Prolific Profanities Seemed to Predict Prominent Protests

Social media reportedly played a big role in the large-scale protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election by enabling the opposition to communicate and coordinate despite government censorship of other media. In the nine months following the election, 2.5 million tweets marked with the hashtag #IranElection were posted to Twitter by Iranians and others discussing the election and its aftermath. RAND categorized the tweets by word types (such as “anger words,” “swear words,” or “first-person plural pronouns” such as “we” and “our”) and names of political individuals or entities (such as “Ahmadinejad,” “Neda Agha-Soltan,” or “Revolutionary Guards”).

One category stood out: swearing. Profanities spiked on Twitter during or immediately prior to each protest involving hundreds of thousands or millions of people (see the figure). This suggests that swearing levels could forecast the outbreak of protests. Particularly in countries with limited freedom of expression, this kind of analysis holds promise for assessing public opinion, forecasting major political events, and shaping inter-national outreach efforts.

Profanities spiked on Twitter during or immediately prior to each protest involving hundreds of thousands or millions of people

SOURCE: Using Social Media to Gauge Iranian Public Opinion and Mood After the 2009 Election, Sara Beth Elson, Douglas Yeung, Parisa Roshan, S. R. Bohandy, Alireza Nader, RAND/TR-1161-RC, 2012, 108 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-5972-7.

Interactive Tool

Using Twitter to Track Public Sentiment in Iran After the Contested 2009 Election. This interactive tool allows users to explore indicators of Iranian public opinion and mood as expressed over Twitter in the nine months following the election.