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

Researching ICT companies: A field guide for civil society researchers

Nathalie Marechal, University of Southern California; Sarah T. Roberts, University of California, Los Angeles

Information and communications technology (ICT) companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are vitally important to billions of users around the world, not only in their day-to-day personal and professional lives, but also in their ability to shape social and political reality. Yet there is a pervasive lack of clarity around the policies and practices that govern user engagement on these platforms and sites, and the values that undergird them. This information is of great importance to policy researchers and civil society advocates, particularly in the wake of numerous recent events that have put the relative power and opacity of ICT companies in the spotlight. Access to information about them is often incredibly difficult to obtain, when it is available at all. These difficulties are faced by many categories of people interested in researching ICT companies, from academics to journalists, and from civil society advocates to policy researchers.

In this white paper, we outline some of the challenges we have identified as being particularly acute for policy researchers, as well as strategies for working through (and around) those issues. Advocating for civil society, human rights, and democratic values today often requires understanding the role played by ICT companies in deciding what kinds of speech are allowed (or not) on various platforms, in complying (or not) with government requests to restrict content or for user information, and in lobbying governments to enact (or not) various laws and regulations. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies are expected to respect human rights even as nation-states retain primary responsibility for protecting human rights. As is true of many UN norms, the Guiding Principles lack a formal enforcement mechanism, so other, often soft measures have been employed in order to enact results, or even to simply gain information. Although often with various end goals in mind, journalists, researchers and global civil society organizations share the common need to know more about these practices, policies and internal guiding principles that influence the behavior and outcomes of platforms. For this reason, this disparate group with varying constituencies have developed shared techniques to obtain information about ICT companies’ policies and practices, and, importantly, to influence them. This includes sustaining demands for engagement, “naming and shaming,” shareholder advocacy, litigation, and more. These strategies all hinge on civil society groups knowing what companies are up to.

To read the full field guide, click here.

Cooperation or co-option? Intersectoral partnerships between privacy advocates and tech companies

Till Wascher

How do privacy activists see the role that online companies play in the surveillant assemblage and how does it influence their campaigning and political communication? The first two major protest events in the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks, “Restore the Fourth” and “Stop Watching Us,” focused on government spying and largely ignored the involvement of corporate actors – although, as PRISM leaks detailed, the massive amount of personal data collected by Google, Facebook, and others had eventually landed in the hands of the government.

The latter half of the first post-Snowden year, in the form of two online protest events, “The Day We Fight Back” and “Reset the Net,” saw varied attempts to address the data gathering practices of online companies, though these were carried out differently than one might have imagined. Instead of outright opposing corporate surveillance, privacy activist networks sought to include companies in their campaigns and formed temporary coalitions with them.

While aligning with corporate players like Google helped the campaigns generate a critical mass and relatively wide coverage in the media, arguably the companies have benefitted more from this partnership than the privacy advocacy community. Based on interviews with a wide array of activists, two lines of argumentations emerged about the relationship between corporations and the activist community.  One stressed the necessity to uphold a constant dialogue with the companies rather than to alienate them, ensuring good and professional relations and the possibility to create change by making use of that relationship. On the other hand, some activists were deeply disturbed by the ties between some activist organizations and corporate actors, fearing that it would ultimately undermine their core message… Click here to read more.

Baidu in Thailand: the search for meaning

Sarah Logan and Brendan Molloy, Australian National University

Baidu, China’s largest search engine and one of its largest information technology companies, is on the move. In 2012 it announced plans to expand beyond Chinese borders and in 2014 began offering services in Vietnam, with similar ventures in Indonesia, Brazil, Egypt and Thailand. This project traces Baidu’s expansion into Thailand, focusing on its search product. In doing so it builds on Jiang’s work on Baidu and adds to a growing body of commentary on Chinese tech expansion abroad. Much of this commentary raises fears of the expansion of Chinese tech companies on the grounds that it will lead to censorship and access to vital industries and resources. Click here to read more.

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