In the last ten years, the world has experienced the dramatic rise of mobile broadband internet brought by third-generation (3G) and fourth-generation (4G) mobile networks. This has resulted in major political changes – reduced confidence in governments around the world, lower voting shares of incumbent political parties, and the rise of populists. The empirical evidence is consistent with both the optimistic view of 3G internet (the “Liberation Technology”) and the pessimistic one (the “Disinformation Technology”). 3G internet helps to expose actual corruption; however, it also contributes to electoral successes of populist opposition.
The Spectacular Rise of 3G
Communication technologies have undergone a dramatic change in the last 10-15 years. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), there were only 4 active mobile broadband subscriptions per hundred people in the world in 2007, while this number reached 75 per hundred in 2020. The growth of mobile broadband internet – provided by the third and fourth generation of mobile networks (3G and 4G, respectively) – was the main driver of growth in broadband access. The number of fixed broadband subscriptions per hundred people has only increased from 5 to 15 percent in the same period of time.
Relative to the previous generations of mobile technology, 3G provides a qualitatively different way of using the internet. First, it is broadband access on the go, available wherever the user is rather than at a fixed point at home or in the office. Second, it allows for downloading and uploading photos and videos. Before 3G, mobile technology only allowed exchanging text messages along with limited and slow access to the web. Third, it is the technology that is best suited for social media. While social networks started before 3G and were initially accessed on fixed broadband, today most Facebook, Twitter and YouTube users are mobile.
Liberation Technology or Disinformation Technology?
What are the political implications of the spread of this new technology around the world? Initially, political scientists were excited about the internet as a “Liberation Technology”, especially after it played an important role in the Arab Spring. Internet – and in particular mobile internet –helped pro-democracy activists in autocratic states to disseminate critical information about the government, expose corruption, and coordinate protests.
Later on, however, it became clear that social media also provided a platform for the dissemination of false news and hate speech – thus supporting the rise of populists. This led to a rethinking of the role of mobile internet – and rechristening it into a “Disinformation Technology.”
Which view, the optimistic or the pessimistic one, is correct? In Guriev et al. (2021), we study the impact of the expansion of 3G around the world on attitudes to government and electoral outcomes.
Exposing Actual Corruption
In order to explore the effects on confidence in government, we use data from Gallup World Poll surveys of 840,537 individuals from 2,232 subnational regions in 116 countries from 2008 to 2017. In each region and year we calculate the population-weighted average access to mobile broadband relying on the network coverage data from Collins Bartholomew’s Mobile Coverage Explorer.
First, we find that increased access to 3G internet causes lower confidence in government, judiciary, honesty of elections, and a lower belief that the government is not corrupt. As shown in Figure 1, the magnitudes are substantial. In our paper, we show that a decade-long 3G expansion has the same effect on government approval as a 2.2 percentage-point rise in the national unemployment rate.
Figure 1. Mobile Broadband Access and Government Approval.
This effect is only present when there is no online censorship and stronger when traditional media are not free. Furthermore, the spread of 3G makes people think that the government is corrupt when the actual corruption is high. In the cleanest countries of the world, the effect is actually positive – better access to information may help citizens to understand that other countries are much more corrupt relative to their own.
This positive impact is, however, limited to about 10% of the world’s countries. On average, the effect of 3G on the perception that government is clean is negative (see Figure 1). There are two potential explanations. First, as suggested by Gurriv (2018), before the arrival of the fast internet, the elites controlled the media and, as a result, the public was not fully aware of the elites’ corruption. 3G helped to expose this corruption and corrected the pre-3G positive bias. The second explanation is related to the negative bias of social media where critical messages spread faster and deeper (see the references in Guriev et al. 2021).
Another potential explanation is that social media promote overall negative and pessimistic attitudes. We show that this conjecture is not consistent with the evidence: the spread of 3G does not reduce life satisfaction or expected future life satisfaction.
Helping European Populists
The evidence above is consistent with the view that mobile broadband internet and social media help to expose misgovernance and corruption. These findings are in line with the optimistic view of mobile broadband internet as a “Liberation Technology.” However, it turns out that the pessimistic view of “Disinformation Technology” may also be correct.
We examine the impact of 3G expansion on the outcomes of 102 parliamentary elections in 33 European democracies between 2007 and 2018. Using subnational data, we show that the spread of 3G, not surprisingly, decreases the vote share of incumbents substantially (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. The impact of 3G expansion on incumbent vote share in Europe.
Figure 3. The impact of 3G expansion on opposition vote share in Europe.
If incumbents lose votes, who picks them up? We show that the main beneficiaries of 3G expansion are the populist opposition parties, both on the left and right (Figure 3). The non-populist opposition does not gain.
