Watching massive events unfold on social media is fascinating. Today, I’ve barely been able to tear myself away from the vast outpouring of grief that my Twitter timeline has turned into following the British referendum on the European Union, for example.

I find it compelling to try and  make sense of what I’m seeing: does social media change the world or merely reflect what’s going? All this conversation; what does it mean?

Because it must mean something, right? And if it does, the recent, awful, events in Tshwane really should be making the national broadcaster think carefully about its editorial policy regarding how it covers protest action. All week long violent protests have seen people burning, looting and causing havoc across the region, and up until the rand fell this morning on news from Britain, headlines from #TshwaneUnrest dominated Twitter too. But the SABC’s voice has been strangely silent.

To find out what, if anything, social media can tell us about #TshwaneUnrest, I spoke to Tania Benade, the Analyst Team Leader at BrandsEye.

BrandsEye is a social media monitoring company which specialises in “sentiment analysis” on behalf of companies to tell them what their customers and potential customers are saying and what they mean and has offices in Cape Town, London, Dubai and Joburg. It has technology at its disposal we small publishers can only dream of for data-mining Twitter. Benade happily supplied us with a host of key stats based on her observations over the last few days.

Popular themes for Tweets relating to #ThswaneUnrest, data from BrandsEye.
Popular themes for Tweets relating to #ThswaneUnrest, data from BrandsEye.

The very first thing that Benade said was, that while her analysis could probably shed little light on how #TshwaneUnrest happened and spread, it did show very clearly how independent news organisations were dominating coverage, and being rewarded for it. EWN, with its multiple reporters on the ground and helicopters bearing Aki Anastasiou, was by far the most followed and shared news outlet.

Up to yesterday evening, Benade says, EWN had published 276 Tweets about #TshwaneUnrest, and seven out of the top ten “most engaged” Tweets – those which were shared or replied to – originated from the @EWNReporter account. Updates from EWN contained images of fires and fighting, and Benade remarked that the coverage was obviously coming from reporters close actually at the flashpoints.

The SABC, however, published just one Tweet from the ground using the official @SABCNewsOnline account, although it did publish 77 reTweets, often from other newsdesks within the organisation.

The SABC’s lack of online coverage was noticed, Benade says. The most popular individual Tweets were images of violence shared by @UlrichJvV and @Lean3JvV both calling out the national broadcaster for not paying attention.

According to Benade, Twitter users also blame the ANC as the root cause of the #TshwaneUnrest episode. Over 16% of all Tweets on the subject mentioned the ANC, and was an even bigger subject than that of the SABC’s silence on the issue.

One other aspect that I found interesting is that despite front page headlines and Twitter pictures allegedly showing police officers looting (something SAPS strongly denies happened) Benade said that in her observations the role of the police seemed to be quite positive. Pictures of cops stopping looters and investigating shops were much more common than any alleging wrong doing.

[Main image – CC BY SA A Syn]
Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.