27 Feb-5 Mar 2015 #747

Political geography of Nepal’s Twittersphere

About 30,000 tweets that shared links from popular Nepali news websites were mined for this analysis.
Bibek Paudel

The political crisis in January caused by the failure of the parties to meet a deadline on the constitution widened fissures between ideological groups in Nepali social media.

The deadlock is likely to be a result, rather than the cause of the acrimony between deeply divided groups of public intellectuals, media and civil society. There are cliques in the public sphere and social networks, as they are in politics. Members of a clique share interests, and hold common beliefs, forming groups of people having more interactions among themselves than with others.

Network scientists have studied the nature of communities in online environments. Communities with a healthy share of intra- and inter-community interactions are more innovative, dynamic, and more likely to find and solve problems.

Twitter has grown to be an active platform of public discussion in a section of Nepali society. Politicians, journalists, writers, professionals, intellectuals, and students use twitter to discuss general events, share news stories, and share political positions. Twitter is used similarly all over the world and studies of users during important events are common.

Network analysis is an opportunity to study how new social norms are spread and established, the way influential users shape their neighborhoods, and whether a network has healthy amount of interaction among communities or if they’re conversing within enclosed systems. Studies like this one have been done in the Israel-Palestine and Afghan conflicts, most notably by Gilad Lotan.

About 30,000 tweets (16-24 Jan and 29 Jan-5 Feb) that shared links from popular Nepali news websites were mined for this analysis. A user is considered to have a connection (or a link, or interaction) with another user if either has retweeted the link shared by others. Generally, people retweet links they like or agree with.

Very popular users like major newspapers and politicians were removed. Similarly, users who had not retweeted any link or none of whose tweets were retweeted by others were also not included. The resulting network with its major communities is shown in the diagram. Each circle denotes an individual twitter account, and each colour denotes a ‘community’. The size of the circle is proportional to the number of times that user’s links have been retweeted. While tweets not containing links might have been retweeted dozens of times, they were not a part of this analysis, neither were tweets not containing links from major Nepali news websites.

Elsewhere in the world, there are online community structures that are very deeply divided and not even talking to each other. This is not the case in Nepal where there are some communities that at least interact with other communities, which means ideas of one side are reaching and being heard by another side. Editors of major news-outlets are located at community boundaries or in communities that lie between others. Such people may be well suited to bridge the division between opposite communities and they may also be the ones that are more trusted.

The biggest community in this study, Community 1 (Red) is also the most active (its size is about a third of the total network and its activities amounted for more than 40 per cent of the total interactions in the whole network). But an overwhelming amount of this activity happens within the community, in fact, disproportionately more than any other community. Barring exceptions, most members also seem to only interact with fellow community members. Community 2 (Pink) is the only one close to Community 1, whereas Communities 3 (Green), 4 (Yellow) and 5 (Light Blue) do not have such strict boundaries.

Community 1 shared links supporting the stance of the Maoist-Madhesi alliance in the constitution, retweeted links and editorials criticising the CA Chairman. In comparison, the Green Community 4 shared links and editorials supporting the position of the ruling coalition to go for a vote in the CA. This community also shared news about the government’s warning to foreign ambassadors, while Community 1 shared links that criticised the Prime Minister’s diplomacy.

An op-ed by columnist CK Lal that was very popular in Red and Pink (Communities 1 and 2) was all but ignored by other communities. Similarly, Communities 1 and 2 largely ignored news about the burning of taxis and vehicles by organisers of an opposition banda, while it was popular in the other three communities. Pitamber Sharma’s article on federalism that was hugely popular in Community 1, however, was also shared by some other communities.

Despite heavy activity in Community 1, only less than a quarter were used in retweeting the links of other communities, mostly that of Pink (Community 2). The Green (Community 3), which is diametrically opposite to Community 1, used close to a third of its activity retweeting the links of other communities.

The Red Community received the least amount of retweets from users outside the network of these six communites. This ‘outside network’ can be thought of as the group of average Nepali twitter users who are not bloggers, civil society members, journalists, or with links to them. In other words, the average Nepali social media user ignored links shared by the Red community the most.

Community 1 has civil society leaders, English writers, foreign correspondents, editors of major newspapers and some columnists. But why is it that most of the activity of this community is limited to itself? Why are other communities not giving importance to them?

Does this social and intellectual deficit play a role in the country’s political deadlock? Politics is often influenced, even led by social realities, and divisions in the public sphere could spill over to the general population. The tendency to wallow in self-promotion and not engage with others warrants introspection by all communities and individuals.

Are civil society leaders and intellectuals presented by the mass media as ‘national intellectuals’ actually accepted and trusted by the public? It is not dishonest to support an ideology or political school of thought without providing context and disclosure.  

Questions like these are important to citizens and those in the media, and analysing them may help correct biases and improve balance in views. This could be done by presenting both sides of the story together and letting the readers decide, or through mediators positioned between communities.

Equally important is to ask why such polarisations are present in the first place. Could a tendency of rejecting differing views, or using ad hominem attacks to deter criticism be responsible? Or is there a fundamental flaw in the assumptions and ideas that others find it impossible to agree with. Discussing these issues in future could narrow existing divisions, inject new ideas and keep opposing sides engaged.

