Elite influence or Computational Propaganda: a case study of political discussion networks on Polish Twitter

Pawel Popiel and Emad Khazraee

In democratic theory, public opinion plays a key role in state governance, determining the problems and issues for the state to address within its policy agenda and providing feedback on existing policies. Yet, one of the enduring problems of public opinion is its vulnerability to manipulation by elites (Price, 1992), and other domestic and foreign actors. The development and diffusion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) add new layers of complexity to how such processes occur. Political voices that form public opinion are expressed not just in offline settings, but online on social media. These increasingly popular digital platforms provide additional, and potentially alternative channels for political communication. However, they also serve as sites for both state and non-state actors deploying new tools and strategies to spread propaganda and manipulate public opinion.

Instances of often highly-automated and coordinated efforts by political elites and foreign actors to disrupt and manipulate online political debate have been the subject of growing international attention. Against the backdrop of politically-charged elections and referenda in the West, accompanied by several prominent right-wing populist victories, news reports circulated about foreign attempts to influence electoral outcomes by manipulating online political debates during the Brexit referendum, the 2016 United States federal election, and the 2017 French presidential election, among others. Such “computational propaganda” (Woolley & Howard, 2016) includes the propagation of false news, amplification or disruption of political messages on Twitter by bots, and trolling political actors on social media. Yet, the effects of these activities on online political discourse remain unclear. Moreover, much of the research on the subject focuses on online publics in the United States and Western Europe. This raises the question of how the effectiveness of such efforts varies based on political and media contexts. To address this, we focus on Poland, where the only previous study found a prevalence of computational propaganda, including highly-active political bot accounts on Twitter engaged in spreading both left- and right-wing content (Gorwa, 2017). These observations raise questions about the content these actors circulate and its effects on online political debate.

Building on this, we ask the following research questions: 1) Who are the most influential actors in the political debate on Polish Twitter? 2) Are political bots and trolls among them? 3) What are the key features of the discourses these actors promote? 4) Do these discourses dominate the Twitter communities in which these actors operate? To address these questions, we examine the political information propagation processes via the analysis of retweet networks on Polish Twitter between September 1 and October 22, 2017. We apply a community detection algorithm to these networks to identify political divisions on Polish Twitter. We also conduct topic modeling to provide an account of the political debates that occur within them and the degree to which these debates are influenced by political elites, trolls, and other actors. We use a bot detection algorithm to examine the presence of political bots in these communities.

Our study suggests… To read more, click here

Six Frames Against Surveillance

Till Wäscher, School of International and Intercultural Communication & TU Dortmund

For years, privacy advocates had been speculating about a possible “Privacy Chernobyl” – a major scandal that would put the issue of surveillance on the global agenda and create a mass social movement against privacy intrusions committed by governments and corporations.[1] In the summer of 2013, this speculation became reality. Edward Snowden’s leaked documents detailing the mass surveillance activities conducted by the National Security Agency and its international partners caused – to stick to the nuclear disaster analogy – a temporary meltdown of public trust by citizens around the world.

The Snowden revelations revitalized in the public consciousness an almost forgotten genre of contentious politics – privacy activism. The main objective of this blog series is to identify, analyse, and critically assess the political communication of activists during anti-surveillance campaigns in the first year after the Snowden revelations to better understand the ways in which these issues have been framed by activists, understood by the public, portrayed by the media, and potentially acted upon in a variety of contexts.  

The series is based on the author’s dissertation on political communication tactics of the global privacy community for which he conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with activists from 14 countries. This first post in the series focuses on the core collective action frames against surveillance, articulated by the privacy activist community over the course of four campaigns: “Restore the Fourth/1984 Day” (July-August, 2013), “Stop Watching Us” (October, 2013), “The Day We Fight Back” (February, 2014), and “Reset the Net” (July, 2o14). These were largely on U.S.-centric protests; subsequent pieces in the series will explore how resistance to surveillance has been framed in other parts of the world.

Legal Frames

“Restore the Fourth” was the first attempt to organize and protest surveillance issues after the Snowden revelations. Mainly coordinated through message boards on the social news website Reddit, in more than 80 American cities (as well in Munich, Germany) people took to the streets to protest NSA surveillance. The three core demands of the “Restore the Fourth” network were to reform section 215 of the controversial Patriot Act; the creation of an oversight committee to keep checks on surveillance programs; and initiate accountability measures for public service figures involved in domestic spying activities.

Much of the communication efforts by… (click here to read the rest of this post).