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The Rise and Fall of Brazil's Twitter Revolution

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, July 8 2013

Tweets per hour peaked on June 17 at 8 p.m. (Flickr/andresmh)

The protests in Brazil might seem to have come out of nowhere, but the Movimento Passe Libre (Free Pass Movement) has existed for more than eight years. They organized the first few demonstrations, starting at the end of May. It wasn't until June 17, however, when the Twitterverse lit up with tweets about the protests, that people outside the country really began to notice. Less than a week later, however, Twitter usage had died down to pre-protest levels.

Andrés Monroy-Hernández, a researcher at Microsoft Research and fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and Emma Spiro, a sociology PhD candidate at UC Irvine, analyzed 1,579,824 tweets posted between June 1 and June 22 under a number of hashtags used by Brazilian protesters.

They found tweets peaked on June 17 at 8 p.m. with 96,531 tweets per hour. As seen in the chart above, in the following days the number of tweets per hour never even approached that rate.

In a phone interview, Monroy-Hernández and Spiro told techPresident that it was the highly active Twitter users that interested them the most. The vast majority of the 850,000 people who tweeted with one of the 12 hashtags they looked at only tweeted once. Only one percent tweeted 20 or more times, the threshold they set to designate “highly active” users.

Although the number of tweets per day was still high on June 22, what had disappeared was the volume of interactions between individuals. The volume of mentions and retweets between the 8,500 highly active users had dissipated to something comparable to the network before the mass protests.

Moreover, the structure of the interactions on June 17 and 18 was drastically different than on June 15 and 16, and June 19, 20 and 21. Explaining the graph, Monroy-Hernández said it's like someone hosted a party with a different invite list than usual: on June 15 you go out with one set of friends, but on June 16 your college buddies get an invite, and then your friends from grad school, but when they leave to go home the network of friendships – mentions and retweets – has returned to the status quo.

Monroy-Hernández and Spiro emphasize that these initial findings are not comprehensive. Future work, they say, should include Facebook and expand the list of hashtags, although at 12 the list is already extensive. Since their original post, they say they have collected 30 or 40 more hashtags to analyze. They will be looking to see whether the same pattern of interactions will hold.

In a previous post on techPresident it was observed that the number of hashtags could be confusing the Twitter conversation in Brazil, making it difficult for people in and out of the country to follow the story.

Monroy-Hernández and Spiro said they are looking at the co-presence of hashtags in Twitter posts, and how that might help centralize the conversation.

The work is for now primarily descriptive, as opposed to analytical.

There is lots of speculation that we could do [about why the network behaved as it did], said Monroy-Hernández. He added that the images and videos of the police abusing protesters that emerged on June 17 could have caused the change in activity, but that they need to do more careful analysis.

Monroy-Hernández did similar analysis of a student protest in Mexico that used the hashtag #yosoy132, which he discussed in a Google Hangout with techPresident's Nick Judd last June. He looks forward to doing comparative analysis with the information from Brazil once they have more data.

Not yet, however. The protest movement in Brazil is far from over. It's still growing and changing, Monroy-Hernández points out.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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