Understanding how politicians use Twitter: a case study

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Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have fundamentally changed the nature of political discussion. They allow the common person to add his or her voice to the issues that are important to them and to connect with important decision-makers that might otherwise be out of their reach.

Twitter has had a particularly profound effect on political discourse, even in emerging market countries like South Africa. In that country, this has been especially true for opposition leader Helen Zille, who has used Twitter to connect with her supporters and to clearly articulate her stance on contentious issues. Following in her wake, politicians like President Jacob Zuma and firebrand, Julius Malema, have also thrown their hat into the social media ring.

In order to explore the political conversations happening on Twitter in South Africa, we focused on three main accounts of interest: Helen Zille’s personal account (@helenzille), Jacob Zuma’s personal account (@SAPresident) and Zuma’s official account, the Office of the South African Presidency (@PresidencyZA). We collected several months’ worth of tweets (September 2011-April 2012) that originated from or mentioned these accounts in order to identify the main topics of discussion.

In addition, we mapped a broad proportion of the South African Twittersphere as of April 2012. In the next few articles, we will explore our findings in order to give you a better understanding of the South African Twittersphere.

To start off with, we looked at which hashtags were being used in the tweets that we collected. The following word clouds, generated by Taxgedo, show which hashtags were most popular for tweets that either came from or referred to Helen Zille and/or Jacob Zuma (both his personal and official accounts).

Unsurprisingly, Zille and Zuma share many popular terms related to key political issues such as the controversial Protection of State Information Act (#BlackTuesday, #POIB, #POSIB, #secrecybill, etc.] and the ANC Youth League (#Malema, #ANCYL, ANCYLMarch, etc.). However, there are also clear differences relating to where Zille and Zuma’s immediate concerns lie. For Helen Zille, banning official “blue light” motorcades featured highly, as did Western Cape-related topics such as voting for Table Mountain as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and service delivery protests in Grabouw. For Zuma, climate change, the arms treaty and the unveiling of a statue commemorating former Mozambican president, Samora Machel, all featured highly in the conversations happening around Zuma and his accounts.

These word clouds are just a sample of the type of information that we can gain from Twitter.

Caveats:
It was not possible to collect every single tweet matching our search criteria because of limits placed by Twitter on the amount of information that you can scrape from their system at any one time.

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