Why do populists benefit from the spread of mobile broadband and social media? One explanation is that social media is decentralized and has no entry barriers. It is not the first time in history that populist politicians have relied on new communication technology to circumvent mainstream media controlled by the elites (e.g. the US late 19thcentury populists used telegraph and railroads, the Nazis in Germany used radio). It may also be the case that populist messages may be simpler, and thus, better suited for a short and catchy communication on social media. For example, another pan-European family of anti-system parties, the Greens, do not benefit from the spread of the 3G internet at all (see Figure 3): their narrative is more complex, asking voters to take responsibility for the planet.
Fact-Checking Alternative Facts
Many populist politicians point to actual corruption of the incumbent elites, but some also spread false narratives or “alternative facts.” (It was Donald Trump’s Counselor Kellyanne who, in January 2017, when asked to comment on false statements by Trump’s Press-Secretary about his inauguration, famously said that these were not falsehoods but “alternative facts.”) What can be done to stop the dissemination of these falsehoods on social media? Can fact-checking by mainstream media and independent organizations help?
In two studies, Barrera et al. (2020) and Henry et al. (2021), we carry out two randomized online experiments to identify the causal effects of alternative facts spread by populist politicians and their fact-checking. The findings are as follows: (i) alternative facts are highly persuasive; (ii) fact-checking helps to correct factual beliefs – but do not change voting intentions; even though the voters understand that the populists misrepresent the facts, they still support their agenda; (iii) fact-checking, however, substantially reduces sharing of alternative facts on social media; (iv) the impact of fact-checking on sharing is equally strong regardless of whether the users are forced to view the fact-checking information or are simply given an option to click on a fact-checking link; (v) asking users to re-confirm their intention to share alternative facts with an additional click greatly reduces sharing.
Our results suggest that fact-checking may not be as effective as fact-checkers themselves hope, but can help slow down the dissemination of falsehoods on social media. Furthermore, our analysis delivers clear policy implications – both providing fact-checking (even in the form of accompanying alternative facts with fact-checking links) and requiring additional clicks before sharing can be very effective.
The findings from our analysis of the worldwide spread of mobile broadband internet in the last decade are consistent with both optimistic and pessimistic views. On the one hand, 3G internet does help expose actual corruption. On the other hand, it helps populist opposition to gain votes. Likely, the latter result is eventually due to the populists’ abuse of online platforms for spreading disinformation. We show that the propagation of falsehoods on social media can be at least partially slowed down by fact-checking.
- Guriev, Sergei & Nikita, Melnikov & Ekaterina, Zhuravskaya, 2021 “3G Internet and Confidence in Government.” Forthcoming, Quarterly Journal of Economics.
- Barrera, Oscar, Sergei Guriev, Emeric Henry & Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, 2020. “Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics.” Journal of Public Economics, 182: 104123.
- Gurri, Martin, 2018. The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Stripe Press.
- Henry, Emeric & Ekaterina Zhuravskaya & Sergei Guriev, 2021. “Checking and Sharing Alt-Facts.”
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
In many parts of Eastern Europe, the transition towards stronger political institutions and democratic deepening has been slow and uneven. Weak political checks and balances, corruption and authoritarianism have threatened democracy, economic and social development and adversely impacted peace and stability in Europe at large. This policy brief summarizes the insights from Development Day 2019, a full-day conference organized by SITE at the Stockholm School of Economics on November 12th. The presentations were centred around the current political and business climate in the Eastern European region, throwing light on new developments in the past few years, strides towards and away from democracy, and the challenges as well as possible policy solutions emanating from those.
The State of Democracy in the Region
From a regional perspective, Eastern Europe has seen mixed democratic success over the years with hybrid systems that combine some elements of democracy and autocracy. Based on the V-Dem liberal democracy index, ten transition countries that have joined the EU saw rapid early progress after transition. In comparison, the democratic development in twelve nations of the FSU still outside of the EU has been largely stagnant.
In recent years, however, democracy in some of those EU countries, such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania have been in decline. Poland, one of the region’s top performers in terms of GDP growth and life expectancy, has experienced a sharp decline in democracy since 2015. Backlashes have often occurred after elections in which corruption and economic mismanagement have led to the downfall of incumbent governments and a general distrust of the political system. Together with low voter turnout, this created fertile ground for more autocratic forces to gain power helped by demand for strong leadership.
