The rise of social media is changing the dynamics of soft power around the world. New analysis by the University of Edinburgh for the British Council explores the implications – and reveals the UK is a large net exporter of influence via Twitter. Yet it cautions against over-emphasising the power of social media on its own to shape opinions and events.
Social media is the latest arena in the global struggle for influence. There is a growing appreciation by government and non-government actors of its power to influence large numbers of people around the world. From Obama to Modi, politicians increasingly engage in digital diplomacy. And Daesh continues to use social media to attract support, both with its violent terror messages but also with Arabic-language campaigns aiming to entice people by highlighting aspects of life in the territories it controls which it hopes will appeal to some.
Internet technology allows faster, cheaper forms of mass communication. These make global connections easier, but at the same time more complex. In doing so they challenge existing models of influence as well as traditional hierarchical power structures. Twitter and Facebook also provide great resources of big data. And these can be used to develop new models because of our increased ability to see ourselves as others see us and understand how others’ preferences are shaped through mass people-to-people contact. Such models could in turn inform how best to behave and persuade in the global communications environment, where perceptions and networks of influence are vital. This is relevant to individuals, organisations and governments alike.
Recent analysis for the British Council by the Centre for Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh, by a multi-disciplinary team which included Professor Jon Oberlander (Informatics) Professor Julie Kaarbo (International Relations) and Stuart MacDonald (Executive Director of the Centre) has started to explore the role of social media in today’s international affairs. Drawing on Edinburgh’s strength in Informatics, it began by analysing big data from Twitter to track the UK’s social media influence around the world. It contributes to a growing body of evidence that the future of soft power will include the capture and analysis of big data from digital media and the crafting of responses to what that data reveals.
A Net Exporter of Influence
So far the University of Edinburgh analysis has included an exploration of Twitter use in relation to recent geo-political events. This looked at global Twitter use during key periods of the Syria and Ukraine crises in 2013 and 2014. It analysed tweets and re-tweets (in English) and was able to create heat-maps showing where certain topics were being discussed, as well as the overall positive or negative attitude to those topics, country by country. Finally and revealingly, it used the net balance of international re-tweets as a measure of influence.
It should be noted that, at this stage, such analyses are necessarily fairly crude. In particular, positivity is based on lexical analysis. ‘Negative’ views about Ukraine - peaking in the week when the Malaysian Airline flight was shot down over the country - reveal negative sentiments expressed in tweets about Ukraine, rather than suggesting antipathy towards the country itself or preference for one or other side in the conflict.
The ‘cumulative clout’ of the UK per capita on Twitter during important periods was higher than for any other country
Importantly, however, the analysis does show that during the Ukraine and Syria crises the UK was one of the largest net exporters of tweets via re-tweeting. Furthermore, the ‘cumulative clout’ of the UK per capita on Twitter during important periods was higher than for any other country, and significantly higher than that of the USA. Finally, the UK was itself viewed favourably in tweets about Ukraine. On these measures the UK could be said to be a net exporter of opinion and influence during these recent international events.