Beyond left and right: Real-world political polarization in twitter discussions on inter-ethnic conflicts

Bodrunova, Svetlana S.; Blekanov, Ivan; Smoliarova, Anna; Litvinenko, Anna
Media and Communication

Studies of political polarization in social media demonstrate mixed evidence for whether discussions necessarily evolve into left and right ideological echo chambers. Recent research shows that, for political and issue-based discussions, patterns of user clusterization may differ significantly, but that cross-cultural evidence of the polarization of users on certain issues is close to non-existent. Furthermore, most of the studies developed network proxies to detect users’ grouping, rarely taking into account the content of the Tweets themselves. Our contribution to this scholarly discussion is founded upon the detection of polarization based on attitudes towards political actors expressed by users in Germany, the USA and Russia within discussions on inter-ethnic conflicts. For this exploratory study, we develop a mixed-method approach to detecting user grouping that includes: Crawling for data collection; expert coding of Tweets; user clusterization based on user attitudes; construction of word frequency vocabularies; and graph visualization. Our results show that, in all the three cases, the groups detected are far from being conventionally left or right, but rather that their views combine anti-institutionalism, nationalism, and pro- and anti-minority views in varying degrees. In addition to this, more than two threads of political debate may co-exist in the same discussion. Thus, we show that the debate that sees Twitter as either a platform of ‘echo chambering’ or ‘opinion crossroads’ may be misleading. In our opinion, the role of local political context in shaping (and explaining) user clusterization should not be under-estimated.