“A huge question is whether it will become a norm that presidents and prime ministers will start to use social media to drive mainstream media coverage more globally”

14 June 2017, 23:25

Interviewed by Hanna Trehub

Why is it important today to interpret politics not only from the perspective of political studies, but in the context of changing behaviors and relationships, i.e. from the psychological perspective? How, why and when do social media affect the minds and motivations of a citizens in terms of participation in the political life?

It’s certainly the case that psychologists and sociologists think a lot about the determinants of attitudes, including attitudes towards politics. But there is a whole subfield of political science, which is my field, called “political behavior”. Political behavior is the study of how ordinary citizens interact with politics. Many of political scientists study elites – presidents, military or members of legislative – but there is this whole other sub-field that examines how ordinary people are interacting in politics. In established democracies, and even in new democracies or competitive-authoritarian regimes, the most common way that citizens interact with politics is by voting. In countries where elections are less common or not competitive, the behavior question might be why people are coming out on to the streets and protesting, although we of course are also interested in why people protest in democracies. But in addition to voting and protest, people who study political behavior are also very interested in how the citizens form opinions about political issues.

This sub-field in political science is known as the study of “public opinion” or “comparative public opinion”. A lot of times economists and political sciences will have models that simply assume certain preferences of the citizens in those models, such as that wealthier citizens might prefer lower taxes. Or models might assume there are certain distributions of preferences across a population. But lots of us are working hard trying to figure out why the citizens hold the particular attitudes as they do. This is the question that motivates the field of public opinion research in political science.

I think you’re right that psychologists in particular do try to think about why people hold the attitudes for long periods of time, and why these attitudes might change over time. Political scientists tend to be more focused on the determinants of attitudes, that is why different citizens have different preferences on political topics. So in my earlier work, for example, I was looking at attitudes in Eastern Europe towards EU membership. We examined these attitudes in 10 candidate states considering joining the EU, using data from the 1990s and 2000s. The conclusions from that work were that people who were doing well economically during the transition were more likely to support EU membership. Economic losers were, however, less likely to support such position. In some ways, this was ironic, because some of these losers subsequently benefited from agricultural subsidies once their country joined the EU. But as a political scientist, I was interested in understanding why some people supported membership and others were opposed.

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In one of your articles you called the EuroMaidan the first truly successful social media uprising. To what extend is this true and why?

Just to be very clear, we were not claiming that other factors didn’t matter, because lot of things were going on during EuroMaidan and there were lots of reasons why people came out onto the streets. What we were responding to here was previous research calling into question the importance of social media during previous protest movements. For example, events in Moldova had been quickly labeled the “Twitter revolution”, because people were using social media during the protests, and at the time this was fairly new. However, in retrospect some people argued that there were very few people in Moldova who actually had Twitter accounts, so how can we call those events “Twitter revolution”?

Then came the Arab Spring. Real time videos in English by Aljazeera played a crucial role, I think. Real time communication from participants, some of which was going on Facebook and some on Twitter, led to the Arab Spring being labeled as a social media revolution. But there was a push back again by scholars. Some pointed to the fact that there were not that many tweets about Arab Spring and the fact that a lot of them seemed to be in English. So if this was really just people in the West sharing BBC reports about the conflict on Twitter, how could this impact the actual conflict in the streets?

In fact we do think that one thing of crucial importance about social media is that it allows events that would not necessarily previously have been picked up by international actors or media to get more international attention. One of the reasons why local protesters tweet in English is precisely because they want people living abroad to spread this messages, have it picked up by the international media, and have more and more international attention paid to what’s happening.

Then we have Gezi Park and EuroMaidan. We collected a lot of data from people who were using Twitter in both places. In Gezi Park there was just a phenomenal amount of Twitter activity. Moreover, very large percentages of messages with the hashtag “Gezipark” were from within Turkey and in Turkish. We tried to model what was more likely to be retweeted, and found that – conditional on having enough followers – the closer you were to Gezi Park, the more likely you were to be retweeted, suggesting that this was actual information about the protests being shared.

Of course, it was very hard to find casual evidence that proves that social media actually had an impact, so in our research we started thinking of going about this the opposite way: could we come up with a set of criteria which, if held, would allow to fairly legitimately conclude that maybe social media usage wasn’t really affecting protests. But if these criteria didn’t hold, then it would be harder to claim that social media didn’t matter.

