Trudeau’s account made many tweets about the by-elections in November when the accounts of Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair were both relatively inactive on Twitter.

The differences in topics of tweets highlight the biggest differences in the leaders’ approach to Twitter (see above chart). About 25 per cent of Mr. Harper’s tweets had an international focus, for example, the threat of the Islamic State, or United Nations and G20 meetings, while only 3 per cent of his posts had a provincial or local community focus. Issues facing Canadians broadly such as economic, social and other issues together make up only 19 per cent of Mr. Harper’s tweets. In contrast, 34 per cent of Mr. Mulcair’s and 41 per cent of Mr. Trudeau’s tweets focused on economic, social and other issues facing Canadians with only 11 per cent each focusing on international issues.

Mr. Trudeau matches this focus on international issues with equal numbers of tweets about provincial or community issues. Mr. Trudeau’s tweets span a wider range of policy issues and are more evenly spread across areas as compared to either other leader.

Finally, for all three leaders a large proportion (between 34 and 39 per cent) of tweets make reference to no specific policy issue but instead to meetings they attended and events of the day. For Mr. Harper these tweets often include condolence messages, greetings for a given holiday and references to sporting events. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau also include some of these messages but also tend to post photos from events and thank you notes to those they meet with.

Digital diplomacy vs. e-democracy

Mr. Harper’s use of Twitter can be thought of as in line with digital diplomacy. Digital diplomacy on a very basic level is the use of the Internet to solve foreign policy issues. @PMHarper is an account with an international focus and which tends to opt toward non-partisan statements. Expressing policy positions or promoting a policy agenda to the Canadian public does not appear to be a goal of the account. Instead, the aim seems to be more about establishing a presence online as a world leader and digitally demonstrating Canada’s connection to other nations.

Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, to varying degrees, appear to use Twitter more in line with e-democracy which is more about advancing a democracy than foreign affairs. Both accounts attempt to connect with Canadian citizens explicitly, for example by reminding them to vote, providing shareable content and sending thank you messages. Neither account maintains as large a focus on international issues at Mr. Harper, instead both put increased focus on social and other issues facing Canadians. Expressing views on policy and generating interest in, and engagement with, their respective parties are likely aims of these accounts.

Ultimately, Mr. Harper, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau are all active social media users with something to gain from Twitter. The different strategies which drives their use can help others understand what they are signing up for when they click “follow.”

Globe and Mail

Of Terror and Twitter: Shootings in Ottawa and Media Coverage

I have been glued to my computer screen, CBC live coverage on as I scroll through tweets and Facebook posts. If I had another screen CTV would be on too, as would CNN and anyone else reporting on the shootings today in Ottawa at the War Memorial and on Parliament Hill. It hits too close to home, I walked by that memorial at least twice a day for nearly four years working on the Hill.

As I grasp desperately for meaning in a flood of speculation from traditional and social media alike, I can’t help but notice stark differences in the way today’s horrible events are being portrayed in Canada, the US and on Twitter. I want to preface this post by stating that I have not conducted a full fledged media analysis, if you want to hear about my rather rudimentary methods let me know and I’ll write it up.

Terrorism wasn’t the story. But it might be soon.

Canada’s mainstream media outlets have worked to present up-to-the-minute reporting. Every briefing from every possible political player, it seems, has been covered. Journalists have worked to inform citizens, they have not speculated about terror attacks or the “islamic threat” as US media outlets have.

On Twitter the chatter started out very much in line with the reports coming from CBC, CTV, and other Canadian outlets. The hashtags #OttawaShooting, #StaySafeOttawa and #PrayForOttawa jumped into action with the first serving as a venue for news sharing and the second and third for offering messages of support. Overlap exists and other kinds of messages were certainly sprinkled in, but these were the dominate themes.


Mid-afternoon, as the dust settled and buildings began to be cleared the chatter started to change. The RCMP held a press conference and wherein little concrete knowledge was shared. The panel was asked about the possibility of continued threat and if anything was known about the shooter who was killed in Parliament. For the first time I’d heard, a journalist eluded to the possibility that this might be an act of terrorism related to ISIS. Coverage following the press conference did not follow this line of questioning, presumably because there was, and currently is, no reason to believe it is the case. We just don’t know.

