Social Media and Information in a Post Cambridge Analytica World

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.

A sidewalk spray painted in red with the words "facebook in death"
“Facebook” by Frank Hebbert. CC-BY-2.0. Available on Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/Sq4x8
  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Continue reading “Social Media and Information in a Post Cambridge Analytica World”

Social Media and Information in a Post Cambridge Analytica World

If Something Seems Right… Try To Find the Opposite

Digital communication and PR professionals recognize a few truisms about online communication:

  1. Strong emotions get shared more often on social media.
  2. People tend to share things they really strongly agree or disagree with.
  3. Google and Facebook tend to tailor or curate your feeds, giving you more of the stuff you already like, because that’s what we tend to view as more relevant.
  4. Messages that are easily digestible and meet criteria 1-3 will be more shareable than ones that are not.

In this information environment then, if you want to get your message out, you try to craft something that arouses a strong emotion and is specifically targeted at the audience you want to reach. If you don’t believe me, then think about how Trump’s campaign so masterfully employed Facebook targeting to reach their key demographics. While many still claim that Russian meddling helped to win the election, in reality it was strong, emotional and tailored content that won the day.

A picture of a sticker on a road sign. The sticker says I love propaganda
“I Love Propaganda” by Newtown Graffiti CC BY 2.0. Available from Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/irEHoL

Continue reading “If Something Seems Right… Try To Find the Opposite”

If Something Seems Right… Try To Find the Opposite