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After the horrific attacks on Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people were killed, many have turned to social media to express their feelings, show solidarity with the attack’s victims, or to produce/consume information regarding the attack. The emergence of #JeSuisCharlie on social media and the chanting of it at rallies around the world indicates how central social media has been as a public outlet during this crisis. Indeed, #JeSuisCharlie speaks to the larger point that crisis hashtags are built around a notion of ‘event society’ where social media activity can become part of a public sphere that rallies around events such as crises. However, though we consume and produce social media content in times of crisis, we often do not step back to reflect on our motivations for doing so nor do we question whether social media spaces bring us together or polarize us.

Individuals use social media in times of crisis for several reasons. In my work on Twitter use during Hurricane Sandy, I found that some users turn to social media as a form of ‘self therapy’, an outlet to communicate their anxieties or stresses during a crisis and to receive direct or indirect support. Individuals also turn to social media to produce and consume memes and other humorous content; this can also be a form of self therapy. Though one would not expect humor to be present in #JeSuisCharlie, it is. In homage to the cartoonists who were killed in the attack, some of the images within the hashtag use humor to both cope as well as attack the motives and means of the terrorists. For example, there are numerous cartoons that have been retweeted, which show masked terrorists being attacked by showers of pencils and pens or a gunman shooting a fountain pen and ink spilling out. Some of the most retweeted images include a pencil shoved into a machine gun and a pencil being attacked and then attacking a gunman after being sharpened.

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Social media – especially Twitter – is used by many as source of information. Important news stories are retweeted and friends and followers engage in social bookmarking or other means to suggest important sources of information. Social media is well known for being timely in terms of information dissemination during crises. This has also been the case with Charlie Hebdo. Citizen journalists use social media to report on what is happening on the ground. Often citizen journalists can be closer to the epicenter of a crisis. For example, eyewitness accounts outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices were being tweeted as the events unfolded and the opinions of Parisians were being retweeted right away. Though, like in any crisis, because much of this information is produced by non-professional journalists, social media has and continues to be plagued by issues of information integrity. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, factually inaccurate accounts in terms of the number of dead or number of gunmen were widely circulating on social media.

Social media is also used to check how friends and family are faring during the crises and many platforms including Facebook and Twitter afford us the ability to keep tabs on large circles of friends, family members, and colleagues during crises. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, social media was being used to both collectively express solidarity as well as for Parisians to talk to each other as small and large groups about what happened and how they were feeling.

In following #JeSuisCharlie, it remains clear that we have to remember that trending topics by definition trend because they are popular. As such, they are also attractive targets for anyone who wants a soapbox. Because of the usually open nature of social media, hijacking is possible (whether through bots or masses of supporters). Companies have also tried to sell products via popular hashtags during times of crises – usually in poor taste. Extremists have also had success in inserting themselves into trending topics. Pro-ISIS supporters, for example, have made social media a central aspect of their recruitment and propaganda machine. In the case of #JeSuisCharlie, supporters of the gunmen also emerged. In my book, I argue that the openness of social media makes it able to be used by any side (including extremists, spammers and trolls). In this sense social media like all communication media is value neutral. This can have real consequences on civil society as people increasingly turn to social media as a community space to interact publicly.

This can lead to a certain divisiveness on social media. What often happens in social media and more broadly online are processes of polarization that can often privilege certain positions. Additionally, certain individuals and groups have more social media savvy/knowledge and are able to better leverage the platforms to get their points across. This can result in floods of retweets or mentions where polarized sides and up preaching to the choir and not talking to each other. This is not exclusive to crisis communication, but is a broader trend on Twitter and other social media. Sadly, this polarization does not advance collective dialogues during times of crisis.

