Social Sentiment in Times of Crises Innovative Research Design for Crisis-Resistant Democracies

What sentiments prevail within our societies? What are the drivers of polarization and where do the dividing lines run?

Utilizing an innovative research design, SOSEC enables researchers and policymakers to capture collective sentiments and to anticipate potential negative tipping points. Consequently, possible developments and threats to democracy can be uncovered and predicted. This allows researchers and policymakers to develop data-informed, effective countermeasures for future crises.

Researchers at the FZI Research Center for Information Technology have developed this research design in an interdisciplinary team together with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). The Alfred Landecker Foundation supports the research project.


Tipping Points of Society and Their Driving Forces

Due to increased threats,  intensified by the spread of disinformation, tense and uncertain social situations are emerging. Particularly with regard to democracy-threatening tendencies, a sudden tipping of the mood can have devastating consequences.

As a result, large swaths of citizens might reject not only individual political decisions, but the entire political system and its democratic institutions.

Tipping moments are not all detrimental to democratic societies, considering, for example, the spread of sustainable behavior. The crucial attribute of a tipping point is that cascades of changes in opinion can be caused by seemingly minor events.

The attempt to attack the Reichstag building (2020) and the storming of the U.S. Capitol (2021) illustrate the democracy-threatening polarizing moments in both Germany and the United States, and show the importance of better understanding those antidemocratic tendencies.

Using an innovative research design, tipping points are simulated to study opinion formation and polarization in different populations, thus illustrating (potential) developments in real societies.

Innovative research design

The innovative longitudinal study of Social Sentiment in Times of Crises is the first of its kind.

Representative panels are used to continuously survey social sentiment. In a very simple and low-threshold way, participants are asked the same questions once a week on an app since November 2022.

With the resulting weekly survey data, a representative picture of the opinion of the German and U.S. population is being created. The study focuses on the following crisis-related events: The war against Ukraine, the climate and energy crisis, and the effects of rising prices.

In addition, the researchers cross-check social sentiment data in two ways:

1) News event monitoring: The media monitoring platform Event Registry is used to monitor news coverage. Events that were covered extensively by media outlets can be “matched” to potential shifts in social sentiment.

2) Social media monitoring: Relevant events from the news event monitoring are compared with data (“tweets”) from Twitter using predefined search queries. By comparing the two, conclusions can be drawn between the news and social sentiment; at the same time, researchers can investigate the representivity of social media debates.

3) Dashboard: Using a dashboard developed at KIT for SOSEC survey data will be provided to enable users to test hypotheses about the state of society and potential dangers it faces.


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