Tweeting galvanises television spectators

Submitted on Tue, 01/19/2016 - 10:56
pekka isotalus
Professor Pekka Isotalus hopes that Twitter will make young people more interested in politics. Photograph: Hese Pölönen


You might first think that concentrating on two screens while tweeting live would make television viewing more challenging because the viewer’s attention is divided between two media. However, research results tell a different story.

“As a matter of fact, people watch television programmes more intensely because they are more committed to the programme if they are also engaged in live tweeting. If you want to tweet about the content of the programme, you have to process it more deeply and listen to it more carefully in order to be able to crystallise your message,” says Pekka Isotalus, professor of speech communication at the University of Tampere.

Exchanging opinions and learning about other people’s perspectives brings a new element to passive television viewing.

“I know from personal experience that when you start doing these two things simultaneously, it becomes harder to just watch programmes! Watching is much more interesting when you tweet live,” Isotalus explains.

In recent years, live tweeting has spread from television programmes to events, such as the start-up conference Slush, which was recently organised in Helsinki. People also tweet from seminars and other such events.

Finnish tweeters voice their opinions

“It seems that the most usual form of live tweeting during Finnish election debates is giving voice to one’s opinions,” Isotalus sums up the results of his recent research project.

“Results from previous international studies have found many summarising tweets, which repeat what the politicians say in the debates. There were naturally also summaries, questions and humour in our sample, too.”

Live tweets also often comment on the participants of the debates who are usually party chairs and, because there are so many comments, the viewers form different impressions.

“In the general election debate, which was broadcast by the MTV channel, we found that the tweeters thought that Paavo Arhinmäki from Left Alliance was “loutish” and that both Päivi Räsänen from the Christian Democrats and Carl Haglund from the Swedish People’s Party were a positive surprise. Alexander Stubb, who was Prime Minister at the time of the election, was the subject of the most comments. The contents of the tweets that dealt with him were also the most contradictory,” Isotalus summarises the research results.

An arena for thousands

Twitter is still a relatively unpopular social media in Finland. About 50,000 Finnish tweeters publish content at least once a week. There are 2.4 million Facebook users, which is over half of the population. During the last general election in 2015, the debate on Twitter was more extensive than ever before.

“During one of the televised debates, there were even as many as 3,200 different tweeters. Of course, if you compare that figure with the total number of voters, it is very little. But can you imagine another forum where it would be possible to have that many people simultaneously pose comments and discuss?” Isotalus asks.

“Live tweeting is becoming increasingly common. Some researchers have even called the last general election the “hashtag election” because #vaalit2015 (in English #election2015) was used so much.”

However, live tweeting cannot be called a form of popular debate because it cannot reach very many people. Yet, tweeting still shares some characteristics with popular debate and includes the potential for such debate.

Even though the project on live tweeting in televised election debates did not include an analysis of the tweeters, it was nevertheless noted that the tweeters aim to become opinion leaders, for example as regards their comments on the party chairs. Tweeters are often active party members and journalists.

“Even though the debate on Twitter is lively, it is clearly biased because it cannot reach all citizens or represent all political parties equally. Most of the tweets in our study concerned those parties that are popular in the Helsinki metropolitan area, i.e. the National Coalition Party, Left Alliance and the Greens,” Isotalus says. Of these parties, only the National Coalition Party is represented in the Finnish Government, which was formed after the general election.

The School of Communication, Media and Theatre will organise a research seminar on Twitter on 29 January. Isotalus will open the seminar together with Researcher Annina Eloranta. The speakers will come from eight Finnish universities and the scope of the research will cover several perspectives from sports to politics and communications to technology. The language of the seminar is Finnish. The hashtag of the seminar is #twitsem.

Text: Satu Saari