What role have online ‘social media’ played in political mobilization in Russia’s turbulent election season?
This question has captured the attention of political scientists, sociologists and media and communications scholars since election-related protests first broke out in December 2011. While it has been fairly clearly demonstrated that on-line social media – including the use of blog platforms such as LiveJournal, microblogging platforms such as Twitter and social-network systems such as Facebook and VKontakte – played a significant role in mobilization (and counter-mobilization), both as a means of communication and of community-building, the specific content of this role has yet to be sufficiently explored.
This paper contributes to that effort by beginning to unpack the role played by one social media system in particular – Twitter – during a period of peak political contestation, namely the Russian presidential election held on March 4, 2012 and the pro- and anti-government protests that ensued on the following day. Interrogating a database of more than 11,000 Twitter messages sent by more than 8,500 users during that period, the Center for the Study of New Media & Society asks how Twitter was actually used by contestants on both sides, how the structure of the contesting communities shaped the patterns of communication (and vice versa), and whether those structures differ across political dividing lines. A ‘first cut’ at the data is presented in this paper reaches three key conclusions:
First, Twitter performs multiple functions simultaneously and at differing stages of mobilization, including:
- As an aggregator of information, ideas and memes relevant to the mobilization effort;
- As a broadcast medium to spread aggregated information, ideas and memes to a broader audience;
- As an ‘echo chamber’ that may help reinforce group solidarity and adherence to aggregated memes;
Second, the contesting political ‘camps’ display significantly differing social structures:
- The opposition networks are relatively more diverse and dispersed than those of their pro-government opponents, are well linked with media outlets that enjoy a significant Twitter presence, and, in part as a result, dominate the Twitter landscape during the period in question;
- The pro-government networks are relatively more concentrated, have more intensive communication along established channels, and place heavier emphasis on formal role-players rather than informal participants;
Third, throughout the Twitter landscape during the period in question, a key role is played by professional journalists and media outlets, full-time bloggers, and established civic groups, NGOs and political organizations, while the impact of ‘informal’ tweeters or ‘accidental’ tweets appears minimal.
Read the full paper here.