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Twitter Chatter About Putin and Poroshenko: The Language Breakdown

Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

This article is part of a citizen-media data-analysis project, a collaboration between RuNet Echo and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Explore the complete article series on the All the Presidents’ Tweets page.

When we started collecting our Twitter data last October, we were predominantly interested in what Russians and Ukrainians were saying about their presidents. But we decided to cast a wider net and collected all the tweets containing the last names of the heads of states in Russian (Путин and Порошенко), Ukrainian (Путін and Порошенко), and English (Putin and Poroshenko). We ended up with over six million tweets—6,342,294, to be exact.

Once we had our data, we faced a problem: how can we tell when a Russian or Ukrainian tweets about Putin or Poroshenko as opposed to a Brit or a Korean? There are several attributes of tweets and Twitter accounts that help indicate a user's country and language. First, there is the location a user chooses to add to their profile. Then there is the language a user sets for their account and interface. Third, each tweet also has a language indicator, determined from the keyboard setting and tweet content. Finally, some users choose to turn on geolocation on their smartphones, and in this case each tweet also gets a set of coordinates that can be put on a map.

None of these options tells you what the user's nationality is with 100% certainty, of course, but each of them gives us some useful information. So in this installment, we'll look at the language use in the tweets contained in our data set, and will leave geolocated tweets and further discussion of country-specific tweeting until next time.

Here's the breakdown of our six-million strong tweet archive.

 

It is immediately obvious that tweets in Russian dominate the space, accounting for over half of all tweets in the dataset. But Twitter users posting in Russian include not just Russians, but also Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Moldovans, and citizens of other post-Soviet states. Russian-speaking immigrants anywhere from Italy to Australia also contribute to the massive presence of the language in our data set.

Although Russian holds the top spot, lots of Ukrainians tweet in Russian and Ukrainian intermittently, so there is no real correlation between the number of tweets in Russian and Ukrainian and the number of Twitter users in Russia (over eight million in 2014) and in Ukraine (about 600,000 as of July 2014).

Additionally, we know both Russians and Ukrainians often tweet in non-native languages, e.g., English and French. This is especially evident during times of political upheaval, and is consistent with tweeting behavior that Poell and Darmoni observed in their 2012 study of the Tunisian revolution, where people tweeted in English to engage the Western mainstream media and English-speaking users.

The use of both Latin and non-Latin hashtags in the same tweet is another factor complicating language analysis. In her analysis of millions of tweets during the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, Katerena Kuksenok observed a “large number of tweets using equivalent hashtags in multiple languages” (eg, “#Євромайдан #Евромайдан #Euromaidan”), ostensibly to maximize exposure of the tweets’ messages.

While Russian and Ukrainian at the top of our language pyramid are easy to explain, some other languages at the top are less obvious, especially if we compare the results from our sample with the broader statistics on Twitter's most used languages.

 

The popularity of English is evident, since Anglophone users come not only from English-speaking countries like the US and the UK, but from countries all over the world. Spanish is popular across Twitter in general, and that seems to be reflected in our sample as well.

However, French is less popular overall, and German even less so, and yet they have a fairly significant presence in our sample. This might be because both France and Germany are intimately involved in the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia around the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, so the media and social network denizens of both countries are paying more than average attention to the affairs of Poroshenko and Putin.

The same seems to be true of Turkish and Italian Twitter users, as the number of Turkish-language tweets mentioning the two presidents is almost equal to the number of tweets in German, and the Italian is not far behind, indicating heightened attention to the fate of their neighbors.

A notable absence is the relatively small number of tweets in Japanese in our sample, given that a massive 16% of overall Twitter content is produced in Japanese. Arabic, Malay and Portuguese also constitute a negligent percentage of tweets about the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, whereas Indonesian-speaking Twitter users appear to be more interested in the matter.

While the world at large is obviously interested in what the leaders of Ukraine and Russia are doing, an overwhelming amount of interest and opinions seems to be concentrated in the Russian-speaking Twitter sphere and its Ukrainian counterpart. As we dig deeper into this particular domain, we expect to bring you new insights about political debate and discussion on the RuNet, and a more nuanced understanding of what the personas of Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko mean to Twitter users in Ukraine and Russia.

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