An example from Ukraine illustrated the role of media, both traditional and social, for policy-making. In some countries of the region, traditional media is strictly state-controlled with obvious concerns for democracy. This is less the case in Ukraine, where also social media plays an important role in forming political opinions. The concern is that, as elsewhere, opinions that gain traction on social media may not be impartial or well informed, affecting public perception about policy-making. A recent case showing the popular reaction to an attack on the former governor of the Central Bank suggests that those implementing important reforms may not get due credit when biased and partial information dominates the political discourse on social media.
Another case is the South Caucasian region: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The political situation there has been characterized as a “government by day, government by night” dichotomy, implying that the real political power largely lies outside the official political institutions. In Georgia, the situation can be described as a competition between autocracy and democracy, with a feudalistic system in which powerful groups replace one another across time. As a result, trust in political institutions is low, as well as citizens’ political participation.
In the case of Azerbaijan, there is an elected presidency, but in reality, power has been passed on hereditarily, becoming a de facto patrimonial system. Lastly, in Armenia, the new government possesses democratic credentials, but the tensions with neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey have given increasing power to the military and important economic powers. Overall, democratisation in these countries has been hindered by a trend for powerful politicians to form parties around themselves and to retain power after the end of their mandates. Also, the historical focus on nation-building in these countries has led to a marked exclusion of minorities and a conflict of national identities.
The last country case in this part of the conference focused on the current political situation in Russia and on the likely outcomes after 2024. The social framework in Russia appears constellated by fears – a fear of a world war, of regime tightening and mass repressions, and of lawlessness – all of them on the rise. Similarly, the economy is suffering, in particular from low business activity, somewhat offset by a boost in social payments. Nonetheless, it was argued that it is not economic concerns, but rather political frustration, that has recently led citizens to take to the street. Despite this, survey data shows that trust in Putin is still over 60%, and that most people would vote for him again. However, survey data also points out that the most likely determinant of this trust is the lack of another reference figure, and that citizens are not averse to the idea of political change in itself. Lastly, Putin will most likely retain some political power after 2024, transiting “from father to grandfather of the nation”.
Voices from the civil society in the region also emphasized the importance of a free media and an active civil society to prevent the backsliding of democracy. With examples from Georgia and Ukraine, it was argued that maintaining the independence of the judiciary, as well as the public prosecutor’s office, can go a long way in building credibility both among citizens and the international community. The European Union can leverage the high trust and hopeful attitudes it benefits from in the region to push crucial reforms more strongly. For example, more than 70% of Georgians would vote for joining the EU if a referendum was held on the topic and the European Union is widely regarded as Georgia’s most important foreign supporter.
Weak Institutions and Business Development
The quality of political and legal institutions strongly affects the business environment, in particular with regards to the protection of property rights, rule of law, regulation and corruption. Research from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) highlights that the governance gap between Eastern Europe and Central Asia and most advanced economies is still large, even though progress in this area has actually been faster than for other emerging economies since the mid-‘90s. This is measured through enterprise surveys as well as individual surveys. In Albania, for instance, a perception of lower corruption was linked to a decrease in the intention to emigrate equivalent to earning 400$ more per month. Another point concerned the complexity of measuring the business environment and the benefits of firm-level surveys asking firms directly about their own actual experience of regular enforcement. For example, in countries such as Poland, Latvia and Romania the actual experience of business regulation measured via the EBRD’s Business Environment Enterprise Performance Survey, is far worse than one would expect from the World Bank’s well known Doing Business rating.
From the perspective of Swedish firms, trade between Sweden and the region has remained rather flat in the past years, as the complexity and risks of these markets especially discourage SMEs. Business Sweden explained that Swedish firms considering an expansion in these markets are concerned with issues of exchange rate stability, and the institutional-driven presence of unfair competition and of excessive bureaucracy. Moreover, inadequate infrastructure and the presence of bribery and corruption make everyday business operations risky and costly. It was generally emphasized that countries have to create a safe investment environment by reducing corruption, establishing a clear and well enacted regulatory environment, having dependable courts and strengthening domestic resource mobilization. Swedish aid can play a part, but there is a need to develop new ways of delivering aid to make it more effective.
An interesting example is Belarus, that has seen more economic and political stability than most neighbours, but at the same time a lack of both economic and political reforms towards market economy and democracy. Gradually the preference towards private ownership, as opposed to public, has increased in recent years and the country has seen a rising share of the private sector, even without specific privatization reforms. Nonetheless, international businesses are still reluctant to invest due to high taxes, a lack of access to finance as well as to a qualified workforce, but most importantly due to the weak legal system. An exception has been China, and Belarus has looked at the One Belt One Road Initiative as a promising bridge to the EU. Scandals connected with the two main Chinese-invested projects have damped the enthusiasm recently, though.
