Barry Bateman and Oscar Pistorius: inside the Twitter explosion

Barry Bateman Twitter

Barry Bateman Twitter

By Lauren Granger and Bianca Budricks

It’s been a week like no other on Twitter… especially for Eyewitness News correspondent Barry Bateman. He’s been reporting on the controversy surrounding renowned paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius since the news of the death of his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp hit Twitter in the early hours of Valentine’s Day. From that morning onwards, and especially after the decision not to allow the bail hearings to be televised (and selectively photographed), Pistorius’ appearances in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court on charges of murdering the law graduate have all but become a story told in 140 characters.

Journalists crowded into the courtroom to hear the athlete’s story about the night she died, and gain insight into the prosecution’s reasons for opposing bail. And they took to Twitter to share it all. The seemingly breathless authenticity of the raw updates let the community on the social network react to the revelations at the same time as the journalists. As the hashtag racked up mentions, the name of the then-investigating detective trended briefly worldwide, users added their thoughts to the conversation and the journalists kept on tweeting. Their names are becoming increasingly familiar as users scramble for the most recent information on the case and opt to follow their accounts. But one journalist’s name keeps coming up more often than others: Bateman’s.

As 2OceansVibe pointed out recently, the increase in Bateman’s follower numbers has quickly outstripped that of his peers who are also reporting on the hearing. While a number of other journalists have gained substantial increases in their personal Twitter follower numbers (with some gaining between 3000 and 23 000 followers in less than a week), Bateman’s stats are on another level.

According to data from Twitter Counter, Bateman went from 17 429 followers on 15 February to 122 743 on 21 February — a 604% increase that amounts to an extra 105 314 followers in just under a week.

barry bateman follower growth

Interestingly, the majority of Bateman’s followers seem to be real people, and not too many of the spam bots you’d expect to pick up by constantly mentioning a topical hashtag like #OscarPistorius. According to StatusPeople, only 18% of his followers are not genuine human beings.

@barrybateman faker report

It’s not just the follower growth that’s impressive. According to data supplied exclusively to Memeburn by authorised Salesforce Radian6 reseller Acceleration Media, between Valentine’s Day and 20 February, Bateman was the most retweeted user overall in discussions surrounding Pistorius, while his Twitter handle (@barrybateman) was the third most mentioned username.

So, how did he become one of the most popular Twitter voices for all things Oscar?

Bateman says that if you look at the case without the celebrity element and media frenzy, the journalists have just been following the standard procedures that take place before a murder trial. “There was a clear appetite for as much information about this case as possible, but there is also a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding of the South African justice system,” he says. “I tried my best to answer as many questions as possible from followers from day one. It was a hit. Soon my timeline was flooded with new questions.”

“I think it showed that I was not only familiar with the facts of the story, but of the system in which this would play out. Followers appreciated that I took the time to answer the questions,” says Bateman. “Another factor which followers appreciated is that I refused to be drawn on speculation. I have received so much praise for that.”

He says that one of the challenges that came with covering the Pistorius story was the intense amount of false and unverified information churned up by the rumour mill. “There was so much floating around about the steroids, drugs and all sorts,” explains Bateman. “EWN chose not to touch it.”

It’s a decision that made all the difference. As CEO of digital communication agency Cerebra Mike Stopforth points out, with the amount of confusion and speculation on the web, the journalists who supplied only certain fact were most appreciated. “In such a media storm, objectivity and authenticity is everything,” says Stopforth. Bateman says the response he has received from his coverage shows that his followers have “valued an unbiased, informed account” of the events playing out in the court.

Managing Director of Ogilvy South Africa’s Digital Marketing Academy, Dave Duarte, also thinks that the answer to Bateman’s popularity lies in the authority and authenticity his brand of straight-forward reporting projected. Bateman was one of the first journalists competing to consistently broadcast major international scoops in as close to real-time as possible — and it’s hard to catch up to an early lead. “It’s easy to gain authority once you’ve got it,” Duarte says.

Bateman has also exhibited a major skill in his ability to succinctly sum up what’s being said in a way that the average Twitter lurker desperately searching the hashtag can quickly understand. “It’s almost a new journalistic skill,” explains Duarte. “Listen to what is most relevant, capture that and post in a way that people on Twitter can trust. It’s an extreme form of intelligent multitasking. Barry Bateman has been very effective at that.”

The ability to provide a full and detailed narrative (so casual followers can quickly catch up on the latest events) and carefully select what to share and how to phrase it may be one of the most important skills required by journalists live-tweeting the hearing. “By putting the facts and legal processes into perspective, the followers were able to understand what was happening,” says Bateman. Add to that the fact that a number of media outlets have been reposting the tweets of their reporters on official accounts and suggesting viewers follow their journalists on the ground in their broadcasts, and you’ll see how the cross-over from traditional media to social has helped individual reporters in gaining influence on Twitter.

Data from social analytics company Topsy also gives some clues into why Bateman’s reports are gaining in popularity, suggesting that besides the content of the tweet, it’s also important to look at who is retweeting updates and mentioning the posts’ author. The rapid increase in Bateman’s following on Twitter could also be driven by a number of influential journalists, sports men and entertainment personalities who retweeted him and commended his minute-by-minute communication of the hearing.

For example, popular Twitter users such as former England football player and sports broadcaster Gary Lineker, who has over 1.4-million Twitter followers, has been retweeting Bateman’s posts and recommended following him to gain information on court proceedings:

Ex-rugby player and talk radio presenter John Robbie and cricketer Dale Steyn also retweeted and acknowledged Bateman’s reporting, as did popular South African radio host DJ Fresh.

National newspaper City Press and the country’s largest online news site also referenced his coverage:

According to the Topsy stats, Bateman was mentioned 2017 times from 1 January to 10 February. This rapidly accelerated to an astounding 89 592 mentions from 10 to 21 February. In less than two weeks Bateman went from a prominent user on the South African Twitter scene to a name recognised by thousands of users.

Barry Bateman mentions - Topsy

It’s been a phenomenal ride fuelled by a combination of being at the centre of a major news story with the necessary skills and composing clear and concise tweets that were shared by the right people. But is the growth curve sustainable — and will all those followers stick around?

The Twitter Counter stats predict that if the current rate of growth continues, Bateman will hit the 200 000 follower mark in the next five days. But while what goes up eventually comes down (or at least plateaus), Duarte points out that the “influence level will still be higher than it was before the viral spike”. There isn’t really a precedent at this scale, but fellow journalists like Mandy Wiener, who gained a following after covering the death of mining magnate Brett Kebble, haven’t seen a dramatic decrease in social media followers after the hype has passed. Stopforth says it all depends on what Bateman does next. “Wiener hasn’t necessarily seen a drop off because the Kebble case is over,” he points out. “She continues to add value to her followers.”

It’s not something that can be easily predicted, but perhaps the thousands who are relying on Bateman for their up-to-the-minute news will continue to want to be fed his brand of information and insight in the future.



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