By Jonathon Morgan
As the World Cup approaches, Brazilians are rioting in the streets. However the chaos wasn't started by overenthusiastic revelers excited about the country's excellent soccer team but rather deep social unrest over what some see as a waste of money and misplaced government priorities.
Driving the protests are social media campaigns criticizing the government and attacking FIFA, the organization that oversees the World Cup. For the past year activists have been organizing strikes and demonstrations using hashtags like #FIFAGoHome and #NaoVaiTerCopa (which can be translated as "there won't be a world cup"). Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro last summer, while just this past weekend teargas and street fires gripped São Paulo.
But who's leading the conversation?
The Eye of the Storm
Like every social network, Twitter can be broken down into small communities comprised of leaders and followers. While navigating the chaos of 5,000 tweets published on Twitter every second would be impossible, identifying these microcommunities and their most prominent members is one way to track the pulse of regions in crisis.
We used a handful of hashtags suggested by journalist Rachel Glickhouse in her recent post about World Cup social media to focus on a small slice of the information coming from Twitter. Over three days we ingested over 4,000 tweets into the CrisisNET platform and looked for connections between them, essentially asking: Who is everyone talking about?
Using a technique borrowed from a similar study conducted by our friends at Paragon Science, our analysis groups Twitter accounts into color-coded communities, and uses circle size to show which users in those communities have the broadest reach. Accounts that are mentioned frequently in retweets and replies, or that are mentioned by influencial users, are represented by the largest circles. Users mentioned only a handful of times are the smallest. A group of users is considered a community when the members of that group communicate mostly with one another, but not with other users in the larger network.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most influencial users have cultivated strong followings from years of commentary about social unrest. More interesting, however, is that there are two distinct communities discussing the protests in Brazil. One group is comprised mostly of Brazilians, and is led by @PersonalEscrito, a prominent activist. This community is represented by blue dots in the network graph.
Another, equally vocal group, is led by @sarakron1, who tweets primarily in Greek about conflicts in Greece, Spain, South America, Turkey, and Afghanistan in addition to Brazil, along with @yllich_es, an academic, political scientist, and activist based in Mexico, who is primarily focused on Mexican social unrest when he isn't tweeting about the World Cup. This community is represented by pink dots in the network graph.
So we find one community of Brazilians, coordinating and documenting local protests, and another group of international workers' rights activists, whose political idealogies happen to align with the demonstrators.
Two Communities, Connected by One Man
By and large, these communities don't communicate with one another, even when they tweet in the same language. Blue dots connect to blue dots, and pink connect to pink. However one, otherwise insignificant dot seems to be the bridge between these two siloed camps.
Ian Gilbert (or @ThatIanGilbert), is a British teacher-turned-author and TEDx speaker based in Hong Kong. Additionally, he's an active participant in discussions about the strikes and protests in Brazil, and a strong advocate for social justice in the UK. Gilbert is also the social glue linking the international and Brazilian activist communities on Twitter. At least in our small sample, he is one of the only users connected to both groups.
A Local Issue Through a Global Soundbite
The interest of global activists in the Brazilian strikes and protests is not unexpected. However it's important to remember that while the World Cup has been a lightning rod for Brazilians' dissatisfaction with their government (and an excuse to demonstrate that dissatisfaction), the underlying problems causing that unrest have in fact been brewing for decades. So even though it's not surprising that activists in Greece and Mexico would find solidarity with striking workers in Brazil, and frame those workers' actions as part of a larger narrative about global social injustice, it's also, at best, a gross oversimplification of a complex problem rooted in Brazilian middle class identity.
Twitter and other social media are fantastic tools for real-time information about an unfolding crisis. However knowledge about a tweet's author, and that author's community, are essential in understanding social information in context. Don't be fooled by the soundbite: know who you're following.
With that in mind, we're working on adding this functionality to the CrisisNET data processing pipeline. So the same analysis that we did to understand the network of users tweeting about the World Cup can give all content authors an authenticity and influence score. Coming soon.