The economic and political risks of extensively relying on badly diversified energy sources, as is the case with natural gas imports from Russia in many transition states were also discussed. It was shown how some countries such as Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania have improved their energy security by either benefitting from reverse-flow technology and the EU’s bargaining power or building their own LNG terminals to diversify supply sources. However, either of these, as well as other energy security improving solutions are likely to come with an economic cost, though, that not all countries in the region can afford.
A Government Perspective
The main focus of this section was the Swedish government’s new inspiring foreign policy initiative, “Drive for Democracy”. Drawing from a definition of democracy by Kerstin Hesselgren, an early Swedish female parliamentarian, democracy enables countries to realize and utilize the forces of the individual and draw them into a life-giving, value-creating society. It was emphasized that the values of democracy are objectives by themselves (e.g. freedom of expression, respect for human rights) but also that democracy has important positive effects in other areas of human welfare. The Swedish government views democracy as the best foundation for a sustainable society, equality of opportunity and absence of gender or racial bias.
The “Drive for Democracy” specifically identifies Eastern Europe as one of the main frontiers between democracy and autocracy, and the Swedish government promotes human rights and stability through various bilateral programmes through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, and multilateral initiatives within the EU, such as the Eastern Partnership. It was also emphasized that democracy is a continuous process that can always be improved, as indeed experienced by Sweden. Political rights were granted to women only in 1919 followed by convicts and prisoners in 1933 and to the Roma people only in 1950. Political and democratic rights are thus never once and for all given, and it is crucial that the dividends from democracy are carried forward to the younger generation.
In sum, the day illustrated clearly how democracy engages all segments of society, from the business sector to civil society, and the potential for but also challenges involved for democratic deepening in Eastern Europe. To get more information about the presentations during the day, please visit our website.
Participants at the Conference
- PER OLSSON FRIDH, State Secretary, Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
- ALEXANDER PLEKHANOV, Director for Transition Impact and Global Economics at EBRD.
- TORBJÖRN BECKER, Director, SITE.
- CHLOÉ LE COQ, Associate Professor, SITE and Professor of Economics, University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas.
- THOMAS DE WAAL, Senior Fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
- NATALIIA SHAPOVAL, Vice President for Policy Research at Kyiv School of Economics.
- ILONA SOLOGUB, Scientific Editor at VoxUkraine and Director for Policy Research at Kyiv School of Economics.
- KETEVAN VASHAKIDZE, President at Europe Foundation, Georgia.
- MARIA BISTER, Senior Policy Specialist, Sida.
- HENRIK NORBERG, Deputy Director, Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
- YLVA BERG, CEO and President, Business Sweden.
- LARS ANELL, Ambassador and formerly Volvo’s Senior Vice President.
- ERIK BERGLÖF, Professor in Practice and Director of the Institute of Global Affairs, London School of Economics and Political Science.
- KATERYNA BORNUKOVA, Academic Director, BEROC, Minsk.
- ANDREI KOLESNIKOV, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Moscow Center.
We study the causal effect of social media on hate crimes and xenophobic attitudes in Russia, using variation in social media penetration across cities. We find that higher penetration of social media leads to more ethnic hate crimes, but only in cities with a high baseline level of nationalist sentiment prior to the introduction of social media. Consistent with a mechanism for the coordination of crimes, the effects are stronger for crimes with multiple perpetrators. We show that social media penetration also had a persuasive effect on young and uneducated individuals, who became more likely to have xenophobic attitudes.
In recent years, the world has witnessed a large increase in expressions of hate, particularly of xenophobia. Candidates and platforms endorsing nationalism and views associated with intolerance toward specific groups have also gathered increased popular support both in the U.S. and across Europe. There is a lot of speculation about the potential drivers of this increase in the expression of hate. In our recent paper (Enikolopov et al, 2019) we study the role of social media in this process. This brief introduces the topic and offers a short outline of our findings.
Conceptually, social media could foster hate being expressed through different channels. First, social media reduces the cost of coordination. For example, there is evidence that it facilitates political protest (Enikolopov, Makarin, Petrova, 2018). Coordination facilitated through social media might be particularly relevant for illegal and stigmatized activities, such as hate crime: social media might make it easier to find like-minded people (through targeted communities and groups); it might also reduce the cost of asking or exposing oneself by providing a more anonymous forum for social interactions. Social media might also influence people’s opinions: tolerant individuals might be more exposed to intolerant views, while intolerant individuals might end up in an “echo chamber” (Sunstein 2001, 2017, Settle 2018) that make their views even more extreme. In our paper, we study the causal effect of social media exposure on xenophobic crimes and xenophobic attitudes in Russia and provide evidence on the particular mechanisms behind these effects.
