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

Global Internet Policy Round-up: August 2017

This month, we’ve summarized relevant occurrences from around the world related to internet policymaking in the IPO’s ‘Internet Policy Roundup’. In  our August roundup, read about journalists and politicians in Thailand who have been charged for facebook comments, a new popular app in Saudi Arabia that is providing a controversial space for anonymous feedback, China’s new cyber courts,  internet shutdowns in Ethiopia, and a court case against Google in Canada that could have significant effects of freedom of information around the world. These and other story summaries in the roundup here.

 

Shots in the dark: An analysis of Internet Governance in Pakistan

//Jahanzaib Haque, current Chief Digital Strategist for the Dawn Media Group, comments on Internet governance in Pakistan including the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill.

Pakistan is among the five least connected countries in the world, according to a 2016 World Bank development report titled ‘Digital Dividends.’[1] Eighty-three per cent of the population of 200 million was found to be offline. The Freedom of the Net report released annually by Freedom House found a host of factors holding Pakistan back.[2] The report stated that, “Low literacy, difficult economic conditions, and cultural resistance have limited the proliferation of ICTs in Pakistan…most remote areas lack broadband, and a large number of users depend on slow dial-up connections or EDGE, an early mobile internet technology.”

While internet penetration is low, the introduction of 3G/4G mobile networks in 2014[3] has greatly impacted accessibility and speed of adoption. With 3G/4G subscribers climbing to 26.1 million as of February 2016, and total teledensity at 68.54% in the country, the internet is accessible to citizens far beyond the urban areas where it was confined up to 2014.[4] The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) report showed that mobile phone ownership stood at 94.7% in urban areas and 83% in rural areas, promising far greater opportunities for online access.[5] Growth in internet use is likely to be very rapid over the next few years, closing the wide gap between the haves and the have-nots that…

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Myanmar Connected? Internet Governance Capacity Building in Post-Authoritarian Contexts

//IPO Affiliate Andrea Calderaro explains the implications of Myanmar’s massive Internet expansion by looking at both infrastructure and legislation

Almost 3 years have passed since the government of Myanmar initiated its connectivity building plan, in the context of an unprecedented period of political reforms. As detailed in the recently published paper, Digitalizing Myanmar: Connectivity Developments in Political Transitions, Myanmar is currently witnessing an extremely rapid process of constructing connectivity – both from an infrastructural and policy perspective. Just before the launch of this ambitious process, only 0.98% of the population was connected to the Internet, and 2.3% had a mobile phone, usable only via weak mobile infrastructure limited to the main urban areas (2011 figures).

Moreover, in a country that has until recently demonstrated continued lack of respect for the freedom of expression, the construction of connectivity infrastructure has raised concerns about the respect for human rights, notably the freedom of expression and right to privacy. In this context, it is of particular interest to scrutinize the development of the regulatory and policy framework aimed at securing basic digital rights in the connectivity sector.

Today, a network of mobile towers is widely spread over the country, and newly established international operators have launched new services, counting more than 20 million mobile subscribers and securing mobile internet connectivity to 30% of the population. This tremendous growth within such a limited time frame suggests that Myanmar is the country with the fastest connectivity building process ever seen worldwide. However, a lot of work has yet to be done from a regulatory and policy perspective.

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