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An Analysis of Social Media’s Power for Social Change

June 21, 2011

There is a lot of discussion around trying to understand the power (or not) of social media to achieve social change.  This article looks to link to tweet density with on-the-ground social protests in Europe. Its an interesting idea, but without the data behind it, it is hard to say if this is a pattern or just confirmation bias.

By contrast, this article is a very good attempt to try and put a data set to this question. What the author has done is to look at the amount of tweets with certain hashtags related to big social protests over time – but then, most interestingly, looking to see if those tweets orginated either in-country, in the region or internationally.  Here’s the results for one such protest movement, #yemen:

So what does this pattern mean? The author suggests:

The evidence from the hashtags analyzed here indicates that, at least in the early days of the Arab Spring, Twitter served primarily as a platform for communication by international observers about the events. There is also limited evidence of a pan-Arabic public conversation within these hashtags, but this is not their primary purpose. Both phenomena are definitely episodic and appear strongly event-driven. As in the Iranian protests of 2009, Twitter seems to fall into Aday et al.’s (2010) “external attention” category of new media roles.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Twitter use is politically inconsequential. Attentive global citizens and diasporic populations could, for example, use it to promote action opportunities to sympathetic followers. They may also retweet content from local users liberally, thus amplifying the latter’s voices beyond what the above charts imply. For that matter, local users themselves may find these hashtags useful for sharing and verifying local news at times when they are not swamped by outsiders. Answering questions like these will require textual analysis, and it is unlikely that automated methods will suffice (except for the RT question). I’m envisioning lots of content analysis, translation from Arabic and French, and input from subject matter experts in my future…

The whole article is worth reading as there is much more about the data presented here, its reliability etc. However is does paint a more complex relationship between social media and social change, which was to be expected…

(Also published on the P2P Foundation blog, Hat-tip to Michel for the links.)

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