The challenge in identifying a causal effect of social media is that access and consumption of social media are not randomly assigned. To surmount this challenge, we follow the approach of Enikolopov et al. (2018) and exploit a feature of the introduction of the main Russian social media platform – VKontakte (VK). This social media, which is analogous to Facebook in functionality, was the first mover on the Russian market and secured its dominant position with a user share of over 90% by 2011. VK was launched in October 2006 by Pavel Durov, its founder, who at that time was an undergraduate student at St Petersburg State University (SPbSU). Initially, users could only join the platform by invitation, through a student forum of the University, which was also created by Durov.
As a result, the vast majority of the early users of VK were students of SPbSU. This, in turn, made their friends and relatives more likely to open an account. And since SPbSU attracted students from around the country, this sped up the development of VK in the cities, from which these students were coming from. Network externalities magnified these effects and, as a result, the idiosyncratic variation in the distribution of the home cities of Durov’s classmates had a long-lasting effect on VK penetration. Following this logic, we use fluctuations in the distribution of student of SPbSU across cities as an instrument for the city-level penetration of VK. We then evaluate the effect of higher VK penetration on hate crimes and hate attitudes, combining data on hate crimes for the period between 2007 and 2015 collected by a reputable Russian NGO SOVA with survey data on hate attitudes.
Previous findings indicate that whether information from media induces people to be involved in the active manifestation of xenophobic attitudes or not depends on predispositions of the population. For example, Adena et al (2015) demonstrate that radio propaganda by the Nazis in the 1930’s was effective only in areas with a historically high levels of anti-Semitism. The role of the underlying level of nationalism is likely to be even stronger for social media, in which the content of the media itself directly reflects the attitudes of the population. This is particularly relevant for hate crimes committed by multiple perpetrators, in which social media can facilitate the coordination of such crimes.
Thus, we test whether the effect of social media depends on the pre-existing level of nationalism. To get at this underlying sentiment, we break cities by their level of support for the Rodina (“Motherland”) party, which ran in the national 2003 elections (the last parliamentary elections before the creation of VK) on an explicit nationalistic, xenophobic platform.
We find that penetration of social media leads to more ethnic hate crimes, but only in cities with a high baseline level of nationalist sentiment prior to the introduction of social media. For example, in cities with a maximum level of support of Rodina an increase in the number of VK users by 10% lead to an increase in ethnic hate crimes by 20%, while it had no significant effect on hater crime in cities with minimal support of Rodina. There is also no evidence that future social media penetration is related to ethnic hate crimes before the creation of social media, regardless of the level of pre-existing nationalistic attitudes.
Further evidence is consistent with social media playing a coordination role in hate crimes. The effect of social media is stronger for crimes perpetrated by multiple individuals (as opposed to crimes committed by a single person), where coordination is more important. These heterogeneous effects are also not consistent with results being simply driven by a higher likelihood of hate crime in places with higher social media penetration, unless this effect were present precisely in cities with higher support for Rodina and for crimes with multiple perpetrators, for example – which we find unlikely.
Having found evidence of a causal effect of social media on ethnic hate crimes, consistent with a mechanism of coordination, we turn next to the impact of social media on xenophobic attitudes. We designed and organized an online survey, and launched it in the summer of 2018, reaching 4,327 respondents from 64 cities. To measure xenophobic attitudes, we examined answers to the question “Do you feel irritation of dislike for individuals from some other ethnicities?” Note that, unlike the coordination of hate crimes, the persuasive effects of social media are not necessarily expected to be strongest in cities with higher baseline nationalistic sentiment since individuals on social media can get as easily connected to people outside their city. In fact, it is conceptually possible that the persuasion would be stronger in cities with lower baseline nationalistic sentiment: individuals might have previously been less aware of and less exposed to these types of views before the introduction of social media.
Since there might be a stigma in reporting xenophobic attitudes even in anonymous surveys, we use a “list experiment” to approximate “truly-held” xenophobic attitudes. In particular, the list experiment works as follows: first, respondents are randomly assigned either into a control group or a treatment group. Respondents in all groups are asked to indicate the number of policy positions they support from a list of positions on several issues. Support for any particular policy position is never indicated, only the total number of positions articulated on the list that a respondent supports. In the control group, the list includes a set of contentious, but not stigmatized, opinions. In the treatment group, the list includes all the contentious opinions from the control list, but also adds the opinion of interest, which is potentially stigmatized. The degree of support for the stigmatized opinion can be assessed by comparing the average number of issues supported in the treatment and control groups. The question of interest, randomly added to half of the questionnaires, was “Do you feel irritation of dislike for individuals from some other ethnicities?”.
