A 'stranglehold' on the data that could help explain political extremism

A 'stranglehold' on the data that could help explain political extremism
Social media platforms play a vital role in affecting others, says the paper. Credit: Shutterstock images

The advent of social media has led to a vast increase in the amount of social information that we see about others' political behaviour and this has important implications for democracy, argues Professor Helen Margetts in Nature Human Behaviour.

Professor Margetts, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, says getting access to more data from Facebook, or the platforms it owns such as Instagram or WhatsApp, or other social platforms is crucial to understand more about the underlying trends and patterns in future political . Yet Facebook has been reluctant to work with academic researchers or to publish research.

Professor Margetts highlights why such data is 'crucial': Social media are not just for elections, she says. Social information presented on plays a vital role as a driver of behaviour in the build-up of contemporary political mobilisations, or shifts in public support. But, she argues, we don't know enough about the nature of that effect. Instead, we lurch between moral panic about the pathological effect of social media on politics, and saying that it makes no difference at all and is not important.

During the US 2016 presidential election period, around 128 million people across the United States generated 8.8 billion likes, posts, comments and shares related to the election on Facebook alone, says Professor Margetts. Since Donald Trump became president, US Twitter users can even witness the development of policy as it is formed or contested. Social media platforms exert social influence on all aspects of political behaviour, providing users with visible signals about what other people are doing or thinking. We know from decades of that this social information influences whether or not an individual then contributes to a political or social cause, for example. But, Professor Margetts argues, 'instead of working out systematically how these effects play out on social media, we tend to blame them for echo chambers, hate speech, fake news and "post-truth."'

Professor Margetts suggests that experimental evidence could be used to understand how the design of platforms actually impacts upon political behaviour, to design out some effects and make the algorithms used to determine news feeds 'more transparent'. But most platforms do not release data and the algorithms that determine news feeds are closely guarded secrets. Prospects are even bleaker for platforms used by young people, such as Instagram and Snapchat, where most data is deleted as soon as it is read. Speculation over the existence of echo chambers, or how fake news is created, vastly outpaces any experimental studies of their existence, says Professor Margetts.

The comment piece outlines how an experiment to investigate the effect of increasing the proportion of sad items in news feeds resulted in a media storm over Facebook's experimental 'manipulation of emotions'. She describes this as a 'strange accusation', given the continual A/B testing for usage and revenue. The furore has made Facebook (which also owns Instagram and Whatsapp) reluctant to work with or publish results.

She writes: 'Ironically, at a time when there is the possibility of more data being available to political science research than at any time in the field's history, researchers cannot access it to tackle the questions of our time, such as the rise of political polarisation and extremism.'

Explore further

Politics and social media: Americans see overload

More information: Helen Margetts. Political behaviour and the acoustics of social media, Nature Human Behaviour (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-017-0086
Journal information: Nature Human Behaviour

Citation: A 'stranglehold' on the data that could help explain political extremism (2017, April 4) retrieved 19 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2017-04-stranglehold-political-extremism.html
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Apr 04, 2017
The manipulation of information can have few results if there weren't people who will be affected by it.
Unfortunately, there are many who have depraved reasons and reactions to information.
Consider the Trump haters.
Evidence is everywhere that Trump's hands are normal size, but they insist on declaring them small.
The "press" deliberately erected a compound of tents bigger than the Capitol Building on the Mall at the inauguration to try to keep the attendance small, but those who hate Trump act as if that wasn't there.
Trump said truthfully that Germany has not paid its fair share for the support of NATO, but those who hate him still insist nothing he says is true.
He said violence made to appear to be in his name was by opponents and that has been proved, but many still say his supporters are committing widespread violence.

Apr 04, 2017
It should be mentioned that there is a possible reason for Facebook refusing to provide information on trends and such that can be used to analyze behavior patterns.
The content on Facebook is largely if not mostly false. All invented. Doggerel provided by scammers to control opinion, even maybe material by Facebook staffers to start fights, create disruption, stir yup interest. If they provide this information for "research" that could yield policy, they could get in serious trouble.

Apr 04, 2017
julian, some of us do not rely on facebook, but read science.

Perhaps you could try it.

Apr 04, 2017
All I can say about "social knowledge" is that I do not have a Facebook account. However, my wife does. Because of that, I know things about my neighbors, friends and sometimes relatives that I do not want to know. These things have a tendency to reduce my level of respect for them. Its a sad thing.

Apr 04, 2017
Really, gk, you get your political news from science too? I'd suggest both you and the slumbering one get the only opinions your pathological, genocidal religion allows you to have from "Das Kapital", the "Little Red Book", CPUSA.com and your tactics from "Rules for Radicals", heavily infused with taqqiya.

Apr 05, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Apr 05, 2017
Stop the smears. I an a true American, one who volunteered for the War of My Generation.

Because I feel we have to work together to survive and you want it all yourself, we have opposing views. But I do not pursue the idea that you are a Russian Stooge, like the rest of the Republicans.

Are you?

Apr 05, 2017
I an a true American, one who volunteered for the War of My Generation
Yeah yeah weve heard it all before.

"I served my country faithfully and honorably... was awarded blahblah suchandsuch..."

-And THAT guy actually got shot at. Hes as real as you at any rate.

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