Protest in the Age of Social Media

by Joshua A. Tucker, Megan Metzger, Duncan Penfold-Brown, Richard Bonneau, John Jost, Jonathan Nagler


TECHNOLOGY AND UKRAINE’S #EUROMAIDAN

On January 25, 2014, in the middle of what is now known as Ukraine’s Euromaidan protest movement, Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk posted the following tweet from his Twitter account (@Yatsenyuk_AP):

The EuroMaydan Facebook page created in November 2013

The tweet was notable for two reasons: First, the @ua_yanukovych to whom Yatsenyuk was responding was none other than Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, making this message perhaps the first high-stakes Twitter negotiation to occur during a period of civil uprising. Second, the tweet was written in English. This was rare for Yatsenyuk, who tweets in Ukrainian more than 95 percent of the time. Nevertheless, the significance of this English tweet becomes readily apparent when one considers an article in The New York Times that appeared only hours later under the headline, “Opposition Says No to Ukraine on Power Share.” The article went on to explain how President Yanukovych was trying to stave off a civil uprising and preserve his own grip on power as mass protests spread across the country, and concluded by quoting Yatsenyuk’s tweet.

One of many photos of violent protest shared via Twitter in February 2014

Two months earlier, the Facebook page “ЄвроМайдан — EuroMaydan” (www.facebook.com/EuroMaydan) had been established to distribute news and information about protests in Ukraine. Within two weeks, the page had more than 125,000 followers; at the time of this writing it had over 300,000.

On February 18, just a few weeks after Yatsenyuk’s tweet, photos of the violent protests, including the one above right, were retweeted on Twitter hundreds of times — some more than a thousand times — on a single day.

These events — and the corresponding responses on social media — illustrate what has become increasingly evident: it is almost impossible to think of a major political protest or upheaval occurring without social media being part of both the incident and the ensuing narrative. The Euromaidan protests, which culminated in the flight of President Yanukovych from Ukraine in late February 2014, are a case in point. Indeed, the Ukrainian Euromaidan protest movement may go down in history as the first truly successful social media uprising. Earlier movements labeled social media revolutions subsequently have been criticized for not having had much important activity on social media (Moldova, Arab Spring) or for having had a large social media presence but ultimately failing to make much of a long-term impact as a protest movement (Spain’s Los Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, Gezi Park in Turkey). In Ukraine, a government fell, a region was annexed, a civilian plane was shot down, and what some are calling a civil war continues to this day in the eastern part of the country. Clearly, the movement was consequential and, as we will show, social media usage was widespread and significant.

The New York University Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory, where the authors of this article are co-primary investigators, was established with the support of the INSPIRE program of the National Science Foundation [i] and NYU’s Research Investment Fund to investigate how social media impacts political participation and, ultimately, the outcome of events like the Euromaidan protests. Political participation encompasses a wide range of actions that individuals take in the political sphere — including voting, donating money to a campaign, and volunteering for a political organization or campaign — but the lab has been especially focused on understanding the relationship between social media and mass protest. Theoretically, our work strives to combine insights from political science and social psychology to better understand how the world of protest has (or has not) changed since the emergence of social media. Empirically, the lab collects Twitter data in real time as protest movements emerge around the world using keywords and hashtags related to these movements. The lab is also developing tools for analyzing social media data, many of which were utilized in preparing this report.

With regard to Ukraine in particular, SMaPP has been collecting Twitter data based on search terms linked to the Euromaidan protests since November 25, 2013. The collection had nearly 11 million tweets by the end of February 2014, and it is now approaching 40 million tweets. The lab has also monitored activity on public Facebook pages associated with the organization of the Euromaidan protests. During the crisis we put out a number of preliminary reports that have been cited in scholarly analyses of the protests and, at the invitation of Carnegie Corporation of New York, we will revisit the data more systematically here in order to summarize what has been learned so far.

Digging into the data more deeply is important for a number of reasons. As noted above, most current reporting on protests assumes a major causal role for social media the moment large numbers of tweets, Facebook pages, etc., can be identified. We do not challenge this assumption in the case of Ukraine. However, reporting numbers of tweets merely scratches the surface when it comes to understanding how social media may or may not have impacted the decisions of Ukrainians to participate in Euromaidan protests. If social media is indeed changing the ways in which protests emerge and evolve, then what is learned about the Ukrainian situation will provide important lessons for understanding and anticipating political developments all over the world.