The results indicate that the average share of people who agree with the statement is 37%. While there is no significant effect of social media penetration on xenophobic attitudes for the whole sample, there is a significant effect for important subsamples, which are at a higher risk of being involved in hate crime, such as respondents with lower levels of education or young respondents. Of course, the individuals that became more likely to engage in hate crime are not necessarily the same that have been persuaded to have more xenophobic attitudes (especially given the question used to assess attitudes) – though it is possible that some individuals who would have been close to committing crimes in the absence of social media might have been persuaded enough to switch their behavior in the presence of social media.
At the same time, we do not find that social media leads to an increase in xenophobic attitudes when measured with a direct question. The results are confirmed if we use a much larger, nationally representative survey of more than 30,000 respondents conducted by one of the biggest Russian survey companies FOM in 2011. In principle, it is possible that social media not only changed real attitudes but also the perception of the social acceptability of expressing these attitudes. However, we do not find any evidence that social media reduces the stigma of admitting xenophobic attitudes. The fact that we find the effect of social media on actual attitudes, but not on the expressed ones suggests, that if anything the stigma increased, at least for the respondents who acquired xenophobic attitudes as a result of social media influence. This highlights the importance of using a survey method that reduces concerns with social acceptability, such as list experiments.
Overall, our results indicate that social media lead to an increase in both ethnic hate crimes and xenophobic attitudes in Russia. However, the effect on hate crime is observed only in cities in which there was already a high level of nationalism. Additional evidence indicates that this effect is driven both by facilitating the coordination of nationalists and by persuading people to become more xenophobic. These findings contribute to a growing body of evidence that social media is a complex phenomenon that has both positive and negative effects on the welfare of people (see also Allcott et al, 2019), which has to be taken into account in discussing policy implications of the recent changes in media technologies.
- Allcott, H., Braghieri, L., Eichmeyer, S., Gentzkow, M. (2019) “The Welfare Effects of Social Media”, Working paper.
- Burzstyn, L., Egorov, G., Enikolopov, R., Makarin, A. (2019) “Social Media and Xenophobia: Evidence from Russia”, Working paper.
- Enikolopov, R., Makarin, A., Petrova, M. (2018) “Social Media and Protest Participation: Evidence from Russia“, Working paper.
- Settle, J. E. (2018) Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America. Cambridge University Press.
- Sunstein, C. (2001) Republic.com. Princeton University Press.
- Sunstein, C. (2017) Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Princeton University Press.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
This paper describes the practices of civil confrontation which can be found in social media (analyzing the cases of the Ukrainian segment of Facebook). The research shows that such practices can be used by interest groups to deliberately affect target audiences in certain ways and thus exacerbate civil confrontation or to expand its scope. Psychological effects of such practices for the society include monotony, ambivalence, desensitization and alertness. These effects can be used either to distract the attention from a certain issue or to enhance social mobilization, to reduce protest potential or to push large groups into impulsive actions, to impose contradictory ideas or to stimulate society to rethink values.
Civil Confrontation in Ukraine
Considering the warfare going on in Ukraine and the consequent state of society, it is important to clearly define what is going on between large social groups.
Figure 1. Continuum of Conflicting Sociopolitical Processes
A useful way to structure our thinking about these processes may be to use an approach to sociopolitical conflict presented in Iarovyi (2019), which suggests that the continuum of conflicting sociopolitical processes has 4 stages, as illustrated by Figure 1. In what follows we concentrate on the second stage, which is civil confrontation. Civil confrontation is defined as a form of intra-group confrontation in the society marked by a crystallization of value conflicts between opposing sides. It has the potential to escalate into other forms of conflict interaction as indicated by Figure 1. Unlike social tension, which is the earliest stage, the confrontation has an articulated ‘enemy’ image and identity. However, it is not as deep as a social conflict which has systematic and deep roots and exists in the framework of problems connected with values. It is also far from being a civil war since it does not include a military component and does not assume a dehumanization of the opponent.
Nevertheless, differences between the stages are rather vague. Within Ukraine one can observe social tensions between certain groups (such as civil servants of the “old generation” and new employees), social confrontation (e.g., between supporters of certain presidential nominees) and social conflict (e.g., between the believers of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches). The aggravation within this continuum occurs as a gradual buildup of the counteraction and change of the conflict gradient to a deeper one. For the society it might be beneficial to minimize the aggravation and identify the conflicts in their early stages. A simple way to identify conflicts is by studying communications in social media. In my dissertation, which is the basis for this policy brief, I perform this exercise.
Communication of Civil Confrontation
Sociopolitical conflicts are developing via communication, which is the linguistic representation of a conflict. The latter thrives via group polarization – transforming heterogeneous opinions of people into mutually exclusive opposing positions. To define the conflict of discourses in the Ukrainian segment of social media, it is necessary to consider both features of the modern Ukrainian political discourse in general and specific features of communication in social media.
