Mapping collective public opinion in the Russian blogosphere

Widely reported as fraudulent, the 2011 Russian Parliamentary elections provoked mass street protest action by tens of thousands of people in Moscow and cities and towns across Russia. Image by Nikolai Vassiliev.

Blogs are becoming increasingly important for agenda setting and formation of collective public opinion on a wide range of issues. In countries like Russia where the Internet is not technically filtered, but where the traditional media is tightly controlled by the state, they may be particularly important. The Russian language blogosphere counts about 85 million blogs – an amount far beyond the capacities of any government to control – and the Russian search engine Yandex, with its blog rating service, serves as an important reference point for Russia’s educated public in its search of authoritative and independent sources of information. The blogosphere is thereby able to function as a mass medium of “public opinion” and also to exercise influence.

One topic that was particularly salient over the period we studied concerned the Russian Parliamentary elections of December 2011. Widely reported as fraudulent, they provoked immediate and mass street protest action by tens of thousands of people in Moscow and cities and towns across Russia, as well as corresponding activity in the blogosphere. Protesters made effective use of the Internet to organize a movement that demanded cancellation of the parliamentary election results, and the holding of new and fair elections. These protests continued until the following summer, gaining widespread national and international attention.

Most of the political and social discussion blogged in Russia is hosted on the blog platform LiveJournal. Some of these bloggers can claim a certain amount of influence; the top thirty bloggers have over 20,000 “friends” each, representing a good circulation for the average Russian newspaper. Part of the blogosphere may thereby resemble the traditional media; the deeper into the long tail of average bloggers, however, the more it functions as more as pure public opinion. This “top list” effect may be particularly important in societies (like Russia’s) where popularity lists exert a visible influence on bloggers’ competitive behavior and on public perceptions of their significance. Given the influence of these top bloggers, it may be claimed that, like the traditional media, they act as filters of issues to be thought about, and as definers of their relative importance and salience.

Gauging public opinion is of obvious interest to governments and politicians, and opinion polls are widely used to do this, but they have been consistently criticized for the imposition of agendas on respondents by pollsters, producing artefacts. Indeed, the public opinion literature has tended to regard opinion as something to be “extracted” by pollsters, which inevitably pre-structures the output. This literature doesn’t consider that public opinion might also exist in the form of natural language texts, such as blog posts, that have not been pre-structured by external observers.

There are two basic ways to detect topics in natural language texts: the first is manual coding of texts (ie by traditional content analysis), and the other involves rapidly developing techniques of automatic topic modeling or text clustering. The media studies literature has relied heavily on traditional content analysis; however, these studies are inevitably limited by the volume of data a person can physically process, given there may be hundreds of issues and opinions to track — LiveJournal’s 2.8 million blog accounts, for example, generate 90,000 posts daily.

For large text collections, therefore, only the second approach is feasible. In our article we explored how methods for topic modeling developed in computer science may be applied to social science questions – such as how to efficiently track public opinion on particular (and evolving) issues across entire populations. Specifically, we demonstrate how automated topic modeling can identify public agendas, their composition, structure, the relative salience of different topics, and their evolution over time without prior knowledge of the issues being discussed and written about. This automated “discovery” of issues in texts involves division of texts into topically — or more precisely, lexically — similar groups that can later be interpreted and labeled by researchers. Although this approach has limitations in tackling subtle meanings and links, experiments where automated results have been checked against human coding show over 90 percent accuracy.

The computer science literature is flooded with methodological papers on automatic analysis of big textual data. While these methods can’t entirely replace manual work with texts, they can help reduce it to the most meaningful and representative areas of the textual space they help to map, and are the only means to monitor agendas and attitudes across multiple sources, over long periods and at scale. They can also help solve problems of insufficient and biased sampling, when entire populations become available for analysis. Due to their recentness, as well as their mathematical and computational complexity, these approaches are rarely applied by social scientists, and to our knowledge, topic modeling has not previously been applied for the extraction of agendas from blogs in any social science research.