Next, CNN and Fox News started to join CBC and CTV as dominate message senders in the Ottawa shootings Twittersphere. At the same time #ISIS is becoming an increasingly popular hashtag in Canada, in Twitter terms it was “trending.” And Twitter’s algorithms which are designed to help you find information better start suggesting you search ISIS when you search “Ottawa,” “#OttawaStrong,” and “PrayForOttawa.” This suggests that people are posting on these topics simultaneously and/or they are searching for these topics in conjunction. Either way, the general Twitter public is exhibiting a new concern which Canada’s traditional media are neither instigating nor fuelling at this point. For one 30 minute sample, 1 in 5 tweets containing the hashtag #OttawaShooting had some reference to ISIS, terror, islamic threat or related concept.

Related Searches: ISIS

Search Fill

Not only is the threat of terror becoming an increasingly dominant theme, but the classical response to a national threat is also emerging. The hashtag #CanadaStrong which is dominated by photos of the Canadian flag and messages of Canadian pride became the second highest trending hashtag in Canada by 4:00pm EDT. While this hashtag is dominated by positive messages increasingly there is a sense of “us versus them” being established and many racial slurs and references to terror have been evoked. At this point I have yet to conduct any formal content analysis on this hashtag.

Twitter and the traditional media

Now, Twitter loves to comment on traditional media and traditional media seem to like to reference Twitter now and then. There are a lot of different approaches journalists and media outlets have taken to incorporating social media into their reporting. All major outlets have active Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, many news programs also have specialized hashtags they promote, some solicit input from viewers and scroll tweet responses across the screen. And sometimes, a journalist is pushed a piece of paper that says something along the lines of, ‘it seems Twitter cares too! For example, there is debate as to what the Prime Minister is drinking in the photo his office released while he was getting a security briefing.’

It was probably juice. But hey, if it was whiskey I don’t know that I’d blame him. Simply, not the story.

Security Briefing

The anchor, rightly so, told viewers that was not the story as he was reporting it and that was the last of Twitter time.

The problem is, there is a lot of interesting information about what citizens care about and what they think that can be drawn from Twitter if done properly. Talk about the fact that terror threats are concerning people across the nation or that citizens are also calling on each other to be calm and collected and to wait until we know more details. Explain that Canadians are turing to social media to share stories and words of hope and support. Describe how people are reacting so those of us far away can feel connected. That is what Twitter offers, you can too.

Obviously there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to Twitter use by traditional media and obviously mid-breaking news story is not the ideal time to sit and ponder the best use. But breaking news stories are also the moment at which activity is at its highest and payout is greatest in terms of generating discussion, informing the public, and broadening your audience.

Alter the media! We found the journalists! [Social Media Lab blog]

Originally posted to the Social Media Lab blog.

Where in the world is…

It has taken an entire election campaign, but it looks like NS journalists are finally joining the online discussion about the Nova Scotia election and are beginning to actively interact with Twitter users.

In our first blog post  and in a Sun TV Battleground interview we noted the strange absence of journalists and the main stream media from the #NSpoli Twitter discussion. In other provincial political discussion on Twitter such as #BCpoli and #ONpoli, as well as within #CDNpoli, journalists and mainstream media Twitter accounts are very well represented. In cases where they are present in the discussion, they tend to be highly central in the communication network and in many cases work to bridge across partisan clusters. Being central in a communications network is often used by researchers as a proxy to determine one’s relative influence and authority within a network.

In the #NSpoli community prior to the election and during the first three weeks of the writ period, journalists were not highly central, they were not talked to or about much, and were not really part of the #NSpoli conversation at all. But today, election day, the story is different.

The graph below represents the #NSpoli network from mid-July to the morning of October 8 – election day. Just one week ago the graph looked very different (see our previous blog post). There were distinct clusters for each of the three major political parties, a cluster in which a union representative was most central, and no sign of journalists either in a distinct cluster, occupying a central role in the party clusters, or bridging across clusters.


In this more recent graph we see a large component in the center where we find accounts like @ctvatlantic and @chronicleherald. While both accounts were mentioned sporadically over the course of the election, neither had been particularly central, certainly not compared to the party leaders. To be sure, the number of tweets mentioning parties and leaders still outweighs that of any mainstream media account, but a change is undeniable. These accounts, and others linked to specific journalists and outlets are now a more integral part of that core group.

Interestingly, there is one grouping that has become more dense and distinct in the #NSPoli discussion. The graph below is a cut down version of the #NSpoli network and shows only this one cluster.


The cluster near the bottom is, roughly, made up of national media and federal politicians which links to the larger main component. @Sunnewsnetwork and @davidakin are the most central accounts in this group.

National media, or at least those who have engaged with the Nova Scotia election have now formed their own dense cluster, something that only came about in a big way over the final few days of campaigning. Why these national actors have joined the discussion on a decidely regional discussion is interesting and will require more analysis.

