At Twitter, our purpose is to serve public conversation around the world. With world leaders, advocates, journalists, academics, and nonprofits on the service, we seek to empower conversations that are influential and leave a lasting impact on society. It is a company priority to increase the health, openness, and civility of this uniquely open conversation.
In a New Zealand first through our #DataforGood program, we’re announcing a partnership with the University of Otago’s National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (@NCPACS). Our shared goal is to use Twitter data to study the ways online conversations can be used to promote tolerance and inclusion instead of division and exclusion. The initiative will be led by Emeritus Professor Kevin Clements (@kpclements) and lead researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa (@sanjanah).
NCPACS was established in 2009 as New Zealand’s first Centre to combine global interdisciplinary expertise on the issues of development, peace-building, and conflict transformation. Located within the University of Otago’s (@otago) Division of Humanities, it has since made significant contributions to emergent research areas and holds regular conferences promoting research and intercommunity dialogue.
In the aftermath of the horrific Christchurch terror attacks on 15 March 2019, Twitter and NCPACS embarked on a joint research project aimed at analysing the ways in which Twitter and social media more broadly was used for both positive and negative purposes.
“The project is a wonderful example of the way in which Twitter is working with governments, other companies and organisations, to ensure that its service is not abused by those promoting polarisation, hate language, and violence,” said Emeritus Professor Kevin Clements, former Foundation Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies, Founding Director of the NCPACS, and Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association.
“While the initial prompt for this joint research project came from the 15 March 2019 Christchurch massacre, there have been numerous examples of digitally amplified polarisation around the world. The challenge is how to understand the ways in which social media can be used to promote tolerance and inclusion instead of division and exclusion.
“Under the aegis of Twitter’s global #DataforGood initiative, NCPACS received a data grant that enables our Centre and our dedicated researchers to explore in depth the events, conversations, and topics on Twitter with the hope and expectation that our work may inform strong policy outcomes, inspire others who are tackling similar issues around the world, and promote the place and role for new partnerships as we work together to solve the rapidly evolving challenges of polarised communities and identities offline and online.”
Lead researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the NCPACS, Sanjana Hattotuwa, has extensive experience living in and responding to violent conflict and has made significant studies of social media to determine how online communications activate positive and negative responses from a wider public. He has done this work in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and after the Christchurch massacre in 2019, in New Zealand.
“This research is extremely important in helping us understand the ways in which narratives are produced, promoted and engaged with to generate or stymie altruistic behaviour,” Mr Hattotuwa explained.
Mr. Hattotuwa conducted preliminary research just a week after the Christchurch massacre. By using data generated from tens of thousands of public Tweets anchored to the violence, he discovered a local and global outpouring of support for victims, solidarity with the citizens of New Zealand, the affirmation of democratic ideals, pushback against terrorism, and unequivocal condemnation of the perpetrator.
“I was surprised by the volume of Tweets with just five hashtags (#christchurchmosqueshooting, #christchurchshooting, #christchurchterroristattack, #newzealandterroristattack and #christchurch) generating around 85,000 Tweets in the immediate 24-hour period after the attack. Another two hashtags pegged to the number of victims at the time (#49lives) and a message of solidarity (#theyareus) emerged the day after, generating 37,000 more Tweets.
“In Urdu and Hindi, from Pakistan to India, as well as the New Zealand Prime Minister’s own responses on Twitter in English, the most viral Tweets at the time featured content and conversations condemning the massacre” noted Mr. Hattotuwa. “A Tweet by Prime Minister Jacinda Arden (@jacindaardern) was liked over 135,000 times and Retweeted over 38,000 times just five days after the massacre.”
We are optimistic the research will not only demonstrate key dynamics of different communication patterns prior to the Christchurch massacre, but will also enable us to better understand ways in which differences get turned into polarised, and ultimately, toxic divisions. This will be helpful for all those involved in the Christchurch Call, as well as other forums studying these topics.
We believe in the power of the public conversation to heal wounds and to build enduring, peaceful communities.
In tandem with our multilateral efforts with industry and as signatories to the Christchurch Call to Action, we’ve been resolutely focused on the ways Twitter can tackle extremism while promoting dialogue and inter-community understanding. Our goal is to harness the unique power of our service by providing data that empowers research, and hopefully gain a better understanding of the risks and the opportunities available through fostering an open, public conversation. Under the academic leadership of the University of Otago, Emeritus Professor Kevin Clements, and Sanjana Hattotuwa, we want to listen, learn, and put their insights into action.
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