Bibek Poudel is a graduate student who likes studying large networks. A longer Nepali vesion of this article appeared in Nepal magazine. He belongs to Community 3 (Green).

Nepal’s major twitter communities

Community 1 (Red): 54 members

Main retweets of: Basanta Basnet, Devendraraj Pandey, Dewan Rai, Aditya Adhikari, Ujwal Prasain, Prashant Jha, Manjushree Thapa, Anurag Acharya, Thomas Bell, etc.

Main retweeters: Sudheer Sharma, Basanta Basnet, Dewan Rai, Prashant Jha, Aditya Adhikari, Ujjwal Prasain, etc.

Main links tweeted: Pitamber Sharma interview, The Kathmandu Post editorials, English op-eds by Akhilesh Upadhyay, Ajay Bhadra Khanal and CK Lal, Kantipur editorials, Ek utpidit ko bakpatra, op-ed on citizenship by Bharat Mohan Adhikari, op-ed on royal takeover by Hari B Thapa.

Breakdown of retweets:

83.8% within the community

6.4 % by Community 2

4.7 % by Community 4

Community 2 (Pink): 17 members

Active members: Indradhoj Chhetri, Rajendra Maharjan, Uttam Babu Shrestha, Anil Bhattarai, Mallika Shakya, Jhalak Subedi, etc.

Main links shared: Similar to Community 1 and those related to cooking gas shortage, and articles from a new website esamata.com.

Breakdown of retweets:

38% within the community

32.4 % by Community 1

12.7 % by Community 4

9.8 % by Community 3

4.2 % by Community 5

Community 3 (Green): 35 members

Main retweets of: Jhyal (Nepali Journalists), Sushil Sharma, Suman Khadka, Ameet Dhakal, Kedar Sharma, Kiran Bhandari, Kanak Mani Dixit, etc.

Main retweeters: ushaft, npPoet (Nepali Poet), Siromani Dhungana, Anamolmani, Kiran Nepal, Jainendra Jeevan, etc.

Main links shared: Baburam Bhattarai’s article in Republica, Anamolmani Paudel’s story in Kantipur, Kanak Mani Dixit’s Setopati op-ed on Doramba, Himalmedia Survey, news about government’s warning to foreign diplomats, Gagan Thapa’s op-ed, Setopati editorials, etc.

Breakdown of retweets by communities:

66.4% within the community

16 % by Community 4

9.5 % by Community 1

4.4 % by Community 6

Community 4 (Yellow): 35 members

Main retweets of: Kunda Dixit, Gunaraj Luitel, Sudeep Shrestha, Post Bahadur Basnet, Rajesh KC, Binita Dahal, Manoj Dahal, Narayan Wagle, etc.

Main retweeters: Kunda Dixit, Gunaraj Luitel, Tika Dhakal, Binita Dahal, Sudeep Shrestha, Post Bahadur Basnet, Roshan Sanwa, Dinkar Nepal, etc.

Main links shared: surrogate mother story in Nepali Times, Binita Dahal’s story in Nagarik, Semanta Dahal’s op-ed, Nepali Times feature on daughter-father relation, news of banda vandalism, Himalmedia Public Opinion Survey, etc.

Breakdown of retweets:

61.6% within the community

13% by Community 1

11.6 % by Community 3

5.5% by Community 2

Community 5 (Light Blue): 16 members

Active users: Sanjeev Pokharel, Girish Giri, Arun Baral, Govinda Bhattarai, Jitendra Harlalka, Rajendra078, Shova Sharma, Manish Acharya, Bishnu Sapkota, etc.

Main links shared: news stories from OnlineKhabar.com, Pitamber Sharma’s interview, Narayan Wagle’s Setopati op-eds, etc

Breakdown of retweets by communities:

50% within the community

18.4% by Community 4

15.7 % by Community 3

10.5 % by Community 1

Community 6 (Blue): 14 members

Active members: Prashanta Aryal, Brajesh Khanal, Sujit Mahat, KP Dhungana, Binod Pandey, etc.

Main links shared: CA members chair lifting, fake-followers on Twitter, Gagan Thapa’s op-ed on governance, Brajesh Khanal’s articles, cooking gas shortage, sports, etc.

Breakdown of retweets by communities:

61% within the community

22.6% by Community 1

6.5 % each by Community 2 and Community 5

Polarised reaction to analysis of political polarisation

Last week, after the findings of this analysis was published in the Nepali language weekly Nepal, the link to the story itself became the most shared on Nepali Twittersphere. Reaction to the results of a research on the political polarisation on social media was itself highly polarised. The way the link to the article was shared, retweeted and favourited gave us a glimpse of precisely the conclusion of the study itself: that the Nepali social web is acutely fragmented and ghettoised. Which was a validation of the observations of the analysis.

The bulk of Red (Community 1), for instance, maintained a conspicuous silence abut the article even as it was being shared widely on Twitter. Community 1 behaved like one big homogenous and cohesive clique, even as the findings were sporadically discussed by various members of other communities, including some active Pink (Community 2) and Yellow (Community 4) members. The Red community appears strongly united not just in what opinions it shares, but also in what it ignores. Could this suggest a groupthink phenomenon? Or are community-members afraid of airing dissenting views that could be unpopular in the community because of negative incentives to disagreement, possibly due to fear of rejection by fellow members who are intolerant of contradictory or opposing ideas?

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