Posting, Tweeting, and Protesting

Social media can impact the development of protest movements in a number of ways. First, social media can help to build a protest movement, and it can do so with remarkable speed. Second, once a movement exists, social media can play an important role in recruiting new members and encouraging participation. Third, once protests are in full swing, social media can spread information about them.

We define social media as any web-based application that allows users to contribute content, modify content already posted by others, and share content that can be viewed by others. In addition, social media allows users to join communities or form networks with other people. The paramount examples of social media are sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+. In the context of Ukraine, VKontakte, a service similar to Facebook popular in the Russian-speaking world, is also important.

To generate hypotheses about the effects of social media on protest, we draw on research in political science and social psychology. Political science has long emphasized the importance of information about the potential costs and benefits of participating in protests. [ii]

Social psychology, on the other hand, calls our attention to the role of motivational factors such as anger at perceived injustice (i.e., moral outrage), [iii] group belonging and shared interests (i.e., social identification), [iv] and beliefs about group empowerment (i.e., group efficacy). [v]

Social media usage can affect all of these factors. For example, social media can make it dramatically easier to acquire information about both the potential costs and the benefits of participating in a protest. Likewise, social media can make it easier to transmit and receive messages that convey a sense of moral outrage or group efficacy or that link current political developments to socially shared grievances. Before the advent of social media, on any given day an individual might have had the opportunity to share his or her feelings about an unfolding political event with, at most, 10 or 15 people. Now with a few strokes of the keyboard or swipes of a mobile phone, people can make their thoughts known instantly to hundreds or thousands of others. Moreover, the fact that these thoughts are spread through social networks that individuals have constructed themselves, such as friend networks on Facebook or follower networks on Twitter, means that informational and motivational appeals received through these channels could be far more influential than if they had been encountered in other contexts, such as the evening news.

Posts on social media are also pre-vetted: we learn not simply that there is a protest (or that there is moral outrage fueling the desire for a protest) but that our friends, relatives, or respected colleagues have endorsed this particular course of action or share a common sense of moral outrage. Thus, first we would expect social media to affect the development of protests by providing a forum in which opposition can be organized. This organization could simply take the form of general discussions among people who are dissatisfied with the regime and learn that they are not alone, or more concrete forms such as websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts that serve as focal points.

As the movement quickly evolves from its early stages to the organization of protests, social media can impact an individual’s decision to participate. This can be accomplished through various mechanisms mentioned previously: providing information about when and where protests are taking place; inciting the motivation to participate through social-psychological mechanisms; and informing people about the actions that individuals in their social networks are likely to take.

Finally, social media can be used to provide updates about protests once they are in progress, sharing information that fulfills different functions for different audiences. For actual or potential participants in the protest, social media can be used to share logistical information about the number of people protesting, the response of the regime, or safety concerns such as how to deal with tear gas or where to find medical help. Another key audience is the virtual community of potential protest supporters. This community may be located in the city where the protest is taking place, perhaps comprising those who have elected not to participate but who could provide material support or participate in future protests. It could also be located, importantly, outside of the country. In many protests, especially when there’s fear that the national media will fail to report on the protests or fail to report on them accurately, members of the international media constitute an especially important target audience. This is why we often observe nonnative language posts (usually in English) at crucial moments of protest movements anywhere in the world.

Understanding the #Euromaidan Protests

In November 2013, the government of Ukraine stood poised to sign an agreement with the European Union, which to many observers suggested that President Yanukovych would be moving the country toward a policy of balancing between Russia and the West. However, on November 21, 2013, apparently under pressure from Russia, President Yanukovych suspended preparations for the EU trade agreement; concurrently, a bill that would have allowed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko out of jail — a condition for the agreement — was rejected by Ukraine’s parliament. For many in the opposition and the general public, this was interpreted as a sign that Yanukovych was rejecting the balancing policy and that the country was about to strengthen its ties with Russia and move away from a European affiliation. That same evening, small groups began to gather in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to protest the actions of the government. Within days, there were hundreds of thousands of protestors; the numbers swelled even more after a crude attempt by governmental security forces to suppress the protests. Protestors called for the resignation of Yanukovych and his government and for early elections. The government refused, and the demonstrations continued for months.

