Does Facebook generate obstacles for social capital? Some thoughts on the Ukrainian revolution case

Ukrainian revolution EuroMaidan has been considered by many as a booster for social capital. Online activism, allegedly, is a main contributor. As the story goes, people received and spread information engaging in dialogs with anonymous others, thus increasing reciprocal trust and coordination. However, as we know, research is quite sceptical about Facebook and activism. The question whether Ukrainians used Facebook to facilitate social capital online still begs an answer. In my opinion, the key here is social network properties. Why? Lets break an answer in a few simple steps: (1) Social trust and reciprocity are embedded in social networks. Thus, if we cannot observe social network than the overall question of social capital has no point. It is simply not possible to build social capital if there is no social fundament for it (networks).  (2) And how do we observe networks? By looking at connections of people and measuring their properties such as overall amount of connections vs all possible theoretical connections; shortest path between 2 people; or the likelihood to be on the path between other people…in other words –  network properties. So, what can be done to investigate social networks of Ukrainian activists? During the last year I had systematically collected the data of comments from the Facebook page “EuroMaidan” that was developed for the coordination and mobilisation of activists. Netviz was a very helpful tool for this task (many thanks to Bernhard Reider for his job). I collected 946,776 comments to 27,458 posts from November 2013 to May 2014. I collected them on the weekly basis making 25 networks. Then I divided them in four periods common for the Ukrainian researchers: a brief period of Pro-European protests; the so-called Revolution of Dignity; Violent clashes on Maidan square; and everything after the end of the revolution when the president fled the country. No real friendship can be observed among readers of “EuroMaidan” page. The only one thing we can see is the affiliation by posts. In other words, we can have 2-mode networks where readers are connected by reading the same post. These 2-mode networks are converted to 1-mode networks (I used Pajek for all data handling). What can we say about the density and clusterization of these networks? I also generated random graphs for the same periods to compare my empirical values with the simulated ones. Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 1.49.09 PM Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 1.48.58 PM What can be seen from these two figures is that at the very start of the revolution both density and clusterization were almost at the same rates as random. Meaning that social networks of online activism were not structured yet. This gives me a confidence to think that the initial recruitment to the Facebook page was not driven by the prior friendships. Otherwise we would have seen something opposite – friends would have been commenting the same posts increasing density. But there is also another important finding. Both density and clustering were quite stagnant during the revolution and increased only soon after. Why is that? Again, it is hard to imagine that the likelihood of a comment is driven by the mobilisation of friends. I would suggest that this have something to do with the content of posts. The posts during the revolution were about urgent requests for help and coordination (where to bring supplies, how to escape police, who needs help etc). The next figure illustrates it quite well. This is the ratio between an amount of comments and shares per day during the all observed period. Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 2.01.37 PM At the very beginning this ratio was below 1. And then, after the end of the revolution, it grew to the stable levels of greater than 1. Meaning that during the revolution people just shared urgent important requests. It is only after the revolution the content of posts changed from urgent requests to more speculative news, sometimes about geographically remote places (such as which candidate is better for the upcoming elections, or what are the political consequences of pro-Russian activities in Crimea). Being relieved from hundreds of urgent requests during a day, activists received more time to comment posts and each other. So what is the take-away of this post? I hope to prove that online activists did not have an opportunity to generate social capital during the revolution. They had to react urgently and share news, and their comments were not dependent on the commenting of other people. The latter point is the key. When people comment on their own without being affected by other activists, this means that there is no real social embeddedness. Overall, Facebook page served a great purpose of being informative source. But it hardly was a space for social interactions. What was the main obstacle for social capital emergence? Ironically, it was the quantity of posts. The more posts were produced per day, the fewer comments and, consequently, dialogs were observed.


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