Our criteria were the following: social media usage should track real time developments and events; social media should be used to discuss organization related to the protest; you should see healthy amounts of social media usage in the language of the country and located in the country; and if there is a survey and people are asked why they participated, than you should see lots of them saying that they found out about protests over social media. If none of those things hold, then you are probably in good shape arguing that social media have nothing to do with us – but if they all hold, it is harder to claim that social media did not matter. So we examined social media data from both Gezi Park and EuroMaidan and all of those criteria hold: there were lot of tweets coming from within the countries and in the native language of the countries, and the activity on Twitter really tracked what was going on offline. Further, according to survey data collected by Olga Onuch, up to 50% had heard about the protests from friends on Facebook or other forms of social media like vKontakte. You can see this when you look on the actual tweets, which say things like “Come to Gezi Park. Why you’re sitting in a café? You should be in Gezi Park!”

And the other criterion is that social media should be used to organize and we should find the evidence of this. We’re talking about logistics. When you look at social media usage during EuroMaidan, there are Facebook pages for organizing medical supplies for hospitals, for people getting rides from outside of Kyiv to the capital city etc. We saw this during the Orange Revolution to, but that was done by sms. Here, the main page was the EuroMaidan Facebook page with tons of information and hundreds of thousands of followers.

Another interesting thing when we look on the data from Ukraine is that Twitter was not as prevalent in your country before EuroMaidan as it was in Turkey. The sheer number of tweets about Gezi Park is much, much higher than the number of number of tweets about EuroMaidan. However, we found that once EuroMaidan got going, large numbers of new Twitter accounts were created in Ukraine. We don’t know for sure, but from that amount of hashtags in Twitter it seems that new accounts in this social media were created by Ukrainians with the purpose of participating in discussions and learning information about protests in 2013-2014.

Are there any links between social media activity during EuroMaidan and the rise of strong volunteer activity in Ukraine with the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014?

My coauthor Megan Metzger interviewed people in Kyiv who have suggested exactly this point. Some of the Facebook groups that were created for EuroMaidan organization were repurposed to provide support for people in the Donbas, as a way raising money, a way of getting supplies to the front, as a way of coordinating and sending food or equipment. It’s interesting and it makes what happened in Ukraine interesting to a wide group of social media scholar, because there is big debate among those who study protest movements on whether social media really has a long-term positive effect on protest movements’ likelihood of success. I think, everybody agrees now that social media is part of most protests.

One school of thought claims that while social media makes it easier to organize protests, it may make it harder to sustain protests movement. Historically, organizing protest movement tended to involve many face to face meetings. It is argued that because more time and efforts are needed for creation of protest movements, this created strong ties between the core groups of protesters, which may have made protest movement more sustainable. The social media, by making it easier to organize protests without these long periods of planning, may ironically hurt the long term success of protest movements because these strong ties are not formed.

That sort of argument has in particular been made in the case of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, which seemed important for a short of time and then sort of fizzled out. Ukraine, however, presents an interesting counter-example because some of these online communities that were formed around Euromidan have stayed together. Yes, some people say that social media aren’t strong enough to support huge protest, but in the Ukrainian case social media inspired protest and seems to have fueled it as well. Further, the protest did not fizzle out, but instead led to real change in your country after EuroMaidan.

More generally, social media allows for coordination, real time communication, and the sharing of information which is incredibly important in terms of short-time logistics (are tanks on the streets or not?), very useful for crowd sourcing (not me telling just you we need something, but me being able to lots of people simultaneously). Besides this, social media allows you to change geographic boundaries. In the USA lots of journalists are on Twitter, so when you post information on Twitter, you are getting it to a place where journalists can see it. This is very different from the way world used to be.

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In addition, our research has found that that not only strong ties, but also weak ties, can be important for spreading information about protest movements. Messages from the core protesters can be tremendously amplified by sharing this information via people who have only weak ties with those in the core. For example, in your Facebook account you have friends with whom you have strong and weak ties. So the question is, if you see information about protest of the street from the poster of a flyer versus your friend on Facebook telling you that there is going to be a protest tomorrow, the friend on Facebook seems likely to have a greater impact on your decision of whether to participate. The information might be the same, but the sender of this information is someone whom you have already chosen to have some sort of online relationship with previously, and thus somebody you at least somewhat know already. In contrast, the sender of the information on a flyer is likely to be much more removed from you.

Moreover, if you see that five thousand people already like a post about a protest, that conveys valuable information as well, beyond the mere text of the post announcing the protest. In the social sciences we often think about the decision to participate in a protest in the terms of costs and benefits. For potential protesters, one cost is the possible punishment for participating. The likelihood you personally will have to bear this cost, however, goes down as more people take part in the protest; your chance of being arrested is much lower if 300,000 people are protesting than if 300 people are protest. From social media, you find out if your friends – and their friends — think that the protest is a good idea or not. And this type of information can be very powerful. 