Leaders and Their Followers

Over the course of the campaign dense clusters of users formed around each of the three main political parties and their leaders. A cluster around union organizers also formed. There were small groupings of accounts from elsewhere – a small pocket of Newfoundlanders, a grouping of #CDNpoli enthusiasts, federal politicians, etc.

Today, the NDP and Liberal groups have merged into one big central mass, in fact @premierdexter, @stephenmcneil, @nsndp, and @nsliberal are all occupying nearly the exact same space on the graph. For those keeping track, @nsndp is still the most central in this community.

The @nspc and @jamieballie accounts are still found in their own cluster, but even that is being drawn into the center mass and is relatively less isolated in the #NSPoli communication network.

The graph below shows the main cluster which houses the NDP and Liberal accounts (yellow and green) and the cluster off to the bottom right (turquoise) in which we find the PC accounts.


What does all of this mean?

Well, it means that in the frenzy of the final few days of campaigning, Twitter users, regardless of party or political role (i.e. journalist, candidate, volunteer, etc.) were all chatting to, and about, a wide range of others. The partisan camps have been vacated and users are pouring into the commons. We know that within that commons journalists have piped up alongside partisan supporters, candidates, parties, and interest groups. The question remains, are average citizens engaging in this political chat? We haven’t got much evidence to suggest they are. And so, how to engage less politically active social media users and how to bring them into the conversation remains a challenge for campaigns.

Who is #NSpoli? [Social Media Lab blog]

Originally posted to the Social Media Lab blog.

As the next Nova Scotia provincial election draws near, candidates from all political parties are cranking up their advertising and PR machines to engage with the voters. From town-hall meetings, to interviews with traditional media, to a well maintained website, the communication strategies of MLA-hopefuls will most certainly span a wide range of technology and applications. Twitter is one example of a social media application that has been established as a core space in which politicians, journalists, activists, and average voters can interact, share, learn, and even attack.

We started collecting the #NSpoli hashtag on July 12, 2013 in anticipation of the upcoming election. #NSpoli has been the most consistently popular hashtag used by those interested in provincial politics in this area. We wanted to get a sense of what the Twitter community connected to this hashtag looks like and talks like as the province’s politicos prepare for a campaign. Later in this campaign season we will compare our findings about the #NSpoli community from the period before the election is called to after, but for now we provide a foundational overview focusing on the size of the community, the key players, and the kinds of sub-communities that form.

From July 12 to August 22, 2013 16 044 tweets were made containing “#NSpoli.” In total 1 947 unique users made tweets during this time period.

#NSPOLI Posts Over Time (jul12-aug22, 2013)

In the “Posts over time” graph you see the rate of #NSpoli tweeting is not consistent. Some days see no more than 150 tweets, while others hit upwards of 550. On one day in this sample we see the exceptional high of 917 tweets (Aug. 19). This tells us a few things. First, tweets are following the work week. The lulls in Twitter activity correspond with weekends, the highs with the start of a new week’s political agenda. Second, the spike on August 19, 2013 highlights the potential of the hashtag as we look forward to the impending election. On that day the NDP were pushing the line “Nova Scotia Forecast Update Confirms Budget Surplus.” The line comes up across tweets from party officials, candidates, and journalists. It also appears in NDP press releases and within the mainstream media. A budget update is a likely newsworthy event and would generate chat regardless, but framed as a core reason for re-election, the topic peaked the interest of Twitter users across the political spectrum.

Now that we have a sense of the size of the #NSpoli community, lets take a look at who is involved.

#NSPOLI Top 10 Posters (jul12-aug22, 2013)

Brother Anonymous (@broanonymous) is the most avid #NSpoli poster. The hacker group “Anonymous” is known for their digitally enabled acts of political contention. This particular account tends to focus on a variety of topics and places within Canada and the US, Nova Scotia being a core topic among the 16,000+ tweets made.

Concerned Voter (@concernedvoter) is a user with an “X” as their twitter profile picture and appears to be a bot which, for a period of only a few days, made hundreds of nearly identical tweets mostly concerning MLA Percy Paris who, that spring, had resigned his cabinet position after assaulting a Liberal MLA.

Pope Shakey (@popeshakey) is a different story. This account is very active on a regular basis within the #NSpoli community and is critical of the Liberal Party which is currently the Official Opposition. The owners tweet content, respond to the content of others, and re-tweet regularly.

Of the remaining 7 accounts which make up the top 10 posters, one is a re-tweet bot which re-tweets anything tagged with “#Halifax,” one is a left-leaning student, and all others are explicitly NDP affiliated.

