The Wagner Group’s Social Footprint: A Time-Series Sentiment Analysis of PMC World
| by Jason Blazakis, Kojin Glick, and Alice Shepard
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Growing out of the Ukrainian Donbas War in 2014, the Russian private military company (PMC) known as the Wagner Group is inextricably entwined with the events in Ukraine. Given this history, it is unsurprising that with the escalation in Russian and Ukrainian conflict, the group has grown in its ambitions within Russian society and abroad. An understanding of the Wagner Group’s public perception by Russian society is imperative to an accurate evaluation of the organization’s next steps. For example, based on whether certain communities associate positively with the Wagner Group as a participant in civil society, different forward paths may be available to Wagner’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin’s efforts to broker political and social influence. If Prigozhin can nurture a public presence among significant sectors of the Russian population, he can further cement his role as one of the decision makers that shape Russia’s future policies.
For the purpose of understanding the changing nature of how conflict actors interact with domestic audiences, this paper offers several novel insights. By framing Prigozhin as a public figure and the Wagner Group as a broker for his influence, we were able to harness computerized statistical methods to underscore the significance of Prigozhin and the Wagner Group’s new public orientation. To monitor how discourse around the Wagner Group changed, we monitored the lifespan of a channel on VK—a popular Russian social media platform—known as “PMCWorld.” We first tracked the change in sentiment from its inception in the middle of 2020 through the end of 2022. Sentiment analysis, though limited in its ability to reveal detailed insights about granular elements of the discussion, is a useful tool to aggregate how a community is feeling about issues relevant to its topic. Since the stated purpose of the “PMCWorld” community is to provide information about the Wagner Group to those interested, the sentiment analysis offers more specificity in determining inflection points in the evolution of discourse surrounding the Wagner Group. We found that by projecting himself into popular culture, Prigozhin now has the tools and ambitions to exert incredible influence in Russian domestic affairs and set the stage for broader Russian foreign policy impact, like the expansion of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
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