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Snurb's blog

Research, rants, and random thoughts by Axel Bruns.


Some Thoughts about Internet Research and Networked Publics

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 05:23:34 +0000

Gatewatching and Citizen JournalismJournalismIndustrial JournalismInternet TechnologiesSocial MediaTwitterAoIR 2017Also in connection with the AoIR 2017 conference last week, I answered a few questions about the field of Internet research, and the conference, for the University of Tartu magazine. Here is what I had to say:What are the major challenges in Internet research?The central challenge is the object of research itself. The nature of the platforms, content, communities, and practices that constitute 'the' Internet is constantly and rapidly in flux – we are dealing with platforms like Snapchat that didn't exist ten years ago, and with practices like 'fake news' that were nowhere near as prominent even two years ago as they are now. This necessarily means that research methods, approaches, frameworks, and concepts must change with them, and that the toolkits we used to understand a particular phenomenon a few years ago may no longer produce meaningful results today. But at the same time we must beware a sense of ahistoricity: 'fake news', for example, does have precedents that reach back to way before the digital age, and we can certainly still learn a lot from the research that studied propaganda and misinformation in past decades and centuries.And yes, with these constant changes there is also a need to constantly consider the ethics of the research. For example, even if a good part of Internet research deals with readily available, ostensibly public content – for instance from social media platforms –, we cannot necessarily assume that this content was meant to be so public; even if (or perhaps even because) we can now observe the activities of users without their becoming aware of it, we also have a profound responsibility to ensure that how we study and report on their activities in turn does not cause them harm. AoIR as a community has had a strong focus on the development of sensible Internet research ethics guidelines right since it started, almost twenty years ago, and we have just started a new cycle of reviewing and revising these guidelines for the current online environment.Are we able to keep up with all of these changes?I hope so! And I am thoroughly encouraged in that hope by the excellent, inspiring research that I see every year in our annual conferences, not least also from graduate students and junior researchers. Much of this work is inventive, innovative, experimental where it needs to be, and groundbreaking in its consideration of yet more new platforms and practices. It is also increasingly interdisciplinary, drawing on various methodological and conceptual traditions and developing new mixed-methods approaches to the study of its subjects – perhaps also thanks to the considerable digital methods training and resources that are now available to the current generation of Internet scholars. And at the same time I think we are also mature enough not just to fall for current buzzwords: the recent excitement about 'big data', for example, has been the focus of some very critical examination just as much as it has been a reason for many of us to further explore and develop computational social science research methods.What digital methods training is available for researchers in the field?Thanks to the efforts of a number of research groups and centres around the world, digital research methods have developed rapidly over the past ten years or so; the development of such methods in Internet studies is part of a wider trend towards the digital humanities, and in fact towards the development of greater connections between the humanities and social sciences on the one hand, and computational and network sciences on the other. But these methods still remain very unevenly distributed: people in our field don't necessarily have the computational, statistical, or mathematical knowledge to make full use of emerging quantitative methods, or a sufficient awareness of the complexities of digital and social media to effectively apply more qualitative methods. So, there's a great need for workshops that[...]

Talking Internet Research at AoIR 2017

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 04:57:25 +0000

Before the AoIR 2017 conference last week, in my role as the incoming President of the Association of Internet Researchers I also participated in a Webinar at the University of Tartu to discuss the field of Internet research, alongside AoIR co-founder Steve Jones and AoIR Vice-President Lynn Schofield-Clark. Here's the full video:

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Twitter Bots and Hate Speech in Persian Gulf Countries

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 12:06:20 +0000

The next speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Mark Owen Jones, whose focus is on social media propaganda in Persian Gulf states. Overall, there is still a considerable lack of research into social media propaganda in Arabic; in Gulf states, there is a long history of 'fake news' in social media, and hate speech towards particular groups, ethnicities, and countries is not uncommon. Hate speech may be operationalised by ruling autocrats as a tool to divide and rule the population; different religious groups are allowed to attack each other, to keep them from uniting and toppling the government.

The present study examined tweets in various topical hashtags in the Gulf since May 2016, and analysed the profile data of the accounts that posted them; this found a number of unusual activity and identity patterns. The research approach was also kept simple in order to make it accessible to civil society and activist groups in the region.

The study found that the spamming of country and regional hashtags with propaganda was common; this undermines these hashtag as spaces for the dissemination of legitimate, useful news. Automated tweets were also used to game trending topics, especially in the context of the recent Qatar crisis. Further, infographics were also used widely to share propaganda content.

