Tag: social media

Trending? Social Media Attention on Russia’s War in Ukraine

20240218 Social Media Attention on Russia Image 01

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the most important geopolitical events of the 21st century. For almost two years, international news outlets have been covering the war, often providing daily or even hourly updates. But what is the level of public interest and public engagement in countries around the world? When does the war capture an international audience’s attention and what are the events that supplant it? This brief uses data on X (formerly Twitter) trends in 62 countries to address these questions.

The competition for attention is a defining feature of our information landscape. From the relentless stream of social media updates to the myriad of news articles vying for our clicks, individuals are constantly bombarded with information, each competing for a slice of their limited attention. Amidst this cacophony of voices, certain topics rise to the forefront, capturing the collective consciousness and dominating public discourse.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has, for obvious reasons, commanded significant media coverage over the past two years. It has been described as a hybrid war, where conventional military tactics are increasingly combined with non-traditional methods. This includes an information war, fought with narratives to manipulate people’s perceptions, spread falsehoods, or enlist support. To a large extent, this information war has taken place on social media. On the one hand, social media platforms have been used to spread disinformation and propaganda. For example, we’ve seen the spread of false narratives about the causes of the war, the actions of the different parties involved, and the suffering of the Ukrainian people. But on the other hand, social media has also been used to counter this disinformation, with fact-checking initiatives and grassroots efforts to promote accurate information.

This policy brief analyses the prominence of the war in social media discourse. While the content on traditional media outlets provides a snapshot of the supply of information, platforms like X/Twitter offer a unique window into the broader population’s demand for that information and how they evolve over time. Whether or not hashtags related to Russia’s war in Ukraine are trending in a given country, depends not just on the public’s interest in the war relative to other events in the news, but also on the level of interest relative to sport, music, television, and cats. By tracking the prevalence of trending hashtags, we can gain insights into the public’s engagement with Russia’s war in Ukraine, going beyond traditional media narratives and high-level governmental discussions to uncover the conversations and sentiments that shape broader public opinion.

The X/Twitter data suggest that in most countries, social media attention in the Russian war on Ukraine has been short-lived and sporadic. On February 24, 2022, Ukraine-related hashtags were trending in 100 percent of the countries in our dataset. Two weeks later, on March 9, 2022, they were trending in only 3 percent of the countries. We find that geographical proximity to the conflict is a strong predictor of social media interest. Related hashtags trend most frequently in Eastern, Central and Northern Europe. We also document spikes in interest around events that link a country to the war in Ukraine: announcements of military assistance or visits by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyj. Finally, we compare the hashtags trending in NATO countries to those trending in countries that either sided with Russia or abstained from voting in a critical UN resolution and show significant differences between the two groups.

Data and Methodology

The source for our dataset is archive.twitter-trending.com – a website that records trending hashtags on X/Twitter across countries and over time. We scrape this website to collect (i) the five highest volume topics in each country on each day and (ii) the five longest-trending topics in each country on each day (these two categories can overlap). Our sample consists of the 62 countries available on the website and covers the timeframe July 2021 to December 2023. From this, we construct a country-by-day panel dataset with 55,862 observations.

We identify 11 topic categories that collectively account for the overwhelming majority of trending topics related to Russia’s war in Ukraine. These topics and their relative frequency are shown in Figure 1. The three dominant categories are “Ukraine”, “Russia” and ”Putin”. We use Google’s translation software to translate non-English tweets which account for a significant fraction of the dataset.

Figure 1. Frequency of hashtags in 11 category topics.

Note: This chart shows the number of times topics assigned to our 11 war-related categories were among the top five longest trending topics (in orange) or the top five highest volume topics (in blue) in any country on any day in our dataset. The source are data scraped from archive.twitter-trending.com

Figure 1 shows that it is more common for war-related topics to be among the highest volume topics on a given day than among the longest trending topics. This suggests that these topics attract a lot of interest in a narrow timeframe (e.g. when news breaks) but are relatively less likely to remain prominent over a whole day. Despite this difference, we find that the distinction between highest-volume and longest-trending does not affect any of the patterns we observe when comparing across countries or time. For simplicity, the results shown below all use the highest-volume measure.

It is important to acknowledge the limitations of the X/Twitter data. Firstly, the population actively using X/Twitter is not representative of the overall population. Secondly, the composition of users may differ across countries which complicates cross-country comparisons. Trending hashtags provide an indicator of public interest that is informative only because we do not have high frequency, nationally representative surveys that are comparable across countries. Finally, we are only able to observe the top-five hashtags in a country on any given day. In principle, a war-related topic could increase in absolute volume from one day to the next, while still being crowded out of the top five.

Geographic Variation in Attention

Social media attention to the war in Ukraine varies greatly across countries. The map in Figure 2 shows the proportion of days when any hashtag from the considered categories was among the top-five most tweeted, for each country in the database since the start of the war. Interest has, on average, been higher in Europe as well as in Anglo-Saxon countries. In contrast, other regions of the world exhibited less sustained interest, as indicated by the lower frequency of related hashtags among the top-five most tweeted topics.

Figure 2. Prevalence of war-related hashtags.

