How the battle to win Ireland's abortion referendum was fought online.

Bots and Bubbles:
Tweeting the Referendum

Twitter is, for many, the pulse of the internet.

Political hacks seek the latest one-liner “take”, news junkies seek second-by-second updates on ongoing events and journalists, in one swift glance, measure the strength of public feeling in response to, and in turn shaping, the issues they cover.

For some, it is seen as the democratic destination online for a public conversation. Unsurprisingly, it has been a forum for discussions in the run up to Ireland's abortion referendum.

But how genuine is this online conversation, and does it represent the democratic discourse taking place on the ground?

Over the past few years, social scientists have pointed to the prevalence of online bubbles creating false perceptions of public feeling and, sometimes, reality itself.

And malicious actors have infiltrated these social networks, creating fake accounts known as bots that are automated to manipulate the public discourse, amplifying views they favour and shouting down those they don't.

With this in mind, we tapped into Twitter to examine the nature of the conversation online.

The graph above displays more than 400,000 tweets collected over two months (from 17 March until 15 May - which was 10 days before the vote) under the hashtags #Repealthe8th and #Savethe8th, with 267,275 tweets from pro-repeal supporters and 165,324 tweets from the pro-retain side.

The tweets show a clear dominance of the repeal community under these specific hashtags (taken as the most broadly encompassing hashtags in relation to the referendum).

This is not necessarily because pro-repeal supporters are more numerous. The sample could be biased because of the medium (Twitter may have a younger base of users, for instance).

What do these tweets tell us about online communities? And can we spot echo-chambers within?

The network graph below visualises these communities based on who retweets whom. Retweets are used to draw attention to a tweet and are generally an endorsement but can also be used to criticise the tweet or user.

Both uses, however, indicate conversation amongst users and, when examined en masse, expose clusters of Twitter's larger communities.

Within this network, two distinct communities emerge: repeal tweets show a much larger and more dispersed community, indicated in two shades of blue, while the smaller red and pink community are largely pro-retain supporters (who are retweeting content with the hashtag #Savethe8th).

Clusters form around users who retweet the same people and content. These two polarised clusters suggest two communities divided in their discourse and also self-referential in their content: the echo chamber visualised.

The denser inner circles represent a largely Ireland-based community who frequently interact and retweet one other's content, while the lighter outer nodes are tweets coming from outsiders to these communities, attracting retweets from their own communities not typically associated with the core #repealthe8th and #savethe8th groups.

So who is at the centre of Ireland's Twitter world, on each side of the debate? And who are these external tweeters engaging with the referendum hashtags? We took a closer look to find out.

The Retain Network

The #Savethe8th network of retweeters clusters around some of the most well-known voices representing the No side of the referendum campaign, John McGuirk and Declan Ganley amongst them. These accounts are densely clustered in the center of the Irish anti-abortion Twitter sphere represented in red.

To the top right however, the Twitter network boosting the Irish #Savethe8th tweeters are primarily international anti-abortion activists, each separate from the Irish cluster and attracting a new cluster of retweeters. Such tweeters include anti-abortion individuals such as @Obianuju (Obianuju Ekeocha) – an international anti-abortion activist from Africa and @LilaGraceRose (username Lila Rose) – founder of the anti-abortion media organisation LiveAction from San Francisco.

International news organisations also use and retweet the #Savethe8th, such as the aformentioned @LiveAction and another anti-abortion media organisation @LifeNewsHQ, a US-based international anti-abortion news site.

One cluster of "outside" and mainly international anti-abortion tweeters is of particular interest in the bottom right of the chart. Connected primarily by the tweets of @PoliticsandFUN (whose username is "Love America") and #ProLifePrincess (username “WarriorPrincess4theUnborn”) this subset of retweeters tweeting under #Savethe8th appear to be most closely aligned with the US anti-abortion and alt-right community.

A sub-community of apparently alt-right American accounts, they engage with the core tweeters (hence the pink strands connecting to the core cluster) and receive some, but not as much, endorsement in return shown by fewer returning red strands. They also tend to interact most with the wider international network who are retweeting #Savethe8th.

