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Inter and Intra-Language Engagement on Twitter in Arab Spring Hashtag Communities (SASS 2012)

The Arab Spring: A Symposium on Social Media and the Politics of Reportage, 2012

Inter and Intra-Language Engagement on Twitter in Arab Spring Hashtag Communities

Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, and Tim Highfield

The 2011 protests and unrest of the ‘Arab Spring’ have led to a substantial amount of social media activity. On Twitter alone, several millions of tweets containing hashtags such as #libya or #egypt have been generated during 2011, for example, both by directly affected citizens of these countries, and by onlookers from further afield. What remains unclear is the extent to which there has been any direct interaction between these two groups (also considering potential language barriers between them), and whether the information sharing activities by outsiders have any significant impact on locals on the ground.

Building on hashtag datasets gathered since January 2011, this paper compares patterns of Twitter usage during the popular revolution in Egypt and the civil war in Libya. Using custom-made tools for processing ‘big data’ (boyd & Crawford, 2011), we examine the volume of tweets sent by English-, Arabic-, and mixed-language Twitter users over time, and examine the extent to which such users interact (through @replies and retweeting) only within their own language group, or also across language boundaries. We also examine how such patterns of interaction, and the relative presence of different language groups in overall hashtag activity, shifted over time during the course of the year, and draw connections between such shifts and events on the ground.

Further, we will examine the URLs shared in these hashtags by Twitter participants, to identify the most prominent overall information sources, examine differences in the information diet experienced by predominantly English- and Arabic-language users, and investigate whether there are any online sources whose URLs are transcending language boundaries more frequently than others. This provides unprecedented insight into the intermedia flows and information ecology which emerged around Twitter during the Arab Spring.