This was not the first time protestors in Ukraine had gathered to demand closer ties with Europe in opposition to governmental policies. In 2004, the now famous Ukrainian Orange Revolution emerged in the aftermath of fraudulent election results, which purported to show that Yanukovych had defeated Viktor Yushchenko. At the time Yushchenko was seen as a more pro-European leader than Yanukovych, the preferred candidate of Russia. These protests ultimately culminated in a rerunning of the second round of the presidential election, with Yushchenko declared the winner. Despite the jubilation among many Ukrainians over the Orange Revolution, the years that followed were seen by many as a disappointment marred by rifts among the various Orange forces that had been better able to cooperate in opposition than in power. Six years later Yanukovych was elected president.

One might argue that protests often follow fraudulent election outcomes because these elections publicly reveal new information about the state of the regime. The Euromaidan protests did not result from fraudulent elections, but were triggered by an event that similarly revealed unexpected negative information: the sudden refusal of Yanukovych to sign the association agreement with the European Union. Yanukovych refused protestors’ demands for months, and the protests of 2013 became a linchpin in the ongoing tension between Russia and the West. Russia demanded that Yanukovych remain in power, denouncing the protest movement as a violent coup led by fascists. In contrast, the West supported the initially peaceful, ostensibly Western-leaning protesters.

Following several outbreaks of violence, Yanukovych gave up the presidency, fleeing to Russia in February 2014, just three months after the protests began. Leaders of the opposition took over and claimed legitimacy as an interim government. The government has since faced separatist demands, armed uprisings, and a series of seemingly never-ending crises in southeastern Ukraine, including the secession of Crimea and its annexation by Russia.

Facebook and the #Euromaidan

In the journal European View, Tetyana Bohdanova argues that “while Twitter, YouTube, and Ustream were used to provide real-time information about the [Euromaidan] protests, Facebook became the main online platform for organizing.” SMaPP laboratory research confirms that there were indeed a number of pages on Facebook related to the Euromaidan protests with very large numbers of “likes” and followers. (See the table further down this page.)

“Oleksiy Machekhin. !!!ATTENTION!!! Surgeons, traumatologists, and orthopedists are needed who are willing to go help…”

Importantly, all of these pages were created after the protests started. They provide evidence not of an online movement coming together to plan protests, but rather of the ways in which Facebook was used to coordinate activity and most likely recruit new participants once the protests had commenced.

The main “EuroMaydan” Facebook page first appeared on November 21, 2013, at the very start of the protests. It grew so quickly in popularity that two weeks later it had already been “liked” over 125,000 times. This page was used to disseminate news and information about the protests. To serve additional, more focused needs, new pages were soon created, including pages devoted to the coordination of legal support, medical services, and transportation, as well as a separate page for the dissemination of news and information in English.

One particularly illustrative Facebook page that appeared in early December was “helpgettomaidan,” which was dedicated exclusively to organizing car pools from other cities or from other parts of Kiev to the Maidan. Users posted messages listing how many people they could take in their cars, the time and location of departures, and telephone numbers. This enabled individuals from disparate parts of Ukraine to coordinate transportation to and from the protests, as well as manage resources. Another page reflecting the organizing role played by Facebook was “Maidan Medics,” which was started on December 2 to coordinate medical resources and doctors. Below is a sample post.

Popular Facebook pages related to Euromaidan

This post is another example of how social media was used to coordinate resources needed to support protests and to efficiently recruit those who wanted to help, in this case doctors and medical personnel. Similar pages included “EuromaidanSOS” and “Maidanhelp,” which sought to provide support for victims of violence. “Euromaidan in English” emerged at the end of November to provide a separate space for English-speaking users to obtain news and updates about the protests without having to sort through a large number of posts in other languages. This also allowed the main “EuroMaydan” page to cater specifically to its domestic and diaspora audience.

Activity on Facebook’s “EuroMaydan” page

This figure documents the rise and fall of activity over time on the main “EuroMaydan” Facebook page throughout the crisis period.

At least three things are worth noting. First, the sheer amount of activity on this page — a page that did not exist before November 21, 2013 — is quite stunning. Posts on this page alone generated 600,000 comments, 2.2 million shares, and 7.9 million likes. Second, spikes in online activity correspond directly to periods of offline activity: the initial surge of protests in late November through the first half of December 2013, the clashes that erupted after antiprotest laws were passed on January 16, 2014, and the final surge of protests in the second half of February 2014 following the violence on February 18. Finally, the popularity of the page seemed to increase steadily as time went on, indicating it did not lose relevance once the protests started. These data are consistent with the notion that Facebook served an explicitly organizational role with respect to the protests, but did not help potential members of the opposition find one another before the protests began.

