'Heat-map' of the World
‘Heat-map’ showing origin and concentration of tweets in English mentioning Ukraine during the week of 20-27 June, 2014. (79,373 tweets mentioning Ukraine from 55,700 users, 43,781 of whom could be geo-located). Courtesy of the Department of Informatics, University of Edinburgh.

January 2016

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.


Two infographic charts
Courtesy of the Department of Informatics, University of Edinburgh.

The top chart above shows ‘import-export’ statistics for re-tweets about Ukraine during the summer of 2014. The right-hand column shows re-tweets within the UK. Tweets from the UK were re-tweeted more often in the USA than tweets from the USA were re-tweeted in the UK, indicating that the UK was a net exporter of opinion on the subject to the USA.

The bottom chart shows the ‘cumulative clout’ of the most influential countries in terms of the export of re-tweets about Syria during 2013, taking into account the average influence of a user in a country and the total number of users in that country (normalised for population, to factor out the effect of having a large population).

Citizen Journalists?

Yet a review of the relevant academic literature (also conducted by the University of Edinburgh for the British Council) cautions against over-claiming the power of social media alone to bring change. From the unsuccessful 2009 ‘Twitter Revolution’ in Iran, to the Arab Spring, to Daesh, social media has not (yet) proved to be the powerful and purely positive ‘liberation technology’ that some once claimed. Although it can help people to share information where traditional media is censored or hostile, it can also itself be censored, monitored, or manipulated. Regimes may even use social media to allow people opportunities to air grievances and create an illusion of free expression, whilst themselves diverting or subverting debate.

Similarly, they make it much easier and cheaper for people to organise around a common purpose or cause. But that cause itself will likely be determined by deeper political, social or cultural factors. And, as the rise of Daesh has shown, there is no guarantee it will be a good one.

Other examples include the London riots of August 2011. Twitter analysis showed that social media improved the reporting of events, by allowing ‘citizen journalists’ to stay ahead of traditional media. However, it also spread false rumours – including the popular story that dangerous animals had escaped from London Zoo. And it helped the rioters themselves to organise and avoid the authorities.

During the Arab Spring, social media helped disseminate information and coalesce local dissent into national movements. But there is also some evidence to suggest that Facebook-based mobilization efforts failed, and that television, particularly Al-Jazeera, played a more important role. Social media did allow expatriates to feel ‘involved’ in the Egyptian revolution. But 75% of tweets about the uprisings actually came from the West, rather than Egypt itself. And, even in the midst of the 2009 protests in Iran, non-political topics were more popular on Twitter than political ones amongst young people in that country.

Indeed social media is mostly used in non-political contexts. And most people use Twitter to talk to people in the same country who share their own opinions. This can make its deployment for specific diplomatic ends problematic. It is more likely to entrench opinion than change minds quickly on specific issues. Social media is therefore perhaps more useful as a promoter of general, long-term influence.

The Twitter analysis conducted by the University of Edinburgh is just a first step. Further work needs to be done to increase our understanding of the role of social media in international relations. But its conclusions about the net influence of the UK via twitter during major world crises are striking. And, though they caution against over-claiming the importance of social media, they point to its growing role in the study and practice of soft power and international influence. 

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Analyst and Insight Editor, with thanks to the Centre for Cultural Relations, University of Edinburgh.

See also