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Steinert-Threlkeld on Social Media Tracking as a Tool of War

Research by Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, assistant professor of public policy, measuring the political opinions of Russian-speakers in Ukraine at the time of Moscow’s 2014 incursion into Crimea has been published online by the journal Post Soviet Affairs. The study, co-authored by Steinert-Threlkeld and Jesse Driscoll of UC San Diego, uses a vast collection of social media data to demonstrate that many self-identified Russians living in Ukraine would not have favored a continued campaign to expand Russia’s borders. “Our supposition is that if Russian strategists were considering expansion beyond Crimea, they would have been able to use social media information to assess, with a great deal of precision and in real time, the reception that they would likely receive,” the authors wrote. While there is no evidence that Russian leaders took advantage of this type of analysis, the authors conclude that tapping into social media traffic could provide a useful source of intelligence for those planning military campaigns. “Social media data are straightforward to analyze systematically and can be collected at a relatively low cost,” wrote the authors, whose team, including research assistants in Kiev, used a data set of 6.8 million tweets to gauge social attitudes shared by Russian-speakers. “The prevalence of overtly political behaviors on social media provides important clues about the political dispositions within communities,” they said.