One bot network that Mark identified was especially focussed on sharing links to the Saudi 24 satellite network; it pushed xenophobic tweets hostile to Iran, Israel, and Shia Muslims. Bots often accounted for some 50% of all tweets in location-referencing hashtags (such as #bahrain, #iran, #yemen, etc.). Another network pushed the #TrumpWillDestroyIran hashtag, and often presented images of Trump as a crusader knight come to attack Iran. Such bot networks also impacted considerably on the Qatar crisis; anti-Qatar bot activity preceded the crisis itself.

Mark has now created a bot that automatically tweets at accounts that post hate speech, which asks those users whether they feel that such tweets are sectarian. Users often do acknowledge this sectarian nature of these tweets, but also justify them by saying that they are only attacking targets that deserve it, and/or by denying that the Shia users they attack are indeed 'proper' Muslims.

Connective 'Alt-Right' Action on Reddit

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 11:49:16 +0000

The next speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Alex Hogan, whose focus is on the impact of online political communities in politics. There is still considerable debate on whether online action promotes or retards other forms of collective action offline; the recent rise of the 'alt-right' adds another chapter to this discussion.

'Alt-right' activists have made effective use of the Internet and especially of social media to organise and coordinate their activities, attack their enemies, and disseminate their propaganda and narratives. These activists exist largely outside of conventional conservative parties, and refute conventional political processes while supporting alternative, outsider candidates like Donald Trump instead.

The present study examined the r/The_Donald community on Reddit; it examined some 16 million comments from some 340,000 contributors up to February 2017. Activities peaked around specific major events, but also showed a steadily high level of activity throughout the campaign. Participants were largely active for extended periods of time (on average, more than two months), and the most active contributors were also exclusively contribution to this one Reddit forum.

Participants also engaged in collective mobilisation through this forum – attacking, for instance, the comedian Amy Schumer, or the trailer for a Netflix series called "Dear White People". Comments contributing to such campaigns were both diagnostic (outlining the context of their participation), prognostic (identifying approaches to campaigning), or motivational (offering reasons to participate).

Strong collective identities were important here to motivate people to engage; the community in question was both a community of interest and a community of practice, and this is evidence of connective action, too. Participants expressed a strong shared need to act in a specific way in these two campaigns; after the U.S. presidential election, the community became a space where members developed ideas for how they could assist the agenda of the new President, and new participants continued to arrive in the community. They also began to pay more attention to fellow travellers elsewhere, such as far-right leader Marine Le Pen in France. Sharing ideas and approaches to digital activism continues to be a core practice here.

Computational Propaganda around the World

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 11:32:21 +0000

I arrived late to the final AoIR 2017 session on computational propaganda, and I think it's Samantha Bradshaw speaking at the moment. She's presenting the overall Computational Propaganda project at the University of Oxford, which from secondary source research identified some 23 countries that were known to be using some kind of informational warfare online at this stage.

The recent report from the project identifies social media uses in computational propaganda since 2010, which mainly focus inwardly and target domestic audiences; authoritarian regimes are especially active. Democratic countries are more likely to target external audiences, but sometimes also target specific domestic parties. Such countries were often the first to develop computational propaganda approaches, especially in their military sectors; this finding contradicts conventional understandings that believe that autocratic regimes started the recent trend towards computational propaganda.

Across the countries examined, governments, political parties, civil society actors, citizens, and private contractors were variously implicated in reports of computational propaganda activities. Governments may engage both positively, negatively, and neutrally with citizens, and in some cases use direct individual targetting of specific citizens and civic actors; where fake accounts are used, they may employ a mix of automated, human, or cyborg models.

Obviously, different governments' capacities to carry out such activities vary widely, too, and the funds devoted to such work also run from a few thousand dollars to double-digit figures in the millions. Some also engage in capacity-building activities, for instance by offering scholarships to students working in these areas.

To address all this, there is a need to develop new regulatory approaches; these also need to be attuned to the specific local contexts, of course. Regulations may need to deal both with domestic and foreign activities, and this will also affect relationships between states. The starting point here may be new norms, before these are encoded more formally into law.

Media Framing of WikiLeaks

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 07:44:35 +0000

The final speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Catherine Maggs, whose focus is on WikiLeaks. When it first emerged to mainstream media attention, the site was a spectacle, collaborating with some mainstream media at first but also already receiving substantial criticism from many established media organisations for its conduct.

WikiLeaks can be understood with reference to Manuel Castells's concept of counterpower; it challenged the journalistic status quo, in part also because of the question of whether what it did could be considered as a journalistic practice at all, while by now founder Julian Assange's personal troubles have been well publicised and it has been both lauded and attacked by Donald Trump and his supporters.

