I was fortunate enough to attend two great International academic conferences in the last two weeks. The first, The International Conference on Social Media and Society, took place at the Copenhagen Business School, and the second, the IEEE Professional Communications Conference, took place at the University of Toronto. The first conference was entirely about research having to do with social media, and included a panel about how social media research must change now that platforms are cutting access to their API’s in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The second conference was, broadly speaking, about technical communication, but included a plenary about how the ways we communicate can either facilitate accuracy, truth and information access, or undermine all of these things. The IEEE Professional Communications Conference also included panels centred around using social media to teach and research communication. Now, after both of these conferences, I have a few reflections of my own on social media, data gathering, research and access to information in a post Cambridge Analytica world.
- Post truth issues such as “alternative facts”, polarization, and propaganda cannot simply be countered with more information. It is clear that people are not swayed by data. Providing additional arguments to back up your claims will likely be countered with additional false information from the other side. The information bounty of online spaces facilitates this. So if we can’t counter mistruths or propaganda with more information what can we do?
- HOW you tell your story is very important in this context. This means that if you really want people to have access to truthful information, you have an obligation to present that information in a way that is accessible, including using plain language and easy-to-understand images, and telling a compelling story whenever possible. Humans tend to respond to narratives better than they respond to straight repetition of facts, so science communicators and researchers need to think about how we can remain faithful to the facts while also telling a compelling story.
- Research therefore, and necessarily must focus on people – what do they want? What resonates with them? How do they access information? What do they believe to be true, and how does this influence how they engage with one another and with the information environment? Since access to API’s is becoming much more difficult in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, we will be challenged to come up with new methods for understanding what people do online, but this is also a wake up call for researchers, as we were becoming quite complacent scraping twitter for the low hanging fruit of our research, without having to ask critical questions about the limitations of API scraping.