The impact of social media on the ANCYL and Julius Malema story, as it it took a violent turn on Tuesday during Malema’s disciplinary hearing, has revealed key trends in how news is being reported and picked up, and how citizen involvement in stories has increased with the use of mediums such as Twitter and Facebook.
Di Charton, managing director of Acceleration Media, said that by using Radian6, an online reputation management technology, they were able to monitor activity and sentiment throughout the day on social networks as well as mainstream news, and what they saw revealed an interesting picture of the news.
“It was amazing. We used keywords in our research, such as ANCYL and Julius Malema, to track conversations. There were spikes, then drops. We knew from our research that a normal hit rate on posts on the ANCYL and Malema are around 400 a day, as an average. Generally, they range between 300 and 800 per day,” she explained.
“We monitor Twitter and public Facebook sites or groups. We can’t monitor private conversations on Facebook. It was interesting that the first massive spike in activity was at around 6am. The sentiment was neutral, with people talking about road closures, routes, that sort of thing. The conversations were more information based. There was no breaking news at 6am.”
By 7am, this had declined to around 202 posts. “It started ramping up again at 8am but by 9am, when mainstream media came on board it jumped to 881 posts in that hour. By 10am, we saw over 1 170 posts, with one coming every three seconds. That’s pretty dramatic,” she said.
“For me, what was interesting was the pick up on negative news stories and how negative news spreads. As I said, early in the morning, the sentiment was neutral. By 10am, it was negative. And again at 3pm, when Moeletsi Mbeki was on eNews Channel, there was another spike.
“There is clearly a trend that stories are breaking on the social networks well before mainstream news. The sheer volume of tweets at the height of events was extraordinary, with one every three seconds. Facebook was consistent throughout the day, so that shows people probably posting links and updates,” Charton said.
Andrew Trench, head of Media24 investigations and creator of a map that showed social media activity around the violent events as and when it was happening, said it was “fascinating” watching the impact of Twitter on the story.
“I think this was a taste of the future. We’ve seen hints of its impact before, but nothing like this, coming from both observers and participants. There were tweets coming from people clearly in the thick of it.
“It was interesting from a narrative point of view, and showed that there is a mass need out there for journalism to go deeper, to tell more of a story. The medium also served to geo-locate people and that, coupled with journalists’ points of view, gave people a more rounded story. It was also extraordinary that people close to the action were using social media.”
Patrick Conroy, head of eNews, said the channel used social media “primarily to observe and gauge information, rather than communicate. It helped in decisionmaking, and better understand what was happening on the ground”.
“Live TV news is extremely pressurised stuff, and we were not always able to contact our reporters in the field. They were either on air, dodging bricks or trying to sort out a technical problem. I knew our one crew had been attacked and our van damaged because I was watching it live on air, but details were filled in fairly quickly on Twitter as someone posted ‘just seen a rock go through the eNews sat van window’,” he said.
As Charton explains though, television news drove activity too. The interview on the eNews Channel with Moeletsi Mbeki, drove traffic on Twitter.
“Activity started declining again with spikes as news broke, with additional tweets coming from people’s comments on breaking news. By 6pm it was down to 373 posts and back up to 462 at 7pm when people settled in to watch the news and analysis of the day’s events,” she said.
Conroy said they also tweeted themselves. “Reporters and editors did tweet throughout the day and would also share information that way, but it was limited to sharing information not issuing instructions. Our focus was getting our pictures through and providing quality television amidst the chaos.
“With so much happening on Twitter it can also create confusion within your ranks so instructions are given the old fashioned way which is mostly verbal. Teams knew they still had to pass on information, or take instruction, from the executive producer and news editor directing the broadcast. Satellite vans have coms with our control room, so we are able to talk to each other directly a lot of the time. The camera can also give the Executive Producer a visual of what the scene is like, it’s a bit like NASA’s mission control,” he said.
“But Twitter was a useful in some respects for internal communication. I personally used Twitter to express my thanks to our teams involved because I knew many of them would be working long hours and may not get to their emails for some time, and I was about to hop on a plane and fly out of Johannesburg, so Twitter was the most immediate way to reach them,” said Conroy.
Conroy said eNews has not yet established a dedicated digital/online media division established. “We’re busy setting this up, so we could be fairly criticised for being inconsistent in our use of social media. We’re getting better at it, and learning all the time.
“I would say Twitter was influential in the story, but I don’t think it had a major impact. The impact came from television. I’m not having a go at other media, this story simply suited TV in a way that made it very difficult for print or radio to compete with live pictures. Twitter and Facebook in this instance become a platform to discuss what you saw on TV and share your views, but without the live pictures #Malema would not have trended as well as it did,” he said.
Charton unpacked the numbers, and they tell a story themselves: “In terms of numbers, there were 9 750 mentions in SA only: 70.9% (that’s 6917) were on Twitter and 17.2% (that’s 1675) were on Facebook. Mainstream media saw 4.9% (that’s 479). In real terms, activity on social networks on the 30th was 10 times more than normal.”