ZOiS Spotlight 26/2018 by Tatiana Golova (11 July 2018)
In light of media reports about bots and troll factories, the question which arises, not least for social science research, is this: to what extent is communication on social networking sites in any way authentic? For the ZOiS study on “Post-Soviet Migrants and Transnational Public Spheres on Social Media”, which commenced in 2017, this raises two further questions. Who is communicating in the German-Russian virtual space – are they real people or troll accounts, and how can we distinguish between them? And can we draw inferences from online communication about the real-world mood among ethnic German immigrants from Russia and other post-Soviet migrants in Germany?
These questions are of specific relevance for groups using the Russian social networking site Vkontakte (vk.com), who post often very critical comments in German and/or Russian about Germany’s political system and overall situation. The names on the accounts indicate that most subscribers belong to the Russian community. However, as there are often gaps in the user data – for example, geographical location – it is difficult to determine which specific population is represented by these subscriber accounts. It should also be borne in mind that discussions on social media do not necessarily represent the views of the populace as a whole or even parts of it. On the other hand, public opinion is not simply the sum of individual opinions and attitudes, as surveys make clear. If we focus on opinion-building in collective communication processes, it is apparent that discussions on online platforms are part of these processes and in that sense are real. Patterns of communications, meaning both structure and content, are therefore the main focus of the research.
Digital networks with political potential
Migrant communities make use of social media in order to maintain links with the country of origin, but also to network with other members of the diaspora and build hybrid identities. What, then, is the political potential of these digital networks in the case of the post-Soviet minority?
For the study, data were collected from interfaces on Vkontake, a Russian social networking site popular with and heavily used by migrants from the post-Soviet space. The analysis focused not on individual user behaviour but on interaction data from groups and public pages which are aimed at ethnic German immigrants from Russia and other migrants with a post-Soviet background in Germany, or which position themselves in a Russian-German setting from within Germany. Whenever a group shared another’s content or public page, this was counted as a contact. It was then assumed that there was proximity between the content of the two accounts and that the source exerted a degree of influence over content. Based on these reposts, complex networks emerge, which can be analysed and interpreted using specially designed software.
The analysis revealed that there are no closed ecosystems in “post-Soviet German” digital communities. On the contrary, they make active use of highly diverse online resources. These resources include individual and collective accounts in the Russian-speaking space that offer both politics and entertainment: quotes from famous people, snippets of conventional wisdom, landscape photos and so forth are just some of types of content designed to brighten up the users’ timelines.
Self-isolating groups are those which rarely or never interact with other groups on the site. They include public pages of parties which have attempted in recent years – with varying degrees of success – to court popularity among ethnic German immigrants recently arrived from Russia. For example, the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) and Die Einheit (Unity) groups connect with their public on vk.com but do not interact with others on the sites. By contrast, in the case of the AfD, another – unofficial – group calling itself “Freunde der AfD” (Friends of the AfD) is extremely active, with good contacts to other far right groups or accounts.
Most German political accounts on vk.com can be located firmly at the right-wing populist/far right end of the spectrum, although some are close to certain factions within the Left Party. The network analysis conducted to date, particularly for 2015-2018, has revealed contacts between the “homegrown” far right and post-Soviet migrant political subcultures on VKontakte.
Direct contacts among other groups exist via reposts, sometimes by one side only, sometimes mutual. They make systematic use of identical sources for their posts, thereby indirectly creating smaller subnetworks, most of which then intermittently connect with each other. As examples, these increasingly complex interconnections have sprung up around groups such as Deutsche Wahrheit (German Truth), Germanija + Awstrija + Schweitsarija and one calling itself “Sahra Wagenknecht – Zukünftige Kanzlerin Deutschlands” (Sahra Wagenknecht – Future Chancellor of Germany), although this is not one of the politician’s official groups.
Flowing transitions: east and west, politics and entertainment
The analysis of the networks also reveals that post-Soviet political groups, including those that represent the Russian government’s official position on the Ukraine crisis, exert influence over content in groups in the “German” segment of VKontakte. This does not apply to the network as a whole, which is fragmented in any case, but it does apply to certain subnetworks which fall into the “identity politics” category. These groups make active use of post-Soviet resources, thus establishing a measure of public proximity to them. As the analysis delves more deeply, these subnetworks are revealing themselves to be highly interconnected, as shown by the case mentioned above.
A sample evaluation of reposts based on specific keywords showed that some groups combine political content with entertainment. The operators can thus create a gateway offer for potential followers outside the sphere of political extremism.
This permeability of content works in both directions. It is surprising that some of these connections between subnetworks exist at all. For example, the largest subnetwork of groups that facilitate local networking of Russian speakers in German cities shares posts (for example, about “criminal gypsy gangs”) from the public page of “Anonymous Kollektiv”, a far right German project. Geographically, too, the information does not only flow from the East to the West. The Golos Germanii (Voice of Germany) media project, which is active on several platforms – including Vkontakte – states that its aim is to translate, into Russian, appearances by “German politicians, journalists and artists“ and “articles of particular interest to a Russian audience” from the German media. In fact, this selective transfer includes content and analysis – on the war in Syria, for example – of a hue that is familiar to viewers of Russia’s (semi-)state-controlled media.
All in all, the study highlights the complexities of transnational information flows between the German and Russian cultural and political spheres on social media.
Tatiana Golova is Research Associate at ZOiS.