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