After the 2016 presidential election in the US when Donald Trump used all the benefits of social media while campaigning, is there any evidence that we might see European and American elections with the use of the same technologies? How could this change the way of communication in politics?

Remember that before Trump, Barack Obama in 2008 was very successful using Facebook not to communicate as Trump has been doing, but rather as means of getting his own supporters organized. Obama’s first campaign was incredibly innovative about raising money, getting people to the polls, micro targeting and so on.

Social media campaigns are not going anywhere. But when we’re trying to think about how social media might have an effect on election campaigns, it is useful to think about this in three ways. The first is how the candidates use the social media. By now, almost every member of USA Congress has a Facebook page and Twitter account, Instagram. But in terms of how this might affect the election campaigns, it’s very important to focus on the level of the election. That is, are you running for a local office or a national office? Are you running for president or for a seat in the legislature?

What makes Trump Twitter usage so spectacular, in my particular opinion, is not the fact that he can directly communicate with his followers while skipping the mainstream media, but rather precisely because he can use his Twitter account to shape what will appear in the mainstream media. So when Trump says something on Twitter, it almost inevitably ends up in the New York Times or the Washington Post the next day. Say what you will about Trump and his twitter account, but he clearly is a master of using social media to drive mainstream media coverage. 

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To which extent can the mainstream media compete with social media now?

Every candidate in election campaign has accounts on social media, but very few can get national news coverage based on what they are doing with these accounts. When Trump tweets, it has a very large influence on mainstream media. Other candidates, such as someone in the legislature or a regional governing position, might have some effect on local media news coverage, but their tweets and posts in Facebook are something else, another way of campaigning. Different candidates want to present different messages to different groups of people, and social media can be useful for this. So this is different from what Trump is doing on social media.

A huge question is whether it will become a norm that presidents and prime ministers will start to use social media to drive mainstream media coverage more globally, or is this more of a one off-event because Trump is so non-political, behaving on Twitter in ways in which standard politicians are unlikely to do? Trump has a lot of followers on Twitter, but so did Obama. It will be interesting to see in the future whether social media will be used in the same way politicians normally use them, or if the Trump model will become more popular. 

The second way in which social media can impact elections is that candidates can use social media to target advertising at specific voters, which is known as micro-targeting. Trump’s campaign was enormously successful in this regard. What makes social media so powerful in this regard is that is very well set up for micro-targeting, sending the exact messages to the people you want to reach. Not only Facebook, but also Google and Twitter, can facilitate this type of advertising. From a normative standpoint, micro-targeting might be bad for politics, because it allows candidates to present different faces to different groups. But it might be good, because by allowing voters to get information on the issues in which they are particularly interested, it might make them more likely to pay attention to politics.

The third way to think about social media and elections is whether social media makes it easier to spread misinformation during an election campaign. So far, it looks like the answer to this question is yes.

According to the survey done in Oxford during the French presidential campaign, every fourth article shared on social media was fake. That figure was one link in two for the US election. Why is it like that?

Facebook renders all news very similarly in terms of how the user sees it. There is a headline, a photo, and a blurb. This means that “fake news” sources – and here I mean newspapers that were literally made up and did not exist in reality – might look very similar when you see them on Facebook in your feed. Thus it can be very difficult to figure out what’s fake and what’s not when accessing news through Facebook, which is how a lot of people get their news now. The economics of news media is such now that if you have an article that gets a lot of clicks, you can make money. This is exactly what happened during the last presidential champagne in USA. Many of the fake stories about candidates were published not to impact political result, but in order to make money.

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But it’s important to remember that when it comes to technologically driven changes in politics, they can happen quickly and actors are always responding to the most recent developments.  Thus social media and politics can be thought of as a cat and mouse game. There was a time when social media may have provided huge advantages for pro-democratic protesters in non-democratic societies, but that time may have passed now that non-democratic regimes have tools to counter this threat. But it also might turn out to be the case with fake news as well. We have never seen such huge infusion of fake news online as in the most recent election campaigns in the USA and France.  But it is also likely that all sorts of actors – including politicians, parties, and the platforms themselves – will have ways to counter fake news in the future.


Joshua A. Tucker is Professor of Politics, an affiliated Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies, and an affiliated Professor of Data Science at New York University, director of NYU’s Jordan Center for Advanced Study of Russia, co-director of the NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab, and a co-author of the award winning politics and policy blog The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post. The major field of his researches is comparative politics with an emphasis on mass politics, including elections and voting, the development of partisan attachment, public opinion formation, and political protest, as well as how social media usage affects all of these types of political behavior. He is the author of Communism’s Shadow: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Political Attitudes (2017).

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