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Marc-Antoine Ménard for Radio-Canada July 4 2012, 17h31
Instant opinions, amplified points of view, events shared and magnified: social networks continue to mark the longest student conflict in the Quebec history. Is it possible to organize this galaxy of messages, to make sense of it all?
Research analyst Olivier H. Bourchesne took on this task as he produced graphics that demonstrate the principal points of convergence in messages on Twitter and which events generated the most tweets.
First observation: contrary to newspapers and traditional surveys, content distributed on Twitter is more polarised and influenced by users’ profiles. Beauchesne already made this observations in his Master’s thesis, which compared coverage of the Bouchard-Taylor commission on blogs and in traditional media.
Being younger, the members of the “twittersphere” have a natural tendency, in the context of the current conflict, to reflect students’ positions. They also have more entrenched opinions, like the bloggers during the debate on cultural and religious accommodations [i.e. Bouchard-Taylor Commission]. “It’s like an incredible vox pop,” stresses Beauchesne, but, “the medium really only sees a certain part of the conflict, it doesn’t see the two sides.” The analyst was amazed by the impact of Twitter during the large protests. “It’s like people on the ground had CB radios and were able to communicate amongst themselves, previously an advantage for police, but it has become an advantage for protesters,” Beauchesne explains.
The “electronic mobilization” permitted the movement to coordinate at high speed. “Before, student leaders had to appear in the media, then things had to pass through general assemblies, then re-appear in the media. The feedback loop was very long. Now it is instantaneous,” he adds.
Major events, like the big protest on May 22 or when the Quebec government passed the special law, are the source of the greatest spikes in Twitter traffic.
“Obviously, it is a media of reaction. I’d say that it’s like a huge editorial page. Something happens, and people react. Things don’t pass from social media into the news. It’s the other way around. It’s a reaction.” — Olivier H. Beauchesne
The recipients, message amplifiers
The results of Olivier Beauchesne’s research show that, among the most frequent recipients of tweets during the conflict, unsurprisingly, we find large media as well as the principal student federations and their leaders. However, we also see names like singer/actor Dan Bigras, columnist Richard Martineau, Juste pour rire Festival president Gilbert Rozon, or founder of the Coalition des humoristes indignés Daniel Thibault. According to Beauchesne, the level of activity, the views adopted, and the number of “retweets” by these people (who contribute in spreading the message) has turned them into privileged interlocutors.
“I get the impression that people can react to that. They’re going to say, ‘I don’t agree with you @danbigras,’” Beauchesne explains. “Kind of like a journalist. If you want some news to spread, you’ll have better luck telling a journalist than your uncle, because the journalist has more visibility than your uncle. When you send something to Dan Bigras, if he finds it pertinent, he’ll send it to all his followers, and he has a lot of them.”
“It’s a question of using influential people and, if the comment is pertinent, it will have virality — the comment will infect others.” — Olivier H. Beauchesne
Explanation of the graphic:
Each point on the graphic represents a message sent on Twitter. The closer two points are, the more their subject is related.
As clusters form around a subject, their colour goes from yellow to orange to red, reflecting not only similarity of subject, but also of vocabulary. For example, Spanish messages about “manifestaciónes” are very similar, while those that discuss Bill 78 use more varied vocabulary.
“We can describe each tweet as a star exerting physical forces, it is calculated in the same way. If two tweets have very strong “gravity” in the same subject, they will be close,” explains Olivier Beauchesne.
Using software, the analyst collects all tweets since the beginning of the student strike that contain pertinent keywords, for example #ggi (grève générale illimitée, i.e. unlimited general strike) or #non1625 (opposition to the tuition increase of $1625 over five years).
From this sample of 500 000 to 600 000 messages, he eliminated duplications, reducing the pool to 300 000 à 400 000 tweets. After eliminating superfluous words, an algorithm classifies the messages according to content, evaluating similarities and identifying subjects that recur most often.
Having arrived at a sample of 100 000 messages, a verification of similarities is conducted and they are grouped. For example, messages about Minister Line Beauchamp, whether they are about the strike or her resignation, are part of the same group.
A text by Marc-Antoine Ménard, in collaboration with Sophie-Hélène Lebeuf
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at email@example.com. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.