The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Anders Olof Larsson: Different Platforms, Different Parties? - A comparative study of Twitter and Instagram Use during the 2015 Norwegian Elections

Anders Olof Larsson, Westerdals Oslo School of Arts, Communication & Technology

While the degree to which social media are actually contributing to electoral success can be called into question, online platforms such as Twitter are nevertheless seen as integral parts of contemporary election campaigns. Plenty of attention has been devoted to the Twitter in particular, leading to what must be considered as a dearth of research looking into the uses of other social media services. The paper at hand seeks to remedy this apparent gap of research into the impacts of online platforms in politics by presenting a study comparing what is perhaps the most frequently studied social media platform ‘Twitter ‘with a more recent contender, namely the image-sharing service Instagram. The specific empirical setting for studying the uses of these two services is the 2015 Norwegian municipal and regional elections. Norway, often understood as one of the Nordic welfare states features a party-centered political system and advanced levels of Internet use ‘at the hands of citizens as well as government officials. As such, the Norwegian context appears as a suitable one in which to analyze recent developments regarding the platforms under scrutiny. 

While other studies have provided comparative insights between elections in the same country or across multiple countries, it appears that rather few studies have made efforts to compare the uses of two or more social media platforms during times of heightened political activity. By utilizing the competing normalization (in short suggesting that larger parties dominate online) and equalization (suggesting that smaller parties can gain traction through these services) hypotheses, the study makes a contribution by tracing the most active and the most popular political parties across both platforms, detailing the supposedly diverse priorities regarding digital communication held by those up for election. While previous scholarship has noted the routine aspect of simply having accounts on a plethora of online platforms, our current approach moves beyond the question of ‘has/has not’and seeks to gauge the degree to which these platforms are actually used. As such, the study at hand to provides novel comparative insights regarding uses across more than one platform. Are the most active users and most recurring themes different or similar across Twitter and Instagram? What groups of users ‘political actors large or small ‘appear to have prioritized what service?

While the two platforms under scrutiny certainly differ in many aspects, they nevertheless share a number of commonalities. For example, the use of hashtags, keywords employed by users to thematically ‘tag’their posted content as relevant for a specific event, occurrence or topic, is common on both Twitter and Instagram. Hashtags dealing with the election at hand were utilized for the data collection undertaken. While such an approach risks excluding users below a certain level of Twitter proficiency, the selected approach was deemed suitable for practical as well as ethical reasons. With this in mind, our focus was placed on the ‘short campaign’’the final month of campaigning leading up to election day, which took place on September 14th, 2015. Data collection was initiated on August 14th and was terminated two days after Election Day in order to catch some of the electoral aftermath. Focus was placed on the two major hashtags related to the election - #valg2015 and #valg15 (Norwegian for #election2015 and #election15 respectively).

Data collection involved two separate approaches, one for each of the platforms under scrutiny. For Twitter, an installation of YourTwapperKeeper (YTK) was employed to track the hashtags as previously mentioned. YTK utilizes the Twitter Search and Streaming APIs to gather data. By accessing the APIs made freely available by Twitter, YTK and other services like it are able to gather about one percent of the total amount of Twitter activity at any given moment. As such, delimitations are necessary ‘and while events such as elections might cause problems related to data loss when studying larger contexts, the use of the open API to gather data related to the arguably smaller Norwegian context was deemed unproblematic. When data collection was aborted on September 16th, 21 526 tweets had been gathered.

For Instagram, the Instagram Hashtag Explorer was installed on university server. The service provides access to the Instagram API and allows for archiving of posts made to Instagram containing specified hashtags. Compared to the sometime complex matter of access to the different Twitter APIs, Instagram appears as fairly straight-forward. One API is offered, and access to data is not described as limited in the same ways as for Twitter. Nevertheless, measures were taken to assure the completeness of data. Specifically, a series of searches were made on the Instagram platform to see if the data gathered matched the outcomes from the searches. As results of this procedure was satisfactory, the approached described above was deemed suitable. When data collection was completed, a total of 6380 Instagram posts had been gathered.

Initial results indicate that while Twitter emerged as having a reactive relationship to specific events taking place in established media, such a relationship to established media was not found for Instagram. As such, Twitter use continues its clear association to political debates and the likes, while political Instagram use appears to go in another direction. As for the specific focus on the competing normalization and equalization hypotheses, differing tendencies were found for the two platforms studied. While previous scholarship had suggested that Twitter use would be characterized by normalizing tendencies, the results contrarily shows the platform to be characterized by activity undertaken by or related to comparably small political actors. Conversely, the suggestion from previous research that a comparably new service like Instagram would be characterized by equalizing tendencies ‘with a high presence of smaller political actors ‘proved to be erroneous. Much like for the relation of social media use in relation to established media discussed above, Instagram thus appears to be developing differently from Twitter. "

Anders Olof Larsson