22 December 2020


'#IStandWithDan versus #DictatorDan: the polarised dynamics of Twitter discussions about Victoria’s COVID-19 restrictions' by Timothy Graham, Axel Bruns, Daniel Angus, Edward Hurcombe and Sam Hames  in (2020) Media International Australia comments 

In this article, we examine two interrelated hashtag campaigns that formed in response to the Victorian State Government’s handling of Australia’s most significant COVID-19 second wave of mid-to-late 2020. Through a mixed-methods approach that includes descriptive statistical analysis, qualitative content analysis, network analysis, computational sentiment analysis and social bot detection, we reveal how a small number of hyper-partisan pro- and anti-government campaigners were able to mobilise ad hoc communities on Twitter, and – in the case of the anti-government hashtag campaign – co-opt journalists and politicians through a multi-step flow process to amplify their message. Our comprehensive analysis of Twitter data from these campaigns offers insights into the evolution of political hashtag campaigns, how actors involved in these specific campaigns were able to exploit specific dynamics of Twitter and the broader media and political establishment to progress their hyper-partisan agendas, and the utility of mixed-method approaches in helping render the dynamics of such campaigns visible. 

The authors argue

 As the coronavirus pandemic continues, discussions about appropriate public policy aimed at its management and mitigation have intensified. Even in regions that have seen a comparatively high political and societal consensus about the need for severe lockdowns and other interventions aimed at arresting the spread of the virus, such unity is gradually coming unstuck. Coordinated by the ‘national cabinet’ that included the Prime Minister as well as state and territory premiers and chief ministers, for example, Australian governments were comparatively unanimous in their initial responses to the pandemic, and party-political squabbles between leaders of different ideological hues seemed temporarily suspended at least on these measures; over time, however, as infection dynamics developed differently across the various states and territories, unity disintegrated, and by late-2020, there were open recriminations between state leaders, and between states and the Prime Minister, over the interstate border closures and local lockdown measures introduced in different Australian regions. 

Such acrimony has been most heated in the context of the lockdowns and border closures instituted in Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state, which saw the greatest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths and, in particular, experienced a substantial second wave of infections from mid-June 2020 onwards (Victorian State Government, 2020) that was managed by increasingly severe lockdowns. This second major outbreak generated substantial and controversial debate in the media and within the general population, centring both on the concrete reasons for the new outbreak, and on the appropriate level of lockdown restrictions and the roadmap towards reducing them again as the new outbreak subsided. 

Much of the criticism of these measures focussed on the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews of the Australian Labor Party, who had become the public face of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic not least through an uninterrupted series of (at the time of writing) more than 100 daily press conferences on his government’s actions. Although enjoying high public approval ratings in Victoria through most of 2020, Andrews was attacked increasingly harshly by his political opponents in state and federal politics; scrutinised critically by state and federal news media; and in mid-October 2020 his electorate office was vandalised by unknown assailants (Sakkal and Towell, 2020). 

Claims of growing public frustration with the Victorian government’s measures, as reported in state and national media, were also exploited by the state opposition, led by parliamentary Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien from the Liberal Party. Its attacks focussed especially on two perceived faults with government policy: on one hand, they highlighted the impact of lockdown restrictions on the Victorian economy, and advocated for a more accelerated re-opening of local businesses in spite of a low level of continuing community transmission of the COVID-19 virus (ABC News, 2020); on the other hand, they pointed to failures in the management of the mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers returning to Victoria, where the use of poorly trained private security guards resulted in quarantine breaches, and the inadequate response to outbreaks in aged-care homes, where the majority of COVID-related deaths occurred. Overall, the opposition blamed the government, in general, and Premier Andrews, in particular, for the infections and deaths that ensued especially in the second wave (Fowler and Ilanbey, 2020). 

The most aggressive opposition spokesperson pursuing this line of attack was the Liberal MP for the electorate of Kew, Tim Smith. In a series of media appearances, particularly on breakfast news programmes, as well as in his social media posts (see, for example, Figure 1), he sought to establish a number of negative epithets for Andrews, including ‘Chairman Dan’ (implying that the Labor Premier was running the state in the style of an oppressive communist regime) and even ‘Dictator Dan’ (Willingham, 2020). Such attacks on Andrews, presented as simple and memorable slogans, were clearly calculated also as attempts to generate broader take-up in public discussions of the government’s measures against the pandemic, not least on social media; indeed, Smith’s own social media posts also sought to promote Twitter hashtags such as #ChairmanDan and #DictatorDan. Subsequent criticism of the Victorian pandemic response, by Smith and others, also gave rise to the Twitter hashtag #DanLiedPeopleDied, as well as resulting in the #IStandWithDan hashtag expressing opposition to such attacks and support for the Premier. ... 

In this article, we examine this take-up of attacks on Andrews within social media debate, as well as the emergence of responses that counter such attacks. We focus here especially on Twitter – a platform that has been shown to be a particularly important space for political discussion in Australia (Bruns and Burgess, 2015; Sauter and Bruns, 2015). 

Such take-up could be regarded prima facie as evidence of a two-step flow (Katz, 1957), from political opinion leaders to the general public, demonstrating the continued relevance of communication theories from the pre-digital era even in a thoroughly mediatised present where social media logics exert increasing influence over public and political debate (Van Dijck and Poell, 2013). Closer investigation, however, reveals a considerably more complex flow of ideas across multiple steps (cf. Ognyanova and Monge, 2013): not only is it possible that MP Smith and others are not themselves the originators of these attacks against Premier Andrews, but merely amplify lines of attack that were developed by party strategists or other groups seeking to undermine Andrews (i.e. that there is a preceding step in the information flow from these groups to Smith and colleagues); but we also find evidence that the broader adoption and dissemination of language targeting Andrews is driven at least in part by coordinated and apparently inauthentic activity that amplifies the visibility of such language before it is adopted by genuine Twitter users. 

This would represent a further step in the information flow, from Smith and other Andrews opponents via such coordinated, artificial amplification to the general Twitter public – from where, in a further step in the flow of information, it is then also picked up by journalists and opinion writers, and transported into additional media reporting. Our study, then, presents the evidence for this multi-step, deliberately manipulated flow of information, and compares it with our observations of the response to these attacks.