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One Step, Two Step, Network Step? Complementary Perspectives on Communication Flows in Twittered Citizen Protests

  • Author(s): Hilbert, Martin
  • Vasquez, Javier
  • Halpern, Daniel
  • Valenzuela, Sebastian
  • Arriagada, Eduardo
  • et al.
Abstract

The article analyzes the nature of communication flows during social conflicts via the digital platform Twitter. We gathered over 150,000 tweets from citizen protests for nine environmental social movements in Chile and used a mixed methods approach to show that long-standing paradigms for social mobilization and participation are neither replicated nor replaced but reshaped. In digital platforms, long-standing communication theories, like the 1955 two-step flow model, are still valid, while direct one-step flows and more complex network flows are also present. For example, we show that it is no contradiction that social media participants mainly refer to intermediating amplifiers of communicated messages (39% of the mentions from participants go through this two-step communication flow), while at the same time, traditional media outlets and official protest voices receive 80–90% of their mentions directly through a direct one-step flow from the same participants. While nonintuitive at first sight, Bayes’s theorem allows to detangle the different perspectives on the arising communication channel. We identify the strategic importance of a group of amplifying intermediaries in local positions of the networks, who coexist with specialized voices and professional media outlets at the center of the global network. We also show that direct personalized messages represent merely 20% of the total communication. This shows that the fine-grained digital footprint from social media enables us to go beyond simplistic views of a single all-encompassing step flow model for social communication. The resulting research agenda builds on long-standing theories with a new set of tools.

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