Markers of Civil Confrontation in Ukraine
The overview of political conflicts in Ukraine allows me to define the general characteristics of Ukrainian political discourse which influence the growth of confrontation. They include (1) the exploitation of ethnic and civic identities; (2) the impact of the external (overseas) interest groups; (3) difficulties with defining the stage and type of the ongoing conflicts and (4) a lack of proactive work of the government on reducing the risks of conflict. These markers were taken into account during the research as the defining framework of the practices of civil confrontation, and they are attributed to a smaller or larger extent to the cases which were studied.
Characteristics of the Discourse in Social Media
In the context of competing discourses, communication in social media needs to be pragmatic and focused on broadcasting the own agenda of writers, otherwise a user who is overwhelmed with information from different sources will be distracted. Moreover, this communication should be interactive and cooperate with the audience in real-time to improve its impact (Westcott, 2008).
Communication in social media is often much more intense than in the real life. While people do not normally enter discussions in social media to “wage wars” (Whiting and Williams, 2013), the environment of the Internet itself is characterized by a weaker level of censorship and self-censorship, the absence of limits that restrict participants, quick responsiveness, scattering attention, a lack of real contact, interruption of public communication of two people by third parties, anonymity etc. Thus, communication in social media is less restricted for negative reactions of participants, less productive and at the same time more aggressive.
Psychological Practices of Civil Confrontation on Facebook
The psychological practices of civil confrontation are defined as a set of established methods and techniques within the community which allow an individual to engage in interactions of social institutions and change one’s own psychological states and processes. In the process of reproducing such practices in communication, the emotions, settings, stereotypes, and value orientations of the communicator are changed.
The research of such practices in Ukrainian social media used the critical discourse analysis (CDA) model by Norman Fairclough (1992), with the selection of 6 cases that differ in the intensity of verbal confrontation, the intensity of the discourses’ struggle in the virtual environment and the spread of discourses outside the virtual environment.
The source of empirical material are Facebook accounts of users who take active role in political life and communication in Ukraine. We select Facebook firstly since this platform in Ukraine is highly politicized and represents various views of political communicators who are often absent on YouTube, Twitter etc., and secondly, it publishes large texts, sometimes with a strong visual component, which allows to utilize the CDA comprehensively.
Effects of the Civil Confrontation
The effect of monotony, or the reduction of motivation to control the activities and participate in social life, is reproduced due to excessive exploitation of some discourses in society.
The first case in which this effect is present is the story of Ukrainian boxer Oleksandr Usik who took part in a fight in Moscow, the capital of the aggressor state according to Ukrainian legislation. Some parts of the Ukrainian community met this event with strong condemnation. Sports and culture are traditionally considered the elements of “soft power”. Thus they are often used (or believed to be used) for political purposes. However, citizens who are less politically motivated often tend to doubt the political ideologies and put their personal sympathies to a certain person in the first place. The social media communication regarding this case was characterized by a segregation of community members depending on their belief in the statement “sport/art is outside of politics”, and caused numerous arguments between communicators. At the time, this very situation made more and more people voice their tiredness of the war (which is subconsciously perceived as the reason for the argument). It leads to the gradual implantation of the idea that “the war is the case of the politicians, and the peoples of Ukraine and Russia are friendly”, and could strengthen the position of pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. The implantation of this idea is beneficial for Russia, as it lowers the loyalty of Ukrainians to their own state and discredits the authorities.
The second case relates to public protests of the Ukrainian opposition in 2017-2018 which never caused a really strong reaction of the ordinary citizens. Discursive instruments used to involve more people into protests (the famous phrase “Kyiv, get up!” which was used during Euromaidan in 2014) did not work since the society was tired of regular protests in 2016-2017 on every slightest occasion, each of them labelled “a Third Maidan” by the organizers. The monotony “filled” the public discourse with unnecessary information, people became tired of protests and manipulations, and the protests became marginalized. Thus, the monotony effect could be used for the diversion of attention, the reduction of the protest potential or the formation of the social “fatigue” (sharp decline of the ability and motivation to perform the social roles and functions or stand for the position). Getting out of this state is possible if the rhythm of the information supply changes and its foci are shifted, which will lead to new reactions and roll the discourse out, making it topical once again.
The ambivalence, or the duality of the attitude of the same person to the same object/phenomenon, instead of monotony, leads to the production of public anxiety and nervousness. It was identified on the case of “derusification”, when one prominent Ukrainian official labelled Soviet and pre-Soviet poets and writers (V. Vysotskiy, V. Tsoi, M. Bulgakov) as the “tentacles of the Russian World” (i.e. Pax Russia).
The discussions over this case not only intensified contradictions among participants, they also led to the expansion of civil confrontation. While in the previous case with the boxer, the incitement of the hostility on the everyday level failed as the issues are rather unimportant, in case of famous poets and singers the incitement affects deeply rooted notions and nostalgia of the communicators and is much more efficient. With the growing hostility between communicators of opposing sides, it leads to disorganization of thoughts of hesitant people (e.g. those who have warm feelings about the Soviet culture and sub-culture despite supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia). As a result, communicators tend to be more nervous when making decisions and taking actions (physical actions or discursive). Thus the ambivalence effect could be used to push people to commit impulsive actions and diminish their rational thinking. Reducing its negative effects is possible via engaging the society into a dialogue, promoting compromise proposals and sticking to the principles of mutual respect in the process of communication.
The effect of desensitization, or diminishing the emotional responsiveness of the society to violent actions, arises from the practices of discourse discreditation and determining the boundaries of what is permitted, and is connected primarily with the loss of sensuality by the communicators. It was identified in the case of attacks on Roma people in Ukraine which were widely criticized on the official level but considered quite normal by a large amount of “ordinary people” in social media. The justification of the violence and lack of mass condemnation of the aggressive actions raise the threshold of sensuality in the society which leads to tolerating violence against certain groups (in this case – ethnic groups).
The toleration of violence could be further extended to other groups (such as political opponents). If this effect is implemented gradually, the negative consequences may not be visible until it is too late. Minimization of the negative impact is possible via disclosure of information about such practices, drawing attention to them and articulating the importance of preserving the universal human values.
The effect of alertness, or the state of being highly aware and ready to face confrontation, arises as a result of communicators’ reaction to actions of their opponents. It was traced in the cases of “Euro-plates” (massive importation into Ukraine of not-cleared cars with European license plates) and “Night on Bankova” [the street where the Presidential Office is located] (demands of civic activists for investigation of the allegedly political murder). The first case demonstrates a self-organized non-political platform of owners of such cars, which without the support of any recognizable politician managed to effectively protect their economic interests through communication of their idea to the masses. The second case suggests that due to the use of moderate and non-violent methods of communication and action by civil activists, as well as the high authority and recognizability of communicators, their ideas are attractive: the public accepts them and the authorities demonstrate readiness for the dialogue. It works much better than pushing people to radical actions, as in the case of monotony of street protests. In both cases described above in the context of alertness, a minority conversion takes place, where the discursive impact of the self-organized group is being spread to a broader public. Due to reassessment of the values this effect can potentially be used by interest groups to achieve their political goals and mobilize groups of supporters.
The above described effects can be used to distract public attention, to change (increase or decrease) the level of protest potential, to push people towards impulsive actions, to impose contradictory ideas or to stimulate the society to rethink values – both in a positive or negative way. These effects can be utilized by interest groups to draft the agenda and establish domination of their own discourse in the public sphere.
Thus, the actions to be taken by governmental decision makers who want to deal with negative consequences of such effects are: (1) engaging in the dialogue with the society, (2) responding to the mobilization of large groups of people with policy actions, (3) drawing attention to the importance of human rights (and actually pursuing this policy on the state level instead of only declaring it). One of the major activities here is monitoring aimed at a timely detection of dangerous trends and handling communication in a proper way.
Further research in this direction could be focused on assessing the impact of psychological effects on various target groups in the society in the short- and long-term perspective.
- Fairclough, Norman, 1992. “Discourse and social change”, Cambridge Polit Press, 272 p.
- Iarovyi Dmytro, 2019. Psychological practices of civil confrontation in social media. Dissertation, Institute for Social and Political Psychology, National Academy of Educational Sciences of Ukraine, Kyiv.
- Westcott, Nicholas, 2008. “Digital diplomacy: The impact of the Internet on International relations”, Research Report of Oxford Internet Institute, 16, 20 pages.
- Whiting, Anita; and David Lindsey Williams, 2013. “Why people use social media: a uses and gratifications approach”, Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 14(4), 362-36
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
Author: Ruben Enikolopov, CEFIR.
Despite a lot of speculations about the role of social media in recent political protests throughout the world, there is still no persuasive empirical evidence to support these claims. We fill this gap by providing evidence that social media indeed played an important role in promoting political protests in Russia in 2011-2012. Using data on the dominant Russian online social network, VKontakte, we show that higher penetration of the social network across cities increased the likelihood of protest occurrence and the number of participants in these protests. Additional evidence suggests that reducing the costs of coordination is a mechanism behind social media influence.