Structure and Content on Twitter: The case of the European Refugee Crisis

  • A. Nerghes (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationAcademic


Media reports, political statements, and popular discourse on the refugee crisis shape the ways in which people and societies respond to those arriving at their borders. These current events are framed and experienced as a crisis, entering the daily media, capturing worldwide political attention, and producing diverse and contradictory discourses and responses.

The labels migrant and refugee are frequently distinguished and conflated in media, political, and popular discourse when describing the same groups of people. Such labelings do not only create a demarcation between the refugee versus the migrant, but also point towards the causes of displacement -- specifically those related to the overlapping dichotomies of voluntary/forced, (im)migrant/refugee, and economic/political. These types of dichotomies have shaped how states and other actors have responded to displaced people.

Without trying to reduce the crisis to mere text or discourse, we seek to analyze representations of displaced people in popular discourse as well as the increasingly evident demarcation between the “deserving” refugee versus the “undeserving” migrant. More specifically, we focus on the simultaneous struggle over meaning, legitimization, and power in representations of the refugee crisis, through the lens of social media, in which the refugee crisis has received much attention. In particular, Twitter users have been increasingly vocal in their opinions of the crisis ever since the reporting of the death of Alan Kurdi on September 4, 2015.

Twitter debates expose public-opinion-based characterizations of global events,
such as the refugee/ migrant crisis, while also revealing opinion communities and their interactions (i.e., through mentions of other users and following/follower relationships). These connections constitute a network of discussants and, when allied with shared information, can reveal patterns of opinion and influence. To capture meaning structures as well as social interactions, we employ the increasingly popular socio-semantic framework in analyzing a total of 928,000 historical tweets collected using the ten most popular and relevant Twitter hashtags surrounding the refugee/migrant crisis.

Co-addressing both meanings and actors, this research delves into the linkages between the social and semantic structures (i.e., the socio-semantic structure) surrounding the refugee crisis debate on Twitter. Specifically, we investigate several types networks: 1) the social (i.e., interaction) network; 2) the semantic networks of discussants; and 3) the bimodal networks of actor-to-concept and actor-to-hashtag. The latter explores the relationships of actors through shared usage of relevant hashtags, which serve as proxies for larger topics. The joint examination of socio-semantic networks and hashtags is relatively novel especially considering the majority of research on Twitter debates focuses either on hashtag usage or social networks.

Our study exposes several critical issues regarding the discussion of the refugee crisis on Twitter: Firstly, we observe the co-evolution of the socio-semantic network from late 2015 until early 2017, thereby determining when and where the discussion impacts interaction and vice-versa and the role sentiment plays in this co-evolution. Furthermore, we identify opinion leaders by their semantic content and structural positions as well as the communities they influence and in which they are embedded, since networks, more than demographics, characterize Twitter opinion leaders.
Period29 Jun 2018
Degree of RecognitionInternational