Politically Polarized Online Groups and their Social Structures formed around the 2013-2014 crisis in Ukraine

The end of the Cold War in 1991 introduced a great change and a wave of hope for people living in Ukraine, a former Soviet Union republic. However, Ukraine’s transition to a modern and independent state has not gone smoothly. In 2004, the country experienced its first major political upheaval, popularly dubbed the “Orange Revolution.” Cries of “Razom nas bahato! Nas ne podolaty!” (“Together, we are many! We cannot be defeated!”) swept through Kyiv’s Independence (Maidan) Square. Thousands of Ukrainians raised their voices and stood up together to demand real political change in their country. But instead of change, the Orange Revolution ushered in a period of malaise. In the fall of 2013, Ukrainians once again started gathering in Maidan Square, at first in the hundreds but quickly grew into the hundreds of thousands. They gathered to protest the then Ukrainian Government’s decision to back away from a highly anticipated trade and association agreement with European Union.

The above is the intro to a new paper, “Politically Polarized Online Groups and their Social Structures formed around the 2013-2014 crisis in Ukraine” by professor Anatoliy Gruzd from Ryerson University and Ksenia Tsyganova from Saint Petersburg State University. The paper examined how online groups are formed and sustained on social media sites during a political crisis when political polarization in a society is at its highest level. In particular, the paper compared how the two opposing camps (Pro-Western vs Pro-Russian) used a popular social networking site in Ukraine called Vkontakte (VK).  As network scholars, the authors study if there are any observable structural differences or similarities in online social networks formed by VK groups in these opposing camps.

The paper was awarded the “Best Paper” Prize earlier this Fall (September 25-26, 2014) at the biennial  Internet, Politics, and Policy conference (IPP2014). The conference was convened by the Oxford Internet Institute (University of Oxford) and OII-edited academic journal Policy and Internet, and supported by the ECPR Standing Group on Internet and Politics.at the University of Oxford.

Politically Polarized Online Groups and their Social Structures formed around the 2013-2014 crisis in Ukraine

by Anatoliy Gruzd, Ryerson University & Ksenia Tsyganova, Saint Petersburg State University

Abstract

As more and more individuals and organizations are turning to social media to express themselves, debate politics, share news and organize protests, their online interactions and content that they create offer researchers in social sciences a unique opportunity to study political events as they unfold and glimpse into how different groups in a society react to these events and organize themselves in the real time.

Online groups just like face-to-face groups often connect people with shared interests and background. On the Internet, we can find a wide range of groups from those that have specific goals and objectives to more loosely connected groups that discuss more general topics. During a crisis like the one that is unfolding in Ukraine today, we can observe a sudden growth in online groups (in terms of the number and size) that are associated with the current events in this country. By studying these groups and their social structures, we will be able to take the societal “pulse” on the events in Ukraine and investigate the role of social networking sites in supporting the collective action.

The broad goal of this research is to better understand how online groups are formed and sustained during the crisis period, especially when the political polarization in the society is at its highest level. To address this research goal, in this paper we focus on the use of a popular social networking site in Ukraine called Vkontakte (VK). We are interested in studying how and for what purposes the two opposing camps, Pro-Western and Pro-Russian groups, used VK during the 2013-2014 crisis in Ukraine. As network scholars, we want to know if there would be any observable structural differences or similarities in social networks formed by VK groups in these opposing camps.

This work is starting to reveal some possible relationships between group goals and membership composition on the one side, and user engagement behaviour and social network properties on the other. Furthermore, this work identified a number of group-level indicators that could help to differentiate different groups based on user interaction and network structure. Other community researchers can begin examining and applying these group-level indicators to online communities outside VK. Online community organizers can also learn from this work how to examine what influences the success and longevity of an online group.

Full-text:   Politically Polarized Online Groups and their Social Structures formed around the 2013-2014 crisis in Ukraine

Reference

§ Gruzd, A. & Tsyganova, K. (2014). Politically Polarized Online Groups and their Social Structures formed around the 2013-2014 crisis in Ukraine. Internet, Politics, Policy 2014: Crowdsourcing for Politics and Policy. September 25–26, 2014, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

§  Gruzd, A. & Tsyganova, K. (2015), Information wars and online activism during the 2013/2014 crisis in Ukraine: Examining the social structures of Pro- and Anti-Maidan groups. Policy & Internet. DOI: 10.1002/poi3.91