Online activity on a variety of pro-Maidan Facebook pages

This figure illustrates the number of posts on each of the various Facebook pages related to the protests. Importantly, all of these pages remained active throughout the successive waves of protests; the evidence does not suggest a “crowding out” effect, with all the activity gravitating toward a single dominant page, despite the overall popularity of the EuroMaydan Facebook page. During the final wave of protests and clashes prior to Yanukovych’s departure, in particular, there is a great deal of activity on most of these pages. Given the movement’s success, these data suggest that the model of establishing one centralized page for everyone in conjunction with a number of specialized pages for specific subsets of needs and resources could be seen as an effective mode of organization.

Interestingly, very little anti-Maidan activity could be observed on Facebook, suggesting that the platform itself may have been favored by people who are more Western leaning. In part, this may have been because of VKontakte, an alternative Facebook-like social media platform popular among Russian speakers. Given that a major dimension of the Euromaidan conflict was whether Ukraine ought to pursue more pro-Western or pro-Russian policies, those opposed to the Euromaidan protests might have turned to VKontakte rather than Facebook. Indeed, there is a popular VKontakte page, “Antimaydan” (anti-Maidan), where moderate activity came and went for about a month beginning in mid-January, with a noticeable spike in mid- to late February.

As it is quite possible that much of this activity emanated from within Russia rather than Ukraine, three observations can be made on the basis of these data: First, opposition to the protests did not attract attention on VKontakte nearly as quickly as support for the protests developed on Facebook. Second, there is a huge spike in activity around the time that Yanukovych left office, possibly foreshadowing the conflict in the southern and eastern parts of the country that was to come. Third, there was indeed an anti-Euromaidan presence on social media, although it was slower to emerge. This reminds us that, despite the attractiveness of social media as an organizing tool for antigovernment protesters, such movements also stimulate social media countermovements.

These analyses are useful for understanding the extent, timing, and duration of online activity, but they cannot address the question of whether social media usage plays a causal role in protest participation. Facebook does not simply provide information to the public; it facilitates the spreading of information through a social network that the individual has already elected to join. Olga Onuch of Oxford University and her colleagues were able to conduct surveys of protesters in real time. The survey results suggest a powerful role for Facebook in delivering protesters to the Maidan. Forty percent of respondents said they found out where and when to attend the protest because they received an invitation on Facebook from a family member or friend, and five percent reported getting this information from a student group on Facebook. In addition, 14 percent of respondents reported finding out where and when to protest through VKontakte. Although respondents cited multiple sources, the data suggests that approximately half of the protesters obtained this critical information from Facebook and/or VKontakte.

Twitter and the #Euromaidan

Turning to Twitter, one can observe that its Euromaidan-related usage tracks real-world events in much the same way that Facebook usage does by referring to data drawn from the SMaPP Euromaidan Twitter collection, which contains all tweets over the time range from late November 2013 through late February 2014.

These data indicate that, as was the case for Facebook, the use of Twitter closely parallels off-line developments. Twitter usage started at a low level in Ukraine but increased significantly with each successive wave of protest activity, suggesting that, more than Facebook, Twitter was discovered by users as a means of discussing the Euromaidan events. Finally, there is a dramatic increase in the use of Twitter that coincides exactly with the outbreak of violence on February 18, 2014, leading to the conclusion that the Euromaidan crisis could have motivated some Ukrainians to join Twitter.

The number of Twitter accounts created per day by people who subsequently posted a tweet that ended up in the SMaPP Ukraine collection provides a conservative estimate of the number of people who may have turned to Twitter for information about the protests, since they exclude new accounts created by people seeking information about the crisis who chose not to tweet about it themselves. We observed that the number of new accounts created by people who tweeted about the crisis increased substantially once the protests were underway in November, and the average number of new accounts created each day increased throughout the protests: more new accounts were created in February than January, more in January than December, and so on.