When considering those who-are-most talked about (based on number of times their user name is mentioned in tweets) and accounts whose tweets are most often re-tweeted, the story is much of the same. Some accounts cross each list, like @NSNDP, @PremierDexter, NDP staffer @MarkLaventure, and NDP @MLA MatMLA. That said, some critical of the NDP government are also found in the top 10 most mentioned and re-tweeted. This suggests that, though the #NSpoli chat is largely dominated by the NDP and its supporters, other perspectives are present.

#NSPOLI Top 10 Mentioned (Jul12-Aug22, 2013)

In fact, when we map the connections between users of #NSpoli (see below), we can see there are a number of fairly distinct groups. In the graph each dot represents a Twitter user (nodes), lines (edges) connecting dots indicate a communicative relationship, the color represents which sub-community (modularity) they are part of. The node size is relative to how many other nodes they are connected to.


When we map social networks we use specific rules to place each dot on the virtual paper. In other words, we have an algorithm, a specific “layout,” that calculates where each dot is placed relative to all other dots. The layout used here is “OpenOrd” and is designed to highlight sub-communities within large networks.

At the top of the graph we see one large multi-colored mass which is a “main component” where multiple sub-communities overlap. We also notice a number of smaller communities along the bottom half of the graph. Finally, a few isolated or very small groups of nodes exist on the outskirts of the graph. What this means is that there is a core group of accounts which consistently communicate with each other, the main #NSpoli community is quite tight-knit. Yet, there are also distinct groups which tells us that #NSpoli is not homogenous.

At this point it is worth investigating a little further.

@NSNDP is the most connected account in this community. Qualitative analysis reveals that the blue community in which @NSNDP is found is primarily made up of NDP and NDP supporter accounts including the highly central @premierdexter account which is run by the Office of  Premier Dexter. This is the most dense of the sub-communities and is very central to the wider graph.


The red cluster which is embedded in the main component is most dense on the right side of the graph. Within this cluster we find the most central account is @nsliberal with the leader of the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia, @stephenmcneil, very similarly placed. Though we may be tempted to assume the red cluster is “Liberal,” the reality is many NDP and NDP supporters are also found in this group.


The light green cluster tells a similar story with Liberal and NDP politicians, organizations, and supporters all identified. This suggests that the NDP and Liberals are talking to, or about, each other.

Added to the list of central accounts in this cluster are journalists like @larochecbc, government accounts like @nsgov in the left side of the graph which, among many others, serve to connect the two distinct groupings in the light green class. Interestingly the PC party’s most talked about accounts are found in a fairly tight-knit pink cluster to the top right of the graph, they are connected to the main cluster primarily by journalists and other accounts run by mainstream media.


Finally it is worth mentioning a few of the smaller cluster which are much more loosely connected to the main component. The dark green and yellow groups depicted bellow are both made up of accounts which are not necessarily tied to any specific party or place. For example, @premiernb, which is the official account of the Office of the Premier of New Brunswick is found in the yellow cluster. Many re-tweet bots or accounts which explicitly claim to primarily re-tweet news and political commentary are also found in these groups. Without deeper investigation it is hard to tell what connects these smaller communities, what we can say is that it does not appear to be an affiliation with a specific party.



As the campaign develops it will be particularly interesting to track the existence of sub-communities for a couple of reasons. First, having distinct communities in a communication network like this one suggests there is disparity in the messages different politically engaged individuals are receiving and sending. Second, noting which accounts are linking these groups can help us understand who is talking about who. If journalists are the connectors between two parties we might guess it is a matter of giving equal publicity to each party. On the other hand if it is a party connecting to an opponent we might explore the content of their communication to see if they are collaborating, debating, or perhaps attacking the other.

Political communication, particularly on Twitter, is not just about the message or even the sender and receiver, it is about the interaction. It will be interesting to see just how that interaction develops over the course of the campaign.

More blog post 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 (@dalprof) and Philip Mai (@phmai).

Digital Oxford

On May 4, 2013 I participated in a day long forum which kicks off the University of Oxford’s campaign to become digital – or at least to have some sort of vision for integrating digital technology into the workings of this very old institution.

The meeting was attended by everyone from Oxford UP reps to museum curators to public relations managers. I assume my interest in strategic communication as a student at the Internet Institute solidified my ticket.

A note I jotted down early on sums up the day in my eyes: “Zero sense of the practical. Great vision and creativity but not applicable soon or simply.”

