Social media and social unrest: Anita Gohdes and co-authors examine how world leaders communicate

They analyse volumes of social media posts via machine learning, in research in The International Journal of Press/Politics.

How do world leaders use social media surrounding contentious events and crises? Anita Gohdes, Professor of International and Cyber Security and researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security, tackles this question in the 22 May 2022 issue of The International Journal of Press/Politics, along with co-authors Pablo Barberá and Evgeniia Iakhnis of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and Thomas Zeitzoff of American University in Washington, DC. They offer the first global analysis of how leaders communicate on social media, using machine learning to churn through social media posts shared by heads of state and government on Twitter and Facebook between 2012 and 2016.

The authors wanted to address speculation that world leaders use social media to distract or divert attention when faced with domestic crises. Such speculation arose, for example, from former US President Donald Trump's prolific use of Twitter. But can this apply generally to world leaders? To answer this question, the researchers used machine learning to classify social media posts. 

According to their findings, when domestic unrest like protests, strikes or riots break out, the leaders ­– especially those in democracies – are significantly more likely to post about foreign policy topics. The researchers interpreted this as a strategy of distraction. They also found that domestic unrest is correlated with an increase in online activity. This effect is stronger in democracies, especially in the lead-up to elections.

“Our results demonstrate how social media provide meaningful comparative insight into leaders’ political behavior in the digital age,” the authors write.

Find the full article here.


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  • Anita Gohdes, Professor of International and Cyber Security