Joining social media, like Twitter or Facebook, news organizations are confronting a new reality: they are users. Just like you and me, a politician or an advocacy group, a blogger or university professor, news organizations and journalists, which have traditionally have been the source of information, are, well, another source of information. True, news organizations bring their reputation to these social spaces. However, considering the declining trust in news media, that may not necessarily work for them. Moreover, as television and newspapers are already accessible via their traditional channels and on the web, social media may not be where users seek news from traditional sources.
Approaching the 2010 midterm elections, my colleagues, Derek Hansen from Brigham Young University and Anne Bowser form Michigan State University, and I decided to identify the primary information sources on Twitter in the political discussions about the gubernatorial candidates in toss-up states: Georgia, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont. Our theory suggested channel complementarity. Simply put, users will not replace existing news media they consume, but complement them with other information sources that correspond with their interests.
On Twitter, users form relationships by subscribing, or “following” other users, and thus expose themselves to others’ posted content (i.e., tweets). Users may give attention to other users’ “tweets” in different ways, like mentioning them in a tweet or replying to one’s tweets. Twitter activity, then, forms social networks, composed of users and their acts of attention giving – follows, mentions or replies. Mapping these networks, we can learn where news media are positioned in terms of attracting attention and with whom they compete. We can also identify sub-groups of users – clusters – who interact with one another closely, with little interaction with users outside their cluster. Approaching a social activity as a network calls for network analysis.
For each of the nine candidates in the four races, we captured users who tweeted about that candidate as well as well the relationships among them. We identified the main types of highly followed users (i.e., information hubs). Traditional news media outlets (national and local) accounted for nearly half of the information hubs, and grassroots sources such as activists and other users accounted for nearly a third. The patterns of follow relationships indicated local and national subgroups (i.e., clusters) of users identified based on network topology.
We found two types of clusters, that is, subgroups of interconnected users. Local clusters included a subgroup of more densely interconnected users in which local news media and political candidates were hubs. National clusters included a subgroup of more sparsely interconnected users in which national media and online-only news sources served as hubs. High density clusters were also more likely to host information sources that exhibited mutual information flow with other users, while low density clusters preferred hubs that follow traditional one-to-many information flow.
What did we learn? Traditional news media play a role as information providers on social media. In fact, in conversations across almost all candidates, traditional news organizations attracted more attention than most users. That said, they no longer have a monopoly over the news market. Politicians, grassroots organizations and bloggers have also attracted much attention from Twitter users. The encouraging news for news media is that users do not replace them with newer sources. Twitter users complement news they receive from traditional sources with information coming directly from politicians, political organization and user-generated sources. We also learned that Twitter users often exchange information with one another, rather than passively consuming information from a few sources. This two-way communication may pose a challenge to the traditional journalistic one-to-many dissemination of information.
See link to the abstract of the article on the Information, Communication and Society journal here: