What’s Trending? 📈 Russia, Ukraine, and the State of the Union

This piece was originally published in the March 4, 2022 edition of CAP Action’s weekly newsletter, What’s Trending? Subscribe to What’s Trending? here.

Hey, y’all.

Even during the week leading up to President Biden’s first State of the Union address, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine dominated Facebook.

Read on to learn more. But first, in case you missed it, check out our February 25 edition of What’s Trending?

WHAT’S TRENDING THIS WEEK

  • Russia-Ukraine Conflict: As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominates social media, Facebook and Twitter removed Russian disinformation accounts targeting Ukraine.
  • The State of the Union: On Tuesday night, Biden delivered his first State of the Union address. The speech strongly condemned Putin, while also focusing on Biden’s domestic economic plan and reassuring Americans about rising prices. Biden called for regulation of social media platforms and greater protection of children online, which made him the first president to mention social media by name in the State of the Union.
  • SCOTUS: Last Friday, President Biden announced the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. She would be the first Black woman and federal public defender to serve on the Court. Her nomination has already been met with resistance from conservatives, such as Lindsey Graham and Tucker Carlson.

WHAT WE’RE HEARING ON SOCIAL

Progressive pages authored nine of the top 10 political posts of the past week on Facebook, a substantial increase from the general trend of an even split or dominance by conservative pages. Overall, post topics were aligned between conservative and progressive pages, with the focus almost exclusively on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Progressive posts showed solidarity with Ukraine by focusing on Ukrainians’ courage and generosity in the face of adversity and featured many posts from The Other 98%. Those focusing on courage highlighted a conference of Ukrainian librarians and a Ukrainian heavyweight champion who chose to stay in Ukraine and fight and an 80-year-old man who joined the Ukrainian army “for his grandkids”. Those focusing on generosity included a report of Ukrainian soldiers caring for a surrendering Russian soldier. A statement from former President Barack Obama on Ukraine also gained quite a bit of traction.

Conservative posts took a few distinct messaging directions that all diverged from progressive pages. First, there were a few posts displaying graphic images of violence or the aftermath of violence in Ukraine. Another line of messaging looked toward domestic politics, arguing for expanded US oil production or highlighting a poll that claims that a majority of Americans don’t believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have happened if Trump were still president. A third line praised Elon Musk’s decision to make SpaceX’s Starlink broadband service available in Ukraine.

This difference in messaging between the two sets of pages may help explain the unusually stark disparity in post performance this week. While progressives drove a unified message praising Ukrainians for their strength and spirit and offering solidarity, conservatives were less aligned and more scattered on how to react to this international event.

Top 10 progressive and conservative Facebook posts by interactions, according to data from NewsWhip
Top 10 political Facebook posts by interactions for the weeks of February 17 and February 24, according to data from NewsWhip
Top 10 Facebook posts from progressive pages over the last week, according to data from NewsWhip
op 10 Facebook posts from conservative pages over the last week, according to data from NewsWhip.

DEEP DIVE

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most highly-engaged topic we have observed on Facebook in the last year, with the spike in weekly interactions far surpassing that of the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in late August. According to NewsWhip, there were over 87 million interactions on Facebook posts from U.S. pages referencing Ukraine or Putin between February 17 and March 2 — nearly triple the number for the next highest topic in our panel, President Biden.

Total Facebook interactions for posts referencing topic keywords, according to data from NewsWhip (U.S. pages only)

President Biden did see a substantial bump with the State of the Union address this week, accumulating nearly 9 million interactions between Tuesday and Wednesday. The speech dedicated significant time to addressing Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, but also aimed to refocus attention on the President’s domestic economic agenda.

President Biden emphasized strengthening America’s infrastructure and manufacturing capacity domestically, lowering energy and pharmaceutical costs for Americans to combat inflation, and passing legislation so that wealthy individuals and corporations would pay their fair share in taxes. Facebook posts that referenced these topics (represented by the “Economic Issues” line in the chart above) increased in daily volume by 25% from February 28 to March 1 and March 2, but did not see a corresponding increase in interactions.

One of the few topics that did see a major increase in Facebook interactions from the State of the Union was Representative Lauren Boebert, who repeatedly heckled the President over the course of the speech. According to data collected from NewsWhip, Boebert’s name was mentioned in 1,600+ posts on the day after the speech from a wide range of both conservative- and progressive-leaning pages.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been the preeminent topic on Facebook over the past year, has clearly receded into the background, with weekly Facebook interactions less than a quarter of what they were in early January. President Biden highlighted new steps his administration was taking to address the pandemic in his address, aiming to maintain the declining case numbers that the U.S. is currently seeing, make tests and antiviral pills widely available to Americans, and prepare for any new variants. These measures were received with a slight increase in interactions on Facebook, but not significant — it seems that at this point in the pandemic, social media’s attention is elsewhere.

Thanks for reading,

Alex

P.S. Please do forward this along to your friends who are interested or encourage them to sign up here.

This newsletter is written by me, Alex Witt (@alexandriajwitt), a progressive political staffer and Dolly Parton enthusiast (she/her), and CAP Action’s fantastic team of designers, data analysts, and email strategists.

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