Ultimately, we may be tempted to view #JeSuisCharlie as a peripheral part of the Charlie Hebdo crisis. However, social media plays an important role in shaping public perceptions of crises. This is particularly true when celebrities, politicians, and social media ‘influencers’ direct or spark conversations, chatter, or the circulation of information. Often just a handful of tweets are what are most read and responded to during crises. For example in the recent shooting at Florida State University in the US, a tweet about a shooting victim whose life was saved by a bullet hitting a stack of library books in his backpack generated the most discussion on Twitter and was highly influential in shaping social media discussions. In the case of Charle Hebdo, the same is true with next week’s cover of the New Yorker the most retweeted and commented on image and tweets by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Stephen Fry the most retweeted and commented on. Even though social media contains a deluge of content during crises, certain themes can and do shape public opinion during crises.

I wanted to see how the strike actions are doing in terms of online Twitter activity. The data comes from all #fairpayinhe tweets from 6th – 10th February (which covers a one day and two hour strike). 2436 tweets make up the graph below:

fairpayinhe graphAnd here is some basic statistics on what is in the tweets:

Top URLs in Tweet in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
http://www.unison.org.uk/news/higher-education-members-strike-for-fair-pay 68
http://fairpay.web.ucu.org.uk/2014/02/07/he-two-hour-strike-10-february-2014/ 37
http://union-news.co.uk/2014/02/dock-us-days-pay-two-hour-strike-well-strike-day/ 26
http://fairpay.web.ucu.org.uk/2014/02/04/a-new-briefing-on-the-he-dispute-for-students/#.Uvih0KYFG7A.twitter 22
http://fairpay.web.ucu.org.uk/2014/02/04/a-new-briefing-on-the-he-dispute-for-students/#.UviW3Yg9oCp.twitter 22
http://storify.com/ucu/what-is-a-university 19
http://fairpay.web.ucu.org.uk/2014/02/04/a-new-briefing-on-the-he-dispute-for-students/#.UviUC2ic1Mk.twitter 18
http://storify.com/counterfireorg/he-strike-6-feb-fairpayinhe?utm_content=storify-pingback&utm_source=direct-sfy.co&utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter&utm_campaign=&awesm=sfy.co_gbVm 18
http://fairpay.web.ucu.org.uk/2014/02/05/live-6-february-he-strike-action/ 17
http://www.fairpayinhe.org.uk/whos-signed/ 17

 

Top Hashtags in Tweet in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
fairpayinHE 1811
fairpayinhe 208
tubestrike 146
ucu 101
UCU 97
FairPayinHE 70
FairPayInHE 61
solidarity 52
Unite 51
EIS 43

 

Top Words in Tweet in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
rt 1860
fairpayinhe 1717
ucu 1042
strike 865
pay 439
today 322
picket 265
students 261
solidarity 246
more 244

 

Top @ Mentioned in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
ucu 727
unisoninhe 154
unisontweets 147
[Anonymized for privacy] A writer 138
unitetheunion 85
ucuscotland 69
[Anonymized for privacy] A lecturer 43
[Anonymized for privacy] A socialist feminist 38
ucummoss 38
leedsucu 37

 

Top Hashtags in Tweet in Entire Graph Entire Graph Count
fairpayinHE 1811
fairpayinhe 208
tubestrike 146
ucu 101
UCU 97
FairPayinHE 70
FairPayInHE 61
solidarity 52
Unite 51
EIS 43

I have been avidly watching election-related tweets yesterday and today. In both my classes today, I included discussions of tweets which either mentioned Obama, Romney, #election2012, and #election2012 America. The latter was particularly useful in highlighting tweets from non-American tweeters. Supporting the idea that Twitter functions like a diary or chronicle of one’s daily life are tweets which inclue “I just voted”, “just voted”, or “on my way to vote”.

Some interesting tweets which emerged from both my searching and that by students are:

  • NBC confirms a voting machine malfunctioning, changing votes for Obama to Romney in Pennsylvania http://soup.ps/RDBbH1

[Unsurprisingly, tweets recirculating news stories have been extremely popular today. Engagement by the public with news or even with campaigns via social media is noted as significant by Himelboim (2012)]

  •  if Obama loses because y’all dumbass are posting your ballots on social networks, your ass shouldn’t have the privileges to vote!