WikiLeaks has long been associated with liberal, leftist politics, but it was never fully accepted by that side of politics either; it materially contributed to critical responses to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and was subjected to extra-judicial attacks that saw its ability to raise funding curtailed when Paypal and other services refused to work with it.

Media representations and framing of WikiLeaks and its major information disclosures focussed in part on the unprecedented nature of the information dumps made available by the site; such framing also exercises the power of the established mainstream media over new media models in an attempt to define and label them. An analysis of coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post is instructive in this regard, for instance. Here, the Afghan War Logs and especially the Diplomatic Cables received the greatest attention amongst the early leaks published by WikiLeaks.

Media Coverage of the Port Arthur and Lindt Café Shootings

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 07:44:16 +0000

The next speaker at AoIR 2017 is Catherine Son, who examines the role of digital publics in Australian print media practices. In 1996, for instance, when the Port Arthur massacre took place, many of the digital publics that were in evidence during the 2015 Lindt Café siege in Sydney, and a review of these two events of national significance serves to highlight the evolution of the Australian media ecology over these twenty years.

Tasmania's Port Arthur, a former penal colony with a very dark past, was the site of a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 35 people, and prompted the introduction of considerably strengthened gun control legislation in Australia. In December 2015, a lone gunman claiming Islamist links took hostages at a café in Sydney, leading to the deaths of two hostages and the gunman himself after a lengthy siege. How did digital technologies affect how these events were covered, then?

This study draws on a selection of several hundred news reports from major Australian newspapers, as well as oral history interviews with journalists; it assesses the object and attribute salience in these news reports. As it turns out, the number of salient objects and attributes was considerably greater in the coverage of the Port Arthur massacre and its aftermath; there was broader societal debate about violence and gun control sparked by that event than by the siege in Sydney. During the siege, the bulk of the media discussion focussed more narrowly on Islamic extremism and Australian immigration policy.

But journalists nonetheless perceived digital technologies as a challenge to their role as agenda-setters and editors. They highlighted the growing attention to news metrics, and the possibility of major stories to appear from view if they did not receive sufficient clicks on their organisations' homepages; they also noted the substantial pressure they felt from the immediacy of social media. However, diminishing revenues, the 24-hour news cycle, and the influence of the PR and corporate communications industry are likely also major factors here.

The different contexts of the event must also be recognised here. Reporters had to travel to Port Arthur to cover the event, while they were already in Sydney to cover the siege there. Greater opportunities for public participation exist than ever before, but established media agendas remain central.

The Critical Media Theory of Byung-chul Han

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 06:37:05 +0000

The second speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Wolfgang Suetzl, whose focus is on Byung-chul Han, an enormously prolific Korean philosopher working in Germany (he has five books coming out in 2017 alone). Han is influenced by Hegel and Heidegger, but also by Zen Buddhism; he has also drawn on Foucault, Baudrillard, Flusser, and Handke.

Han combines political philosophy, aesthetics, and digital communication; he has argued that digital communication has become the form of power under neoliberalism, and that deliberation is undermined by algorithmic control. In particular, he suggests that digital media in their rapidity remove the time required for rational deliberation.

In his book In the Swarm, he critiques the idea of swarm intelligence, which has been a substantial buzzword in recent years; Han argues that the swarm manifests a centrifugal force of thinking within which only short-lived communalities can be established, while over the longer term groups drift apart and are united only in indignation and protest against the status quo.

Han also highlights the violence of positivity in digital media (as exemplified by the Facebook like button, which seduces users into positive expressions); positivity is a business model in digital media as positive content circulates more widely and generates more engagement. Related to this are also the aesthetics of smoothness, represented both in digital photo filters and haptic touchscreen interfaces.

For Han, digital media no longer represent but co-present, offering a sequence of public and private spaces that sit alongside one another. Han also critiques transparency, which is ruled by presence and the present tense, while the time of politics is ordinarily the future. Further, he sees a crisis of alterity, where liking creates an inferno of sameness.

This sees the emergence of psychopolitics, then, in an extension of Foucault's work: there is a commercial exploitation of freedom itself, rather than of actions and labour. Overall, this is a critical media pessimism: his work is rigorously philosophical, accessible, written well, and drawing on Buddhist media theory; but there is also a tendency towards a nostalgic, overly poetic, and somewhat apocalyptic view of the world.

Understanding Trust in Journalistic Media

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 06:19:21 +0000

The last day at AoIR 2017 starts with Marita Lüders, who begin by highlighting the crucial role of the news media in democracy, and also of citizen trust in the news media as a requirement for the media to exercise that crucial role. But such trust has declined, while citizen choices of older and newer news media have multiplied, with a growth especially in lower-credibility news channels.