The natural extension of automated topic or issue extraction involves sentiment mining and analysis; as Gonzalez-Bailon, Kaltenbrunner, and Banches (2012) have pointed out, public opinion doesn’t just involve specific issues, but also encompasses the state of public emotion about these issues, including attitudes and preferences. This involves extracting opinions on the issues/agendas that are thought to be present in the texts, usually by dividing sentences into positive and negative. These techniques are based on human-coded dictionaries of emotive words, on algorithmic construction of sentiment dictionaries, or on machine learning techniques.

Both topic modeling and sentiment analysis techniques are required to effectively monitor self-generated public opinion. When methods for tracking attitudes complement methods to build topic structures, a rich and powerful map of self-generated public opinion can be drawn. Of course this mapping can’t completely replace opinion polls; rather, it’s a new way of learning what people are thinking and talking about; a method that makes the vast amounts of user-generated content about society – such as the 65 million blogs that make up the Russian blogosphere — available for social and policy analysis.

Naturally, this approach to public opinion and attitudes is not free of limitations. First, the dataset is only representative of the self-selected population of those who have authored the texts, not of the whole population. Second, like regular polled public opinion, online public opinion only covers those attitudes that bloggers are willing to share in public. Furthermore, there is still a long way to go before the relevant instruments become mature, and this will demand the efforts of the whole research community: computer scientists and social scientists alike.

Read the full paper: Olessia Koltsova and Sergei Koltcov (2013) Mapping the public agenda with topic modeling: The case of the Russian livejournal. Policy and Internet 5 (2) 207–227.

Also read on this blog: Can text mining help handle the data deluge in public policy analysis? by Aude Bicquelet.


González-Bailón, S., A. Kaltenbrunner, and R.E. Banches. 2012. “Emotions, Public Opinion and U.S. Presidential Approval Rates: A 5 Year Analysis of Online Political Discussions,” Human Communication Research 38 (2): 121–43.

Can text mining help handle the data deluge in public policy analysis?

Policy makers today must contend with two inescapable phenomena. On the one hand, there has been a major shift in the policies of governments concerning participatory governance – that is, engaged, collaborative, and community-focused public policy. At the same time, a significant proportion of government activities have now moved online, bringing about “a change to the whole information environment within which government operates” (Margetts 2009, 6).

Indeed, the Internet has become the main medium of interaction between government and citizens, and numerous websites offer opportunities for online democratic participation. The Hansard Society, for instance, regularly runs e-consultations on behalf of UK parliamentary select committees. For examples, e-consultations have been run on the Climate Change Bill (2007), the Human Tissue and Embryo Bill (2007), and on domestic violence and forced marriage (2008). Councils and boroughs also regularly invite citizens to take part in online consultations on issues affecting their area. The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, for example, recently asked its residents for thier views on Sex Entertainment Venues and Sex Establishment Licensing policy.

However, citizen participation poses certain challenges for the design and analysis of public policy. In particular, governments and organizations must demonstrate that all opinions expressed through participatory exercises have been duly considered and carefully weighted before decisions are reached. One method for partly automating the interpretation of large quantities of online content typically produced by public consultations is text mining. Software products currently available range from those primarily used in qualitative research (integrating functions like tagging, indexing, and classification), to those integrating more quantitative and statistical tools, such as word frequency and cluster analysis (more information on text mining tools can be found at the National Centre for Text Mining).

While these methods have certainly attracted criticism and skepticism in terms of the interpretability of the output, they offer four important advantages for the analyst: namely categorization, data reduction, visualization, and speed.

1. Categorization. When analyzing the results of consultation exercises, analysts and policymakers must make sense of the high volume of disparate responses they receive; text mining supports the structuring of large amounts of this qualitative, discursive data into predefined or naturally occurring categories by storage and retrieval of sentence segments, indexing, and cross-referencing. Analysis of sentence segments from respondents with similar demographics (eg age) or opinions can itself be valuable, for example in the construction of descriptive typologies of respondents.

2. Data Reduction. Data reduction techniques include stemming (reduction of a word to its root form), combining of synonyms, and removal of non-informative “tool” or stop words. Hierarchical classifications, cluster analysis, and correspondence analysis methods allow the further reduction of texts to their structural components, highlighting the distinctive points of view associated with particular groups of respondents.

