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  • Writer's pictureMary MacCarthy

Tweeting a power outage in Pakistan

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

NEWS KEYWORD SEARCH: "Pakistan" and "power"

CONTEXT: I ran a search for these keywords in Twitter last weekend, when Pakistan was experiencing the most widespread power outage to hit the nation since 2015.

MY EXPECTATION: Power outages are quite common in Pakistan, even in major cities - but it's extremely rare for the whole nation to go dark at once. I was curious how Pakistanis might discuss the crisis on Twitter, while the lights were out and after power was restored. I assumed that the majority of Tweets would discuss the logistics of the blackout

ROBOT'S RESULTS: The robot assigned the Tweets to four main topics:

1) The news-y aspects of the blackout, focusing on the fact that the entire nation was affected. Here are some of those Tweets:

2) Concern about hospitals, particularly for Covid patients on ventilators - including hundreds of retweets of the message below:

3) Discussion of who might be responsible for the power outage, ranging from the expected (blame political leadership, especially Prime Minister Imran Khan) to the somewhat absurd (a call for Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai to speak out about the power outage?!):

4) Finally, there's an entire subset of Tweets speculating about an alleged concurrent power blackout at the Vatican - a story that turned out to be just a rumor.

WHAT DID I LEARN FROM THE ROBOT? I know, of course, that Q-anon-style conspiracy theories abound on all social media platforms. But I was astonished to see just how quickly one of these theories could spread around the globe.

According to a USA Today fact-check, the false story about the Vatican first appeared on Saturday on a conservative website in North America, which published a story claiming that Pope Francis was arrested by the FBI during a power outage at the Vatican. When the power actually did go out in Pakistan a few hours later, the fake story about the Vatican had spread so far and wide that hundreds of Twitter users mistakenly linked it to the Pakistan blackout.

This story demonstrates not only the speed with which fake stories can spread online, but also how fake stories can transcend geographical and cultural differences. I would not have been surprised to see Tweets speculating about connections between the Vatican power outage story and real power outages in Europe, or in Roman Catholic countries. But Pakistan is a Muslim nation located in Asia; there's no obvious reason to connect the Vatican and Pakistan, and yet that's exactly what Twitter users did.

TECHNICAL NOTES: Twitter dataset collected using Twarc API. Topic modeling using Natural Language Processing and Latent Dirichlet Allocation (Python/Pandas/NLTK/PyLDAvis).

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