Social Media Networks and the Relationships between Citizens and Politics

Research question/goal: 

The project was concerned with how the use of social media affects political participation, communication and mobilisation. Specifically it sought to better understand how social media (re)shape the relationships between citizens and politics by affecting one’s willingness to become politically active, and what the broader consequences of such processes for society are in general.

The project combined new methodologies and techniques for handling and analysing large-scale social media data with survey data on political attitudes and behaviour. We specifically compiled a large dataset of Twitter data from three transnational movements: the US-based Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish Indignados and the Greek Aganaktismenoi. We also distributed surveys online to individuals who participated in those movements. Our analytical techniques included analysis of survey, textual and network data. Our results offer three major insights.

First, although Twitter was used significantly for political discussion and to communicate protest information, calls for engaging in protest action were not predominant. Only a very small minority of tweets referred to protest organization and coordination issues. This puts into doubt recent ideas about the declining importance of the role of organisations. Furthermore, comparing the actual content of the Twitter information exchanges reveals similarities as well as differences among the three movements, which can be explained by the respective national contexts.

Second, by comparing the offline political participation of Twitterers who did and did not tweet about the movements, we obtained unique empirical information about how it can mobilise citizens offline. The main conclusion is that, although in general online and offline participation are not related, posting messages on Twitter has a positive impact on participation in offline protest activities – if only for specific causes or issues.

Finally, by analysing the Greek dataset in conjunction with additional data collected in 2014, we found that even though the offline, formal institutional outcomes of the Greek movement were not significant, social media had important and visible ramifications in the long run. Specifically, they allowed Greek citizens to self-organize and coordinate their opposition to the government’s unpopular measures without the support of traditional political organizations, they helped mobilise a different segment of the population than in previous protests in Greece and, perhaps most importantly, gave Greek citizens the opportunity to strengthen civil society by creatively implementing social media-based civic innovations – such as pooling resources online to voluntarily provide tutorials to schoolchildren.

The above insights were presented in three international conferences and have been published as part of one journal article and two chapters in edited volumes.

Fact sheet

University of Mannheim, MZES
2011 to 2015
Data Sources: 
Content analyses; internet surveys
Geographic Space: 
Europa and US