3. Visualization. Important points and interrelationships are easy to miss when read by eye, and rapid generation of visual overviews of responses (eg dendrograms, 3D scatter plots, heat maps, etc.) make large and complex datasets easier to comprehend in terms of identifying the main points of view and dimensions of a public debate.

4. Speed. Speed depends on whether a special dictionary or vocabulary needs to be compiled for the analysis, and on the amount of coding required. Coding is usually relatively fast and straightforward, and the succinct overview of responses provided by these methods can reduce the time for consultation responses.

Despite the above advantages of automated approaches to consultation analysis, text mining methods present several limitations. Automatic classification of responses runs the risk of missing or miscategorising distinctive or marginal points of view if sentence segments are too short, or if they rely on a rare vocabulary. Stemming can also generate problems if important semantic variations are overlooked (eg lumping together ‘ill+ness’, ‘ill+defined’, and ‘ill+ustration’). Other issues applicable to public e-consultation analysis include the danger that analysts distance themselves from the data, especially when converting words to numbers. This is quite apart from the issues of inter-coder reliability and data preparation, missing data, and insensitivity to figurative language, meaning and context, which can also result in misclassification when not human-verified.

However, when responding to criticisms of specific tools, we need to remember that different text mining methods are complementary, not mutually exclusive. A single solution to the analysis of qualitative or quantitative data would be very unlikely; and at the very least, exploratory techniques provide a useful first step that could be followed by a theory-testing model, or by triangulation exercises to confirm results obtained by other methods.

Apart from these technical issues, policy makers and analysts employing text mining methods for e-consultation analysis must also consider certain ethical issues in addition to those of informed consent, privacy, and confidentiality. First (of relevance to academics), respondents may not expect to end up as research subjects. They may simply be expecting to participate in a general consultation exercise, interacting exclusively with public officials and not indirectly with an analyst post hoc; much less ending up as a specific, traceable data point.

This has been a particularly delicate issue for healthcare professionals. Sharf (1999, 247) describes various negative experiences of following up online postings: one woman, on being contacted by a researcher seeking consent to gain insights from breast cancer patients about their personal experiences, accused the researcher of behaving voyeuristically and “taking advantage of people in distress.” Statistical interpretation of responses also presents its own issues, particularly if analyses are to be returned or made accessible to respondents.

Respondents might also be confused about or disagree with text mining as a method applied to their answers; indeed, it could be perceived as dehumanizing – reducing personal opinions and arguments to statistical data points. In a public consultation, respondents might feel somewhat betrayed that their views and opinions eventually result in just a dot on a correspondence analysis with no immediate, apparent meaning or import, at least in lay terms. Obviously the consultation organizer needs to outline clearly and precisely how qualitative responses can be collated into a quantifiable account of a sample population’s views.

This is an important point; in order to reduce both technical and ethical risks, researchers should ensure that their methodology combines both qualitative and quantitative analyses. While many text mining techniques provide useful statistical output, the UK Government’s prescribed Code of Practice on public consultation is quite explicit on the topic: “The focus should be on the evidence given by consultees to back up their arguments. Analyzing consultation responses is primarily a qualitative rather than a quantitative exercise” (2008, 12). This suggests that the perennial debate between quantitative and qualitative methodologists needs to be updated and better resolved.


Margetts, H. 2009. “The Internet and Public Policy.” Policy & Internet 1 (1).

Sharf, B. 1999. “Beyond Netiquette: The Ethics of Doing Naturalistic Discourse Research on the Internet.” In Doing Internet Research, ed. S. Jones, London: Sage.

Read the full paper: Bicquelet, A., and Weale, A. (2011) Coping with the Cornucopia: Can Text Mining Help Handle the Data Deluge in Public Policy Analysis? Policy & Internet 3 (4).

Dr Aude Bicquelet is a Fellow in LSE’s Department of Methodology. Her main research interests include computer-assisted analysis, Text Mining methods, comparative politics and public policy. She has published a number of journal articles in these areas and is the author of a forthcoming book, “Textual Analysis” (Sage Benchmarks in Social Research Methods, in press).