Twitter Language Usage by Day (UK)

Tweets can also be studied by language. This is done by coding the language of the tweet and comparing it with the language that the user listed as his or her preferred language when registering for Twitter (for getting instructions, updates, etc.), which is most likely the user’s native language. This information can be used to provide insight into questions raised earlier: Were the spikes in Twitter usage during periods of protest due primarily to the dissemination of international news media stories, meaning that much of the Twitter usage was actually by non-Ukrainians? And were Ukrainians themselves being strategic in terms of the language they used in their posts?

Twitter Language Usage by Day (RU)

We analyzed the tweets of people who listed Ukrainian (UK) or Russian (RU) as their preferred language to address these questions. Spikes in tweeting activity by these users would suggest an important role for Twitter in communicating information about protest developments to domestic audiences. [vi]

The two figures at right summarize the frequency of tweets by Ukrainian and Russian users, respectively, according to the day and language of the tweet.

These two figures lead to the conclusion that the massive increase in tweets following the violence on February 18, 2014, was not due to outsiders circulating foreign news sources concerning events in Ukraine. There are large increases in tweets by Ukrainian and Russian speakers, as well as large increases in the numbers of tweets in Russian and Ukrainian. Interestingly, Ukrainian and Russian language users also tweet in English a significant amount of the time, which might point to diaspora users outside of Ukraine, or could also suggest a conscious effort to make sure that what was happening in Ukraine reached the international media. The increase in English-language tweeting on February 18, especially by Ukrainian language speakers, is consistent with this interpretation.

An additional point worth emphasizing is the remarkable degree of flexibility in language usage on Twitter in Ukraine. Many, many people chose to interact with Twitter in Russian and then tweeted in Ukrainian, and vice versa. Such behavior defies attempts to classify Ukrainian politics in terms of Russian versus Ukrainian speakers. On Twitter at least, many people appear to be both.

Retweet Networks: How Information Spreads

In addition to how (and how often) Twitter was used during the Euromaidan protests, it’s useful to know how information spreads through social networks. To address this issue, we utilize retweet networks, which are used to determine who is retweeting information and from whom. In any network, there are nodes (persons in the network), and edges (relationships between nodes). In a retweet network, the nodes are two distinct users of Twitter, and the edges are created by one person retweeting a message from another person. In the following two figures (created using a force-directed layout algorithm), users in the network who are more closely connected to one another pull closer to each other in the layout, while less connected users drift further apart due to the attraction of the better-connected users.

Tweets coded by language can also be used to assess whether Russian and Ukrainian language tweets existed in the same retweet networks, or whether they formed distinct networks. The following two figures, which examine the retweet networks of Ukrainian- and Russian-language tweets separately,vii are color-coded based on a very simple ideological coding scheme: people who follow two or more pro-Russian politicians (and no pro-Ukrainian politicians) are colored red, and people who follow two or more pro-Ukrainian/Euromaidan politicians (and no pro-Russian politicians) are colored blue; the retweets (the lines, or edges, connecting the nodes) are given the color of the ideology of the person being retweeted in that instance.

Ukrainian-language retweet network from SMaPP Euromaidan Dataset, February 18, 2014

Comparing these two figures, it’s clear that Russian- and Ukrainian-language tweets are not two completely different networks; instead they spring from the main cluster of tweets in the center-right of the figure. Even in the Russian language networks, the vast majority of the tweets come from people who, according to the simple coding scheme, appear to be pro-Ukrainian. This is consistent with the notion that the Euromaidan movement had supporters among both Russian and Ukrainian speakers and challenges the idea that the Euromaidan protests can be classified exclusively along a Russian-versus-Ukrainian cleavage.

Retweet networks can also help define how hierarchical the spread of information is. Specifically, is information transferred largely from a few key sources to the rest of the network, which would indicate a high degree of hierarchy, or does it spread out from many different users in more horizontal fashion, which would indicate a lower degree of hierarchy? One way to assess this degree of hierarchy is with visual representations of the networks. Two such representations were created — the first on February 16, 2014, and the second on the day of the worst outbreak of violence, February 18, 2014 — using the same force-directed layout algorithm as in the previous figures.

A substantially different pattern emerged on each day. Why? First, because the sheer number of retweets increased substantially between the two days. And second, there are also much denser retweet clusters around the Euromaidan Twitter feed in one area and the BBC News Twitter feed in another. Clusters are interesting because they show subnetworks within the larger networks of users who are more likely to retweet within that cluster. We are interested in the clusters because we think they can give us insight into the different types of conversations occurring on Twitter.