Note: The map shows the share of days on which war-related hashtags (in our 11 categories) were among the top five highest volume topics on X/Twitter between 24/02/2022 and 18/12/2023. Countries in white are not among the 62 countries in the dataset. The source are data scraped from archive.twitter-trending.com

To some extent, this heterogeneity is explained by distance. Figure 3 plots the frequency of war-related trends against geographical proximity to the conflict zone (represented by the distance from each country’s capital to the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, a major point of focus during the ongoing war). The relationship is clearly negative, suggesting that physical distance from the crisis reduces the intensity of online discourse and public interest. Unsurprisingly, the number of related trends is highest in countries directly or indirectly involved in the conflict – Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus – as well as in Latvia which borders both Russia and Belarus.

Figure 3. Frequency of war-related hashtags and distance from Kharkiv.

Note: The chart shows the log of the distance from each country’s capital city to the city of Kharkiv in km on the x-axis and the logged frequency of war-related topics among the top five highest volume topics in that country between 24/02/2022 and 18/12/2023 on the y-axis. The source are data scraped from archive.twitter-trending.com

Variation in Attention Over Time

Over the past two years, the war has sustained a relatively high intensity. By contrast, global attention on X/Twitter has been more sporadic, spiking around specific events. This is shown in Figure 4, which plots the day-to-day variation in the number of battle events as recorded by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) (in blue) as well as the share of countries where war-related tweets are trending (in orange). Attention was highest at the time of the invasion in February 2022 and the days of the Wagner Group rebellion in June 2023. Overall, the correlation between twitter trends and conflict intensity is positive but relatively weak.

Figure 4. Frequency of war-related hashtags and intensity of conflict.

Note: The chart shows the number of daily battle events in Ukraine as classified by ACLED on the left axis (in blue) and the share of countries where war-related topics were trending on the respective day on the right axis (in orange). The sources are ACLED’s Ukraine conflict monitor and data scraped from archive.twitter-trending.com

Attention also reacts to other major global events. Figure 5 compares the number of top-five trending hashtags related to the categories of interest in each country on two specific dates: February 24, 2022, the day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and October 7, 2023, the day of a Hamas terror attack on Israel. On the day of the Russian invasion, the majority of countries in our sample exhibited the highest value. In contrast, on the day of the Hamas attack, related hashtags were trending almost nowhere outside Ukraine and Russia, indicating that global attention and engagement with this new ongoing crisis significantly overshadowed the focus on the situation in Ukraine. This shift in attention demonstrates how breaking news can capture the public’s interest and divert focus from ongoing crises, affecting the level of engagement on social media and potentially influencing the global response and discourse surrounding these events.

Figure 5. Map of prevalence of war-related hashtags on two different dates.

Note: The maps show the share of the top five highest volume topics on twitter related to Russia’s war on Ukraine. The map on the left shows 24/02/2022 – the day of Russia’s invasion. The map on the right shows 07/10/2023 – the day of a Hamas terror attack on Israel. Countries in white are not among the 62 countries in the dataset. The source are data scraped from archive.twitter-trending.com

While some events impact attention globally, others affect the salience of the conflict for a specific country. Figure 6 shows that people pay more attention to the war when there is a tangible connection to their own country. The panel on the left shows that war-related topics were more likely to trend in a country around the days where the country announced an aid package for Ukraine (military, financial or humanitarian). It shows an increasing trend in the preceding days and a peak on the day of the announcement. The panel on the right shows that war-related topics were more likely to trend in a country around the days of a visit from President Zelenskyj. This effect is large in magnitude but only lasts for around three days.

Figure 6. Likelihood of hashtags trending in relation to country-specific event.

Note: The charts show variation in the share of countries where at least one war-related topic was among the top five highest volume topics on days relative to a specific event. In the left chart, day 0 represents the day on which a country’s government announces an aid package for Ukraine. In the right chart, day 0 represents the day on which President Zelenskyj arrived in a country for an official visit. The source for these charts are: (i) the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine Support Tracker (Trebesch et al., 2023), (ii) Wikipedia’s list of official visits by President Zelenskyj and (iii) data scraped from archive.twitter-trending.com

While the events above act as drivers of attention, it is also interesting to consider what causes war-related topics to drop out of the top five trending topics. We distinguish between two reasons why war-related hashtags could stop trending: (i) a loss of interest that results in a reduction in the absolute number of related tweets (ii) the rise of other topics that displace war-related tweets from the top five. Figure 7 focuses on days where war-related topics dropped out and compares the volume of tweets on the last day where they were in the top five, to the threshold they would have had to surpass in order to make the top five on the subsequent day. In cases where the threshold is lower than the previously observed volume of tweets (a ratio of less than 1), the topic would have kept trending had it sustained its volumes, and one can conclude there was an absolute loss of interest. In cases where the ratio is greater than one, it is possible that the topic sustained its previous volume of tweets but was crowded-out by the rise of a new trending topic. Figure 7plots the histogram of this ratio. 73 percent of the cases are in the first category (loss of attention) and 27 percent are in the possible crowding out category. This provides further evidence to suggest that attention to the war on social media is typically fleeting.

