Civilian Signalling on Social Media During Civil War

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co-authored with Zachary C. Steinert-Threlkeld, UCLA

Recent research has highlighted the mobilization potential of social media, which can offer citizens who were previously motivated to hide their true preferences an easier way to share grievances and find common support. In active conflict, however, social media posts indicating political loyalties can pose a severe risk to civilians. In this paper we argue that civilians are likely to use social media to strategically signal both tacit and overt support for armed actors, especially when at least one conflict side is monitoring the online sphere for intelligence. We expect civilians to modify their online behavior when faced with major changes in territorial control, and these changes should be observable in the topic and emotions of their content, as well as their activity, on social media. We study dynamics of social media usage in Syria at end of the siege of Aleppo in late 2016, using large language models to measure topics and emotions in geotagged and panel Twitter data. We match Twitter users in Aleppo to users in other parts of Syria to understand how the Syrian regime’s retaking of the city impacted Aleppo-based users. Our findings are consistent with strategic signalling: after the end of siege, users in Aleppo post more frequently, and post content that is more positive and pro-Assad, but only in tweets that they geotag as coming from Aleppo. The findings have important implications for our understanding of everyday digital communication in civil conflict.