Russian-language retweet network from SMaPP Euromaidan Dataset, February 18, 2014

We conducted visual inspections of only two of the approximately 100 days contained in the sample. Another, more systematic, approach is to calculate descriptive statistics concerning the networks. To do this, we use what is known as the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test to determine how different the network we observe is from a perfectly hierarchical network in which only one person is retweeted by everyone else. The higher this value, the less the network resembles a perfectly hierarchical network. The lower the value, the more it resembles a perfectly hierarchical network. [viii]

Our analysis confirms that the Euromaidan retweet network did indeed become much more hierarchical in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of violence on February 18. This is consistent with the notion that when the stakes of the conflict are raised, specific and authoritative sources of information may become more valuable. We would expect that more emphasis was given to the “voice” of the movement (the Euromaidan Twitter feed) and to international news sources (e.g., the BBC).

To gather additional information along these lines, we compared retweet proportions for the six most popular sources of retweets over the entire period of study. Two valuable observations were made in this case. First, the two most prevalent sources of retweets were local Ukrainian Twitter feeds — the official Euromaidan feed, and the feed of Novosti Ukrainy (or Ukrainian News, a Russian language Twitter feed that uses the Twitter handle “@Dbnmjr”). This indicates that the sources of the most popular retweets associated with the Euromaidan crisis were not simply retweets of Western, English-language news outlets. Second, there was an increase in the preponderance of retweets of BBC tweets on February 18. Even on this date, however, the most popular sources of retweets in the SMaPP data set were native language Twitter feeds.

Lesson of #Euromaidan

On the basis of the data summarized here, four conclusions are paramount regarding the relationship between social media and the Euromaidan protest movement:

First, social media undoubtedly helped to bring people to the Euromaidan protests.

Second, for participants in the protests, social media offered important logistical support.

Third, social media usage closely tracked important political developments throughout the crisis. The link between social media usage on Facebook and especially on Twitter and the intensity of movement activity grew stronger with each successive wave of protests.

Fourth, while Ukrainian and Russian language tweeters did not inhabit the same social media networks, there was considerable overlap between the two.

Looking at social media and political protest more generally, it’s natural to conclude that the days of protest in the absence of a significant social media presence are surely coming to an end. What this means is that in the future, we can expect protests and protest movements to develop more rapidly than in the past, especially as social media makes it easier for individuals and groups to solve logistical problems and overcome barriers to action.

The notion that movements originating online through social media channels are unlikely to produce lasting change should be rethought. Most protest movements in the future will feature some significant role for social media, and some of these — like the Ukrainian Euromaidan movement — will produce consequential changes, although others may not. Determining whether specific network patterns of social media usage are more likely than others to yield meaningful results should be an important priority for scientific researchers, policy analysts, and movement organizers.

It is important to recognize that the various forms of social media are far from homogeneous. Different platforms are likely to play quite different roles. We have documented some similarities between the use of Twitter and Facebook, but we have also noted, for instance, important differences between conversations on Facebook and VKontakte, as well as Twitter and Facebook. Moreover, the platforms themselves are dynamic (e.g., consider Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp), and new platforms are emerging all the time.

The implications of our analysis may go beyond the ways in which protest movements can bring people out onto the streets. If we are correct that social media facilitates movement organization by making it easier for like-minded people to share information, motivate one another to enter the public square, and acquire information about politics from trusted sources such as friends and family members, it stands to reason that social media will prove just as useful to groups seeking to bring about armed resistance to the state as it is to groups promoting nonviolent social or political change.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident in the news than with respect to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It has been suggested that social media provides a way for adherents around the world to show their support for ISIS, for ISIS to plot its insurgency and spread propaganda, and perhaps most importantly, for ISIS to recruit new members. While it may be too early for substantive research and analysis of social media usage by ISIS, lessons drawn from Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement might be broadly applicable to this situation.

Social media networks can, for example, span national boundaries. While we have emphasized that not all of the social media discussion of Euromaidan protests came from non-Ukrainians discussing the events, our analysis of the retweet networks and the use of English language tweets suggests that at least some of the discussion occurred between those inside and outside of Ukraine. For a protest movement, international scrutiny may be extremely important for discouraging the government from using force to quash protests. For an armed uprising, international support may mean additional funds, weapons, and recruits. Thus, it is extremely important to consider international ties that are maintained through social media channels.

