When you think of Twitter, you probably don’t think of it in particularly conciliatory terms. It’s a place where arguments flourish, where trolling thrives, and antagonism is rife. It’s an environment that fans the flames rather than dampens them.
At least, that’s the common perception. So you might expect that during periods of potential civic unrest, it’s not a natural ally in your bid to inspire peace and wellbeing.
Alas, a recent study suggests that we may need to rethink this assumption. The researchers explored how social media was used around contentious parades that took place in Northern Ireland, and in particular how Loyalist and Republican communities were using social media in relation to the demonstrations.
The report highlights the ways in which social media can be used to reduce tensions between communities rather than inflame them.
“The findings of this study show how social media sites such as Twitter may be used by citizens to defuse sectarian tensions during the marching season in Northern Ireland. That is not to say that these sites are not being used to reinforce divisions between rival communities during contentious parades. Rather, the tweets analysed as part of this study appeared to be influenced by the calls from political representatives from all sides to keep the parades and related protests peaceful,” the author says.
Defusing sectarian tensions
Northern Ireland has a long history of sectarian clashes, especially during parade season. Recent parades have been much more peaceful affairs however, with Twitter proving especially useful at keeping things calm.
The report reveals that the site was used by both professional and citizen journalists to provide a steady stream of updates on the events as they unfolded.
What’s more, the crowd performed a useful fact checking function to ensure the accuracy of the reporting, with a number of rumors refuted, especially around the photoshopping of images.
This significantly shortened the lifespan of these rumors, and ensured they didn’t receive any media coverage.
Polarization on Twitter
Of course, the study should not be taken as the final word on the matter. Indeed, a second study highlights how political discourse on Twitter can be incredibly polarized.
The research used the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as their petri dish, as opponents felt emboldened to speak out against him, whilst supporters rallied to venerate his regime.
“A politically polarized society implies several risks, such as the appearance of radicalism or civil wars. We were interested to find out how can political polarization be detected, and therefore be fixed,” the authors say.
The authors began by constructing a computational model to understand the impact a minority of influencers may have on the wider public. This model yielded an opinion distribution, which in turn reveals the probability that a random person will have a particular opinion. This was then index to understand the extent of polarization within the community.
“The index is inspired by the electrical dipole moment of a molecule,” the authors said. “We quantify the distance between the two opinions by determining the gravity center of the positive and negative opinions.”
The results revealed that during the days after Chavez’s death and before his funeral, polarization was at its lowest point, with the researchers suggesting this is because of foreign input into the discussion.
When the election campaign for his successor began six days later however, the polarization re-emerged.
Interestingly, their index of polarization was then mapped over voting records in Caracas, with a strong correlation emerging between the two.
Whilst the initial study suggests, therefore, that Twitter can be used to bridge between communities, this analysis of matters in Venezuela suggests that doesn’t appear to occur.
Perhaps the jury is still out.