In Twitter, SPbU is studying how our values, posts and ethno-political conflicts are related.

In 2016, a group of experts from the University bringing together media research, political science, and IT initiated a comprehensive integrated project “Distorting mirror: The role of the net discussions in how ethno-political conflicts are represented and developed in Russia and abroad”.

The project, with its focus on the discussions in the Twitter in relation to most resonant ethnic global conflicts, aims to comparingly identify groups of users who are actively engaged in the discussions and describe social background behind the conflicts.

The case studies are as following:

  • Russia — mass disturbances in Birulovo (Moscow, 2013), a case of a baby-sitter Gulchehry Bobokulovoi (2016), a terrorist act in St Petersburg (2017)
  • Germany — New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne (2015), 2016 Berlin attack
  • France — Charlie Hebdo shooting and November 2015 Paris attacks
  • USA — Ferguson unrest (2014)
  • UK — Murder of Jo Cox (2016)
  • Belgium — 2016 Brussels bombings
  • Spain — Spain terror attacks (2017)

“Our main concern is social faults. These are the conflicts that erupt as volcanoes, but not civil wars or systematic genocide, — said Svetlana Bodrunova, head of the project, Professor of the Department of Management of Mass Communications, SPbU. — All our case studies reveal inter-group, to be more precise ethnic, collisions, and the reasons underling these collisions may be religious, political, personal, or economic. We are mostly concerned with who and how discuss these issues in the social media. Is there any chance to come to terms? Do they communicate only with those who share their opinion, or the discussion is between groups? How do they present their point of view? Do social media have a potential to resolve the conflicts? How do people response to the irrepressible conflicts: how to bring to terms, say, a long-standing tradition that prohibits the depiction of Muhammad and a long-standing tradition of caricature in France and UK? It is a serious cultural fault that may be regarded merely as a caricature but as the reasons behind are that two civilizations live in one society and have little, if any, in common, so it can trigger an explosion”.

A group of mathematicians, for data collection and analysis, has specially designed a web crawler, an Internet bot that systematically browses the World Wide Web for Twitter indexing. The empiric data are then analyzed by process-tracing, graph analytics, quantitative analysis of discussion patterns, and others.

We are analyzing two realities: off-line and social media, and trying to understand whether the collisions in the Internet repeat the actual collisions or vice versa.

SPbU’s Professor Svetlana Bodrunova

“This is the main concern of our experts in political science, Professor Aleksandr Kurochkin and Associate Professor Aleksandr Sherstobitov, while the experts in media research, Associate Professor Aleksandr Iakunin and Kamilla Nigmatullina, focus on how the vocabulary is changing throughout the discussion:  initially, the discussion may be neutral, followed by hate speech. Or initially Twitter bursts out, and people gather at the meetings, as in Birulovo, and then the situation calm down followed by sensible dialogue”, — said Svetlana Bodrunova.

Besides, the experts also examine how wide is the scope of the discussion in the Internet, whether the state or political power are engaged, who sets the tone and triggers the discussion. The experts identified two types of those who lead the discussion: first, a number of posts, likes, shares, and comments, and, secondly, a place of the bloggers in the discussion: whether their profile links various “clouds” and whether his standing is authoritative.

In the Russian case studies, say, Birulovo, in the centre were the witnesses, those who posted the messages: “OMON is closing off the street”. The state, as Svetlana Bodrunova says, didn’t tent to be actively engaged in the discussion. However, in 2016 the case study of Gulchekhra Bobokulova incorporated some tweets from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The German case studies that focus on migrants show an interesting detail: after New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, the German mass media, in their tweeter-accounts, made no comments for several days.  

In Germany, it is prohibited to mention the nationality of the criminal when discussing a criminal case.

SPbU’s Professor Svetlana Bodrunova

“They were at a loss how to write about such case where the criminals were people from those countries where there were military operations. Even the big corporations contemplated how to cover the event in the mass media before it was widely known. It definitely influenced how the tweeter-discussion was unfolding. In Germany, both mass media and non-profit organizations support immigrants. Although they do have some disputes on a number of issues, they nevertheless share a discourse of acceptance. Still, most bloggers are split in two groups: there are people who want to burn houses build for the refugees and there are people who help them by collecting money, clothes, and food. Twitter reveals this split, that can be called as “liberal mass media and third sector against pro-nationally oriented group of people”. This is how the discussion is developed, without political moderators”, — said Professor Bodrunova.

The French case studies also reveal the tendency towards the split, in particular the Charlie Hebdo case.  French-speaking Muslims told that “Islam is neither about terrorism, nor war, nor jihad”. By doing so, they reminded us that Islam is peaceful religion. So did most French people who didn’t plead guilty all the confession rather only a group of fanatics. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) was as popular as #JeNeSuisPasCharlie (I am not Charlie): society was split into those who defended the freedom of speech and those who respected the other’s culture and told about ethics violations.

No less interesting case was the Ferguson unrest. The American Twitter, with Afro-Americans as its active users, literally burst out.  The leaders were rappers, priests, civic activist and locals, so were local mass media.

The rise of ethnic conflicts brought dramatic changes in Tweeter.

“People are learning how to live in real life, with its terrorism acts, they are learning how to response to them, — said Svetlana Bodrunova. — For example, the very first terrorism acts brought deep shock and complete disorientation. During the terrorism acts in France, the most popular hashtags were #DonDuSang (Blood donation) and #PorteOuverte (Open door). People posted their addresses where you could go to be safe. So was in St Petersburg: when the terrorism act occurred in the metro, the taxi drivers, café owners, and donors seemed to have been already mobilized. In Barcelona, the tragedy was also followed by the consensus. The locals wrote: "We are not afraid, we are not going to surrender, we will live. We will give more personal information to the police, but we won’t be afraid”. Obviously, there are some changes in our attitude to safety issues, and it can be clear from the posts”.

At the same time, we could find some traces of the compassion fatigue, a situation when new about terrorism acts and catastrophes become “dead” reality, with no emotional response. “Presumably, the first terrorism acts in France were the most emotionally strong event in the blog-sphere. Later, our response was less”, — said the expert.

The main conclusion to be drawn is to recommend the politicians and mass media to develop anti-crisis strategies of how to behave in the Internet when catastrophes. “In some countries, the users are well aware what account you should refer to when something has happened. We don’t have such practices, unfortunately”, — said Svetlana Bodrunova. Mass media should also be more effective: “Mass media make information posts, but they also should work with the leaders of opinions and get then engaged into the discussion or initiate an interactive discussion if they only work with the reading audience”. Facebook is the next to be analyzed.