An analysis of more than 92 million posts and millions of user profiles
The research goals and objectives
National Centre of Defence & Security Awareness and NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (NATO StratCom COE) turned to Singularex to conduct research on the virtual Russian world of the Baltics.
Considering that social networks can be a powerful tool in the information wars, the goal was to determine whether there are attempts to influence Russian-speaking citizens – especially youth – in the Baltic States through social networks.
The main objective of the analysis was to study the networks’ demographics, public posts, and behaviour patterns of Russian-speaking users of the social networks vk.com (VK), odnoklassniki.ru (OK), and Facebook (FB) in the three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, during the period between January 2013 and May 2017.
User Behavior Analysis, Clustering, Learning Associations, Social Media Intelligence, Neural Networks
The total user databases for VK and OK in the Baltics were 1.06 million and 1.03 million respectively. There are 2.86 million FB users in the target regions.
Our study covered the following areas:
1) Distribution of social network users in the Baltics
In conducting analysis of these social networks, it was necessary to take into account their degree of popularity in the Baltic states, especially among Russian-speaking users. Special emphasis was paid to the three national capitals, as well as to other cities or regions that are home to substantial portions of the countries’ Russian-speaking populations.
In the Baltic states, the VK and OK social networks are mainly Russian-speaking; VK is more popular in Estonia and Lithuania, while OK predominates in Latvia.
2) Aspects of age and gender
It should be noted that VK’s audience was the youngest (the overwhelming majority of users were under 30), while FB and OK users were older on average (with the largest age groups being 25–30 and 30–35 for FB and OK respectively).
3) The analysis of ideological content
We determined 11 macro topics such as Russia, USSR, West, Non-Citizens and so on. Each of was associated with a number of keywords (for example, Russian spring, Ukrofascism, propaganda, etc.).
The analysis indicates that 10% of Russian-speaking social network users generate 70% of the ideological information found on those networks.
We studied the dynamics of the ideological posts, and we noted an increased rate of growth at the end of 2013 (on the eve of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine and the growth in information operations against the West), as well as recurring peaks each May.
For example, the peaks in activity on the macro topic of World War II occurred each May, around the time that so-called Victory Day is celebrated in Russia.
3) The cluster analysis of 2,000 active ideological users
Based on a cluster analysis of user profiles, it was possible to identify four types of ideological users on VK, which we call Writers, Distributors, Readers, and Members of the Active Reserve.
Upon more detailed examination of the particularities of each cluster, it was most striking that the Writers cluster (about 12% of the total) generated a significant majority of the ideological content (more than 70%). On average, profiles from this cluster created two or three posts a day, while the other ideological users posted at most once every three to four days.
After a series of experiments exploring different types of communication, it was determined that the second type—connections through friends—was more influential in group formation. The Writers cluster clearly occupied a central position on the connections graph.
Clustering analysis of OK was conducted with a narrower and more filtered sample of 500 users, as there were fewer ideological users on the network than on VK. Nevertheless, the result painted a similar picture: distinct clusters of Writers, Distributors, Readers, and Members of the Active Reserve.
4) The connections among ideological groups
We studied the connections among the most popular ideological groups on VK, FB, and OK.
Our analysis showed that such groups had a very pro-Kremlin, pro-Russian, or anti-Western orientation. Such groups were very closely interlinked and also tied together by common friends, as indicated by the thickness of the lines between them. Most groups were a source of content that was then distributed by active ideological users, especially in Estonia and Latvia.
5) The relative popularity of macro topics
A comparative analysis of the relative popularity by country of the study’s macro topics showed that the most popular topic on FB in Estonia and Latvia was that of non-citizens, while in Lithuania it was the USSR and Ukraine.
The research results
More than 92 million posts and millions of user profiles of VK, OK, and FB were studied in order to shed light on the information situation in the Russian-speaking world of Baltics.
For 2.5 months and with a team of 6 people, we managed to analyze tonnes of data with the help of specially created algorithms. The full research report is available on the NATO StratCOM website: “Virtual Russian World in the Baltics”.