To be sure, the ideas floated we intriguing – an olfactory Internet, a University of Oxford social network to replace email, and millions of pounds of investment in a strategic plan rolled out over many years.

But digital is already here, and it has been here for quite some time. So we have two problems. First, how do we cope with technology today. We need to ask, what modifications can we make to adapt to an already changed environment? Second, how do we, as an institution, deal with innovation? The problem isn’t a digital world – it is a world that is different from the one in which we are currently most comfortable. Today the shift might be characterized as one from analogue to digital, but tomorrow that could – likely will – change.

While I don’t think the day of chats were adequate to address the later, a few nuggets can be sifted from the mass of dialogue that was #digitaloxford in order to respond to the former.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • A contact sheet. Want your museum event posted on the University Facebook Page? Interested in starting a niche Twitter feed but need advice? Curious about who is using various apps across Oxford? All of these questions could be answered with a list of who is responsible for what – better yet, build that information into the existing profiles connected to .ox.ac.uk emails.
  • Twitter lists. Create lists for all Oxford affiliated Twitter accounts – by faculty or department, colleges, student clubs etc. Link to them on the ox.ac.uk website.
  • A best practices list and/or sample policy documents on how to use social media or other digital tools.
  • Visual interface connecting academics. Something like Dalhousie University’s “rDmap.” The goal is to easily be able to see who is working on which issues across the university. Existing lists like REF information, academia.edu profiles, and keywords used in recent publication could assist with the set up. Later, academics would be invited to edit their own profile as appropriate.


The best and worst of social media: Liberal leadership candidates.

Social media may feel pretty mundane for those of us who have more sets of log-in credentials than fingers and toes, but in the political game a lot of these tools are still very new. Social media favors the fun, the timely, the shareable, and the creative. Here is a re-cap of the best and worst attempts at social media use by Liberal leadership candidates.

Best: Google Plus may not be the most popular social networking site on the market, but the Trudeau camp found an effective way to use it in order to connect with supporters via “Google Hangout.” They then posted the video to YouTube for those who missed it.

Worst: Marc Garneau’s interpretation of “plastering himself across the Internet” was, perhaps, a bit too literal. I count fourteen Marc Garneau’s in this single screen shot of his Facebook profile. A nice headshot may say ”integrity” and “leadership” but fourteen says “I hope nobody is on here enough to notice.”

Marc Garneau on Facebook

Best: Martin Cauchon’s quick and quirky YouTube videos. They are simple, shareable, and a little silly.

Worst: The “Restoring the Canadian Advantage” banner David Bertschi splashed across his Facebook page featured a hard to read font in a near Conservative hue. Repeated poor placement makes you wonder if anyone on his team ever actually took a peak at the Facebook page.

Quick tip: If it looks bad people probably won’t like it. Literally. Less than a dozen Facebook likes, even Garneau’s 14 times repeated headshot got more Facebook support.

Restoring the Canadian Advantage

Best: Creative images that are informative and easily shared offer the best odds for convincing politicos to rally behind you. Deborah Coyne’s “policy road map” is colorful and easy to understand. Martha Hall Findlay’s “International Women’s Day” history of women in Canadian politics was a clever way to get her brand out to a wider audience.

Martha Hall Findlay

Worst: Every candidate’s use of Flickr. If you are not going to update regularly, connect to your website, or make it interesting, it isn’t worth it. Trudeau, Hall Findlay, Murray – they all have public Flickr profiles, none of which are particularly awe-inspiring. If there is no audience you want to connect with, it is probably a waste of your time.

Best: The five candidates who took the plunge and did Reddit AMA (ask me anything) sessions. Reddit, specifically the Canadian politics subreddit, is a vibrant but unique community. It takes some skill (and courage) to enter into an “ask me anything” conversation on Reddiit. Redditers are a fairly unknown public for most politicians and figuring out how to engage can be tough.


Worst:  Connecting Twitter and Facebook under the assumption that anything relevant to a Twitter audience will also be interesting for the Facebook supporters. Murray and Hall Findlay were the worst offenders often re-tweeting and replying to multiple tweets in the span of a few minutes. On Twitter a stream of posts in quick succession is standard; on Facebook it is a hostile newsfeed take-over.

Best: Justin Trudeau’s “your photos” section of his website integrates photos tagged on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook as well as those sent via email. It is a fun way to illustrate engagement .


The most impressive campaigns will use a variety of tools to connect with particular segments of the population, stringing everything together with a consistent theme. Twitter and Facebook may come at no up-front cost but politics isn’t cheap, as so many of those emails kindly reminded us, the cost of social media is a lot of time and energy.