Some of what is posted on social media is public, but some is private. Just because insurgent groups are using social media to organize does not mean that outside observers can freely monitor that group’s online activity. The preference for secrecy is especially strong when it comes to movements people could potentially be jailed or even killed for joining. Indeed, it would not be surprising if the choice of platform were in part due to the relative advantages of public appeals versus venues for private conversions. So for instance, broad appeals for new supporters might well occur in forums such as Twitter feeds, public Facebook pages, and YouTube channels. But once a potential recruit expresses genuine interest in joining the movement, the discussion might move to a more private realm of social media or even to one-on-one communication through instant messaging and chat rooms, which are often linked to social media sites such as Facebook Messenger and direct messaging on Twitter.

Finally, policymakers will need to think carefully about how the two most attractive features of social media from the standpoint of organizing a protest movement (speed/efficiency of communication and low financial cost) are likely to play out in the context of armed insurgencies. Violent and nonviolent actors benefit equally from the low cost of using social media relative to other forms of communication. Whether the speed with which social media can bring people to the streets can be approximated when it comes to violent confrontation is another matter entirely. For protesters, circulating details about where and when a protest will take place to hundreds of thousands of people who are relatively close to the protest location may, under certain circumstances, be able to facilitate a demonstration involving thousands (or even tens or hundreds of thousands) of people. In contrast, to recruit armed insurgents who must travel through government strongholds or across national borders, tenuous social contacts in an online environment may not do the trick. Nevertheless, we are living in an era in which nearly everyone involved in political movements uses social media as some part of the organizing process. Most recently, student organizers have used social media to mobilize thousands of protesters to sites across Hong Kong. Its role is undoubtedly more profound in some cases than others, but to understand politics at any level today, it is imperative to appreciate the role that social media can and does play.

Originally published at carnegie.org.

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Endnotes

[i] Award #1248077

[ii] See, for example: Kuran, Timur (1989). Sparks and prairie fires: A theory of unanticipated political revolution. Public Choice, 61, 41–74; Kuran, Timur (1991). Now out of never: The element of surprise in the East European revolution of 1989. World Politics, 44, 7–48; Lohmann, Suzanne (1994). The dynamics of informational cascades. World Politics, 47, 42–101; Tucker, Joshua A. (2007). Enough! Electoral fraud, collective action problems, and post-Communist colored revolutions. Perspectives on Politics, 5, 537–553.

[iii] Barbalet, J. (1998). Emotion, social theory, and social structure: A macrosociological approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Tausch, N., Becker, J., Spears, R., Christ, O., Saab, R., Singh, P., & Siddiqui, R. N. (2011). Explaining radical group behavior: Developing emotion and efficacy routes to normative and non-normative collective action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 129–148.

[iv] Drury, J., & Reicher, S. D. (2009). Collective psychological empowerment as a model of social change: Researching crowds. Journal of Social Issues, 65, 707–726; McGarty, C., Thomas, E. F., Lala, G., Smith, L. G., & Bliuc, A. M. (2013). New technologies, new identities, and the growth of mass opposition in the Arab Spring. Political Psychology, 1–16.

[v] Tausch et al. 2011; Van Zomeren, M., Leach, C.W., & Spears, R. (2012). Protesters as “passionate economists”: A dynamic dual pathway model of approach coping with collective disadvantage. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16, 180–199.

[vi] This is especially the case for Ukrainian language tweets, because Ukraine is the only country in the world in which Ukrainian is a primary language. Russian tweets about developments in Ukraine may have emanated from Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but they may also have represented activity by Russians. In any case, these collections of tweets do not include Westerners sharing English language news reports with each other.

[vii] Both figures were created by filtering the full network previously displayed by the language of the tweet, that is to say the forced layout algorithm was not run separately for each of the different languages. Thus the figures can be directly compared to one another.

[viii] Technically, we are reporting the D-value produced by the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test, which is the maximum distance between the empirical distribution function (also known as the cumulative fraction function) of the two samples. The empirical distribution function gives the proportion of the sample data (Y-value) less than the X-value at any point. The D-value is bounded between 0 (no distance between the two samples, so in this case perfectly hierarchical) and a number very close to 1 (n/n–1, where n is the number nodes in the network, which would represent the maximum difference between the two samples, so in this case a perfectly flat network).