Furthermore the smaller nodes surrounding each of the dominant accounts in this cluster appear to mainly be retweeting them without a connection to the larger conversation – suggesting that they may be bolstered by bots whose role is to reinforce their own network.

Surveying this network, many of these accounts also have numerical user names, a marker of bot-like activity. One main account, that of #ProLifePrincess, when returned to at a later date, was found to have been suspended by Twitter.

To see the top 20 tweets unifying all of these accounts, see the collection below.

Despite not being central to the network, the international accounts are largely the source of the most retweeted tweets, perhaps owing to a large international audience. They also show they are already an interconnected international network, with @PoliticsandFun retweetind news from LiveAction, for example.

Such activity shows the strength of international interest in Ireland's abortion outcome from the anti-abortion side with international agents using their personal followings to boost the #savethe8th hashtag.

Repeal Network

The pro-repeal network, which is rendered in shades of blue, is much broader, suggesting a larger number of tweets dispersed among a more diverse community of tweeters. Tweeters at the centre of the online conversation include multiple pro-choice campaign groups, such as Free, Safe, Legal, TFMR and Amnesty International.

The individuals in light blue clustering at the edges appear to be a diverse array of tweeters attracting communities otherwise not usually engaged with the #repealthe8th community.

This includes the American Modern Family actress Sarah Hyland who tweeted in support and Irish journalists such as Collette Browne, Sinead Gleeson and Peter McGuire and celebrities such as social media personality James Kavanagh.

For the tweets receiving the most endorsements from this community, see the top 20 tweets below.

What's perhaps most interesting is how the two clusters interact.

In a directed network graph the colour of the strand is the colour of the person who retweeted the content, moving in the direction of the person they're retweeting.

In this case, we see a lot of pro-retain tweeters (red) reaching across the divide to retweet repeal tweeters (blue) – hence the dominance of red strands reaching between the clusters.

Some of these are centering on broadcasting accounts that sit in the middle (where the blue and red criss cross in response) such as the @Ireland account which draw large responses from each side.

We don't see the same reach of blue strands reaching across to the red cluster. It appears that repeal tweeters are not engaging or not responding to the retain side in the same way.

This could be a symptom of a resistance to engaging with their opposition on the repeal side (where two opposing sides retweet each other it is likely a form of criticism).

It may be partly that the repeal campaign is inward-looking and repeal users are seeking agreement – not debate online. It may be that the retain side are more combative, which the repeal side do not reciprocate.

Part of this pattern could also be due to the use by pro-repeal Twitter users of “Repeal Shield”, a tool that allows users to block a list of over 8,000 accounts deemed by its creators as being “trolls, bots and fake accounts spewing lies and messages of hate”.

There is a question over whether such a tool is good for healthy debate between opposing viewpoints, but the fact that some users feel it is necessary shows just how toxic and polarising the debate around abortion has become online.

As for bots, have they really played a role? Proving they exist is a difficult task. While bots come in many shapes and sizes and are increasingly hard to detect as automation software and tactics evolve, amongst this data set three categories of suspicious activity were noted. Based on a strict metric of analysis, below are three categories of suspicious activity.

Category one are accounts with more than three numbers in their handle, category two included category one's terms with the addition of accounts that do not having a stated location, and category three adds a third condition – accounts with no bio.

Using these categories, of 432,599 tweets examined, a significant proportion of accounts on both sides exhibited bot-like markers.

Of the accounts tweeting under #repealthe8th, 1% had three or more numbers in their name, 3% had numerical names and no locations, and 7% also had no bio.

The accounts using the hashtag #savethe8th, although a smaller number of tweets overall, showed a higher percentage of bot-like accounts overall.

Twice the percentage of those retweeting #Repealthe8th, 2% of #Savethe8th retweeters had numerical names, 6% also had no location, and 14% had all three indicators.

Overall, the Twitter conversation online around the abortion referendum appears deeply divided, with echo chambers of inwardly endorsing communities, interest from international communities, and suspicious bot-like activity.