Navalny’s direct-casting: Affective attunement and polarization in the online community of the most vocal Russian opposition politician
Keywords:affective polarization, affective publics, affective attunement, autocracy, YouTube, toxicity, Russia
Social media has a significant impact on the process of political polarization. Despite a large body of research on polarization and social media in democracies, studying this relationship in autocracies remains a niche field. This paper describes the content, composition, and behavioral patterns of discussions that take place on YouTube in the community of Russia’s most vocal opposition politician, Alexei Navalny. Based on a corpus of more than eight million comments, this study provides empirical evidence on the relatively short-term nature of affective attunement induced by a leader promising social changes within an authoritarian context. This discovery is manifested in the observation that periods of high public interest in Navalny’s activities are marked by a significant influx of new audience members into his community. However, the retention rate of this cohort of users was lower than that of the cohort of commenters, who started discussions during periods of lower public interest in Navalny’s activities. This conclusion applies not only to the entire set of commenters, but also to pro-government and anti-government users. According to the exploratory text analysis, the most common topics in discussions were praising Navalny’s activities, criticizing the government, and enticing people to share videos to change the minds of apolitical citizens or pro-government supporters. Finally, one of the affective polarization parameters, the degree of toxicity of discussions, is higher on Navalny’s community than on an apolitical celebrity’s YouTube channel, which establishes a baseline for the level of incivility.
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