Figure 7. Loss of attention vs crowding out.

Note: The sample are country-days where war-related topics were among the top five highest-volume topics but then dropped out of the top five the next day. The chart provides a histogram of the ratio of the threshold for making the top five on the subsequent day to the highest volume of tweets of a war-related topic. Values below 1 (in blue) indicate that the volume was above the next day’s threshold and the topic declined in absolute terms. Values above 1 (in orange) indicate that the volume was below the next day’s threshold. The source are data scraped from archive.twitter-trending.com

We also examine the content of discussions on the first day after war-related hashtags drop out of the top five. The word cloud in Figure 8 suggests that on such days, people primarily discuss entertainment topics like music and football.

Figure 8. Word cloud of hashtags trending on days war-related categories drop out.

Note: The figure provides a word cloud of trending topics on country-days where no war-related topic was among the top five highest volume topics, but at least one war-related topic had been in the top five on the previous day. The source are data scraped from archive.twitter-trending.com

Content and Context of War-Related Discourse

In addition to providing insight into the level of engagement, hashtag analysis can also reveal the content and context of popular discourse surrounding the war. By examining words trending on the same days as those from our 11 categories, we can gain a better understanding of the topics people are discussing and how the conversation varies across different regions. Figure 9 illustrates this through word clouds, showing the language used in NATO countries on the left and in countries that abstained or voted against the United Nations General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1 on the right. This resolution, dated March 2, 2022, condemned the brutal invasion of Ukraine and demanded that Russia immediately withdraw its forces and comply with international law.

This exercise allows us to compare the dominant themes and narratives in these two groups of countries and observe any differences in public perception and discourse regarding the conflict. The prevalence of cryptocurrency and NFT (non-fungible tokens) references in the word cloud on the right is suggestive of how economic interests and alternative financial systems could be relevant for the positions of countries that abstained or voted against the resolution, and how this might affect their involvement or response to the conflict. On the left, words like “NATO”, ”Biden”,  and ”Trump” clearly stand out, suggesting that these topics are central to the discourse on the war in NATO countries. This could indicate a focus on geopolitical alliances, international cooperation, and the role of key political figures in shaping the response to the conflict. Interestingly, “Putin” is very prominent in the left word cloud while “Russia” and “Russian” are more prominent on the right. This could indicate that Putin is seen and discussed as the primary antagonist in NATO countries.

Figure 9. Word cloud of hashtags in NATO countries vs Russia-friendly countries.

Note: These word clouds represent topics that trend on days where at least one war-related topic is trending in the respective country. The cloud on the left shows NATO countries. The cloud on the right shows countries that either abstained or voted against United Nations General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1. The source are data scraped from archive.twitter-trending.com


This brief uses X/Twitter trends as a barometer of public interest in Russia’s war in Ukraine. We show how attention fluctuates over time in response to developments in the conflict, to other breaking news, and to local events that make the conflict salient for a domestic audience. We also provide descriptive evidence on the variation across geographical regions and among different groups of countries. Additionally, we analyse the instance where Ukraine-related topics stop trending and find suggestive evidence that this is typically due to a gradual loss of interest rather than crowding out by new distracting trends.

Public attention and engagement drive policy in democratic countries, and the sustained support of its democratic allies is vital for Ukraine during this critical time. Understanding the patterns and influences of public attention is crucial for developing effective strategies to sustain engagement and support. This can be achieved for example by regularly highlighting the ongoing significance and bearing of Russia’s war against Ukraine, even as other events dominate the headlines. Emphasizing the impact of the conflict on individuals and communities, as well as its broader implications for international relations and global security, can help sustain public interest and engagement.


  • ACLED. Ukraine Conflict Monitor. https://acleddata.com/ukraine-conflict-monitor/
  • Trebesch, C., Antezza, A., Bushnell, K., Bomprezzi, P., Dyussimbinov, Y., Frank, A., Frank, P., Franz, L., Kharitonov, I., Kumar, B., Rebinskaya, E., Schade, C., Schramm, S., and Weiser, L. (2023). The Ukraine Support Tracker: Which countries help Ukraine and how? Kiel Working Paper, 2218, 1-75.
  • Twitter Trending Archive. Scraped on ##/12/2023. https://archive.twitter-trending.com/

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.

Political Implications of the Rise of Mobile Broadband Internet

Image of 5g broadband tower representing implications mobile internet

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.

Source: Guriev et al. (2021), Table 1, authors’ calculations.

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.

Source: Guriev et al. (2021), Figure VIII.

Figure 3. The impact of 3G expansion on opposition vote share in Europe.

Source: Guriev et al. (2021), Figure IX.

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.


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.

The Long Shadow of Transition: The State of Democracy in Eastern Europe

Dark hill on the right side of the image with a shadow of a man holding his bicycle on the right side

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.
  • 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.

Social Media and Xenophobia

Man with a cell phone in hands spending time on social media

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.


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.

Effects of Civil Confrontation in Social Media

20190513 Effects of Civil Confrontation Image 02

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.


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.

Does Social Media Promote Protests?

 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.