[The interesting trend of voters using their smart phones to take pictures of their ballots and post them on social media supports arguments in the literature which discuss how ubiquitous computing makes it possible for us to increasingly publish things which are normally very much in our private sphere. Instagramming one’s ballot seems particularly popular!]

  •  ⬜ Romney ⬜ Obama ✔ Glitter, Victoria’s Secret, and tiaras.

[The ‘third option’ genre of tweets has been used frequently within the #election2012 hash tag]

  •  I’ve been praying all day for a #Romney victory

[Tweets in the hash tags provide empirical support that the religious right is actively engaged within Twitter. This supports findings in the literature of the conservative movement’s use of digital media technologies (Bennett 2012)]

[Interestingly, Paul McCartney’s tweet was the most retweeted #election2012 tweet at one point today (#beatles #ukinvasion) ;)]

  • Whether you vote Republican, Democrat or 3rd Party, you should still celebrate with @(name of brand) #America #election2012

[Unsurprisingly, lots of businesses, brands, and bands are using the #election2012 hash tag for promotion purposes. The use of hash tag manipulation is discussed by Page (2012)]

 References:

1.            Page, R., The linguistics of self-branding and micro-celebrity in Twitter: The role of hashtags. Discourse & Communication, 2012. 6(2): p. 181-201.

2.            Bennett, W.L., The Personalization of Politics: Political Identity, Social Media, and Changing Patterns of Participation. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2012. 644(1): p. 20-39.

3.            Himelboim, I., et al., Social Media and Online Political Communication: The Role of Interpersonal Informational Trust and Openness. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 2012. 56(1): p. 92-115.

While I was writing my book about Twitter (Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age), I took an interest in tracking the US Republican primary as it was being constructed within Twitter. Last year, I started collecting all geo-located tweets  (tweets with location information turned on) for the 50 most populous urban American cities (according to U.S. Census statistics ). Because of the geographical richness of this data set, I thought it would be a perfect source to use to study twitter activity surrounding the US Republican primary. Working with  Alexander Gross and Stephanie Bond, I designed and developed a tool to visualize this specific geographically-anchored landscape.

The 2012 US presidential election provided another opportunity to leverage this data. Twitter has been extremely active in terms of election-related discourse. Our Election 2012 Twitter Visualization Tool uses emergent big data research methodologies to visualize the election. The visualization tool has been optimized for the Safari browser (and is known to have some issues in other browsers).

The goal of our research is to explore urban American responses to the 2012 presidential candidates on Twitter. In order to create a representative sample of tweets from urban centers in the United States, we collected tweets from Twitter by location. We took the 50 most populous American cities according to the U.S. Census and instructed Twitter to send us tweets that were within 7-12km of the locations of these cities.

Our software collects these geo-located tweets and uses the data to chart the relative buzz surrounding candidates in the 2012 presidential election. The tool charts the relative popularity of each primary candidate as measured by the number of tweets which we have collected over the last 24 hours and identified with a particular candidate. For a tweet to be counted as referring to a particular candidate, the tweet must contain the candidate’s first and last name separated by a space e.g. “Mitt Romney” or the candidate’s official campaign twitter account name or the account name eg @mittromney. A single mention as reported by the chart’s dynamic legend is equivalent to one tweet which contains one of the candidate names. Tweets which contain more than one candidate name will be counted as mentions for both candidates. These stringent rules prevent unecessary possible over counting of tweets for a candidate. Though the frequency of the tweet count in our visualization is low because of this, the data collected is very robust. Specifically, all tweets visualized do refer to Obama or Romney.

Please visit the tool’s webpage at my lab, the Social Network Innovation Lab, for more detailed information.