So what are the components of trust in the news media? This paper utilises a model that examines trust in organisations, which has not yet been applied to news organisations; it sees trust as the willingness of the trustor to be vulnerable to the actions of the trustee. This trust is seen as an outcome of rational, cognitive processes which are however also related to the affective and social processes. Political preferences are important as factors for trust in specific news media, for example.

News media in hyper-complex modern societies are required to be unbiased intermediaries between the institutions of power and the citizenship, yet this is difficult against the background of the crisis in journalism, especially with the disruptions brought by various new media forms and players in high-choice environments.

In journalism and communication studies, trust is measured in a number of ways. Some key definitions of trust here are trust in the fairness of journalistic reporting; trust as defined intuitively by audiences themselves; or trust as a multidimensional property (including perceptions of an appropriate selection of topics, selection of facts, accuracy of depictions, journalistic assessment).

In organisational trust, factors of perceived trustworthiness might include perceptions of ability (journalistic skills and expertise); benevolence (intending to do good for society rather than just for the company); and integrity (adherence to an acceptable sense of professional principles).

Such perceptions may then also be different across new media users: individual differences include the propensity or disposition to trust others, and this could be related to age, gender, and other sociodemocraphic factors; political differences, such as the positioning of the individual on a left-to-right political spectrum; and social network positioning, including the social capital that users may mobilise in support of social cooperation, but also participation in specific communities, such as Facebook groups that are sceptical of specific news media.

There is now a need to operationalise this framework, and to test these drivers of trust or mistrust.

Towards e-Privacy by Design in European Union Legislation

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 13:59:02 +0000

PoliticsGovernmente-GovernmentInternet Technologies'Big Data'AoIR 2017The second keynote at AoIR 2017 is by Marju Lauristin, who is both a professor at the University of Tartu and the rapporteur on e-privacy at the European Parliament, where she also represents Estonia as an MEP; indeed she has been named one of the most influential Estonian women in the world. This week the Parliament voted on new EU privacy regulations which Marju has been instrumental in developing.Her focus here is on the impact of algorithms on deliberative democracy, and the short summary of the situation is that algorithms will severely affect democracy if the companies that utilise them remain unchecked, and that they will prevented from doing so only if effective legislation is enacted to protect democratic processes.Of course, the whole idea of deliberative democracy is deeply connected to the Habermasian conceptualisation of the public sphere; it depends on rational political deliberation. But this idea is now in question, given the substantive changes to the media industry, media practices, and media audiences. Political communication researchers now understand that not many people are necessarily interested in political deliberation and critical discussion; that instead much public communication is more affective and antagonistic rather that oriented towards rational consensus development.Eastern European scholars took Habermas very seriously during Soviet times, and mythologised freedom and democracy during the Cold War, but since the achievement of independence in 1992 a deep disappointment has also set in: fragmentation of the party system was also seen as a loss of unity, and there was a steep learning curve in coming to terms with post-communist politics. The expected critical discussions informing a rational electoral choice were in part overwhelmed by modern, commercially structured forms of political marketing that had not been anticipated.The shift of some such processes to digital environments has further complicated this. There are digital, technological opportunities for political deliberation, but also a low capacity for creating rational political argumentation and critical dialogue; at the same time, digital traces and sources of 'big data' are being used to understand as well as channel and subvert public opinion. Indeed, they are in part also used to create a mistrust of rational deliberation; the pursuit of consensus is seen by some as a weakness.Search and social media optimisation, behavioural targetting, and other mechanisms are also powerful here because of an absence of institutional, legal, and regulatory frameworks for their operation. In the European Parliament there are almost unlimited possibilities to draw on scholars and other experts to inform such policies, yet much of the political response still relies on intuitive and knee-jerk responses rather than on evidence informed by research; additionally, media effects research is now again a critical discipline, but many of its findings remain deeply disputed and lag behind the current technological environment.Deliberation is also work. We talk to each other, engage in logical argument, contest each other's views, and come to some form of rational consensus. Yet much political argumentation is now performed in visuals and figures, and the politicians charged with such argument in parliamentary processes often lack the domain knowledge to fully comprehend what they are dealing with. Legislation on voter profiling, on data retention, on privacy, on 'big data' is difficult to develop if the legislators do not have a full understanding of what they are legislating on – to enshrine such legislation in meaningful legal text is even more complicated. To make the meaning of such legislation intelligible to ordinary cit[...]