Rapid Response Unit: A Year in Digital Trends

Blog post by Oliver Marsh, Data Journalist, Rapid Response Unit

Tuesday 22 January 2019

An analysis of 2018’s digital trends provides essential insights into the modern media landscape, for all government communicators.

RRU Screens cropped

Below are some of the main take-outs from an analysis of online news in 2018 undertaken by the UK Government’s Rapid Response Unit (RRU). It covers Brexit, viral stories, and top publishers. Building on previous work, the analysis showed just how far and fast misinformation can spread online.

Brexit: Growing engagement, familiar discussion

Unsurprisingly, Brexit was the most common topic of government-related social media posts and online news as captured by government policy-related filters. We estimate that #Brexit was the fourth most-tweeted hashtag in the UK, even ahead of #LoveIsland.

Using machine learning, our analysts located recurring themes in Brexit-related discussion and examined how they changed over time. This showed that, even as the negotiations progressed, online discussion still largely focussed on long-running questions: ‘will there be a second referendum?’ ‘What might no-deal look like?’ ‘Was the first referendum legitimate?’.

The most prominent voices online were those from the far ends of the Brexit spectrum: vocal advocates of a second referendum, and strong supporters of a no-deal Brexit. Overall, online discussions about Brexit at the end of 2018 were not substantially different from those in 2017, or even 2016.

However, we know that polarised online debate does not always necessarily reflect public sentiment and should not be analysed in isolation. Therefore we also analysed search engine data, and drew on findings from publicly available research. This all indicated an ongoing demand for clear, straightforward factual information on Brexit.

Beyond Brexit: ‘viral’ stories and the environment

Though Brexit was clearly a major online topic this year, the number of times a topic is mentioned is not the only measure of engagement online. We also looked at the top 100 most ‘viral’ government-related articles (those which received very high numbers of ‘reactions’, shares, and comments across social media).

Perhaps unexpectedly, 25% of these top stories were about the environment, while only 15% were about Brexit. From plastic straws to global warming, environmental issues kept engagement with this topic continually high throughout the year.

Top viral article: More misinformation

In 2017, the most shared government-related article was an inaccurate story claiming ‘the government has voted animals can’t feel pain’, which generated more than 800,000 reactions, comments, and shares across social media.

In 2018, the number one most viral public sector-related online article of the year was ‘Urgent National Frozen Veg Recall after nine dead’, from a niche outlet which offers content aimed at the police community.

We categorised this as misinformation (definitions can be found in 5 Trends in leading Edge Communications). Supermarkets had recalled frozen vegetable products that may have contained listeria monocytogenes, and there had been nine listeria-related deaths across Europe since 2015. But the headline (and article) could have been understood to mean the deaths were all recent and in Britain.

The article received nearly one million reactions, comments, and shares. This was probably due to people spreading the story to ensure friends and family avoided the potentially contaminated products, without checking the accuracy of the headline.

Having found this story, the RRU shared content from the Food Standards Agency on government social media channels, to ensure reliable information was visible to the public. This was just one of many interventions carried out by the unit in 2018, as detailed further by the Executive Director of Government Communications, Alex Aiken, in this post.

Government topics in alternative news

This year the most popular government-related themes appearing in ‘alternative news outlets’ were related to crime and Brexit.

Violent crimes were widely reported by alt-news outlets with an international audience, particularly Breitbart. Much of their reporting argued that strict gun controls in the UK had not stopped crimes (gun control was a major topic in America at the time).

Similarly, we also saw a rise in outlets which produced almost entirely pro-Brexit material from an anti-immigrant stance. Such content regularly received more reactions, comments, and shares than Brexit articles from mainstream outlets.

However closer inspection suggested a possible echo-chamber effect, in which most engagement came via networks of Facebook pages with similar views. This is a reminder that high levels of online engagement do not necessarily show a wide spread of views.

About the Rapid Response Unit

The RRU was launched in April last year and, after a successful pilot period, will continue its operations in 2019.

The team monitors digital trends to spot emerging issues, including misinformation and disinformation, and identifies the best way to respond.

As well as real-time monitoring, the RRU carries out analyses of major trends in online government-related discussion, which is used to support the work of the Cabinet Office-based Media Monitoring Unit. Alongside polling, focus groups, traditional media monitoring, and other inputs, this provides government with a better understanding of communications within an increasingly complex news environment.

It is, of course, important to remember that when evaluating the impact of government communications we must look right across the mix of media – papers, broadcast, online – and traditional qualitative and quantitative research methodologies.

The RRU will be working with the GCS Accelerate programme to roll out training across Whitehall on responding to the modern news environment using the FACT model (as detailed in the 5 Trends in Leading Edge Communications), starting with Heads of News. Please do contact your Head of News for more information, or Fiona Bartosch, Head of the RRU and Transformation.