Research event

Distract and divert: How world leaders use social media during contentious politics

A presentation by Anita Gohdes (Hertie School). This event is part of the Political Economy Lunch Seminar, co-hosted by the International Security Research Colloquium.

How do leaders communicate during domestic crises? We provide a first global analysis of world leader communication on social media during social unrest. We theorise about leaders’ digital communication strategies, building on the diversionary theory of foreign policy, as well as research on the role of democratic institutions in explaining elite responsiveness. We present a new dataset that characterises leader communication through social media posts published by any head of state or government, employing a combination of automated translation and supervised machine learning methods. Our findings show that leaders attempt to divert public attention during social unrest by both increasing their online messaging and by shifting the topic from domestic to foreign policy issues. Democratic institutions create additional incentives for leaders to engage in distraction, in particular in the run-up to elections. Our results demonstrate how social media provide meaningful comparative insight into leaders’ political behaviour in the digital age.