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Should we look more closely at social media?

by Katie Howe

Science Engagement Manager, The British Library


Every day people around the world post a staggering 400m tweets, upload 350m photos to Facebook and view 4bn videos on YouTube. With just a few taps anyone anywhere is a political activist; they can share their opinions, endorse their chosen cause, or slam their opponents. This mass of social media data is a veritable treasure trove of opportunities and insight for researchers and businesses alike. But it also raises challenging questions about privacy and security.

At the first of The Data Debates, to be held at the British Library, the use of social media data in electioneering is just one of the issues set to be discussed by a panel of experts teaming up to examine big data – its uses and its implications. For one of our panellists, Professor Helen Margetts, social media data helps us understand how a collection of small actions like sharing, liking or retweeting can give rise to political mobilisations – from neighbourhood campaigns to global political movements – and even revolutions.

It may seem hard to remember a time when social media wasn’t firmly embedded in the workings of an electoral cycle, but the power of social media data in electioneering only really came to the fore during the 2012 US Presidential Election when Barack Obama’s election strategy used social media data on an unprecedented scale.

A huge analytics team looked at social media data for patterns in past voter characteristics and used this information to inform their marketing strategy. For example, broadcasting TV adverts in specific slots targeted at swing voters and virtually scouring the social media networks of Obama supporters on the hunt for friends who could be persuaded to join the campaign as well. And as competition for the 2016 US Presidential Election hots up, the impact of social media data in influencing election decisions remains to be seen.

Back on our side of the pond in last year’s General Election, experts examined Twitter users’ reactions to the televised leadership debates using a technique called sentiment analysis – a commonly-used tool to monitor positive/negative opinions in text. But is this information actually useful or is it just another gimmick? After all can a computer actually tell the difference between a passionate political view and the sarcastic send up that we British are all too fond of?

Some think that social media actions are spontaneous and might not represent more considered opinions. Could sitting behind a phone or computer screen afford some users a veil of anonymity and mean some people post more exaggerated views than they would divulge in person? Or, conversely, are people self-censoring in the knowledge that their data could be used more widely?

And what of the implications for privacy? Do users even know what their data is being used for and should social media platforms be doing more to make their privacy policies clearer? Contrary to popular belief the debate over privacy is not a modern phenomenon. As panellist Professor David Vincent explains in his book I Hope I Don’t Intrude: Privacy and its Dilemmas in Nineteenth-Century Britain, when the Penny Post was first introduced in 1844 it was swiftly followed by concerns over public privacy. Anxiety was fuelled when the state began to intercept letters sent by potential troublemakers like the Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini. Suspecting foul play Mazzini placed poppy seeds inside his letters to radical sympathisers in London. When the envelopes arrived empty his suspicions were confirmed.

While revolutions in our preferred mode of communication might have made invasions of privacy more difficult for users to detect, the Penny Post example serves as a stark reminder that government surveillance has long been employed to preserve public order. But can lessons be learned from history on how to ensure new communication technologies balance convenience and speed with security and public trust?

As our modern lives become increasingly intertwined with technology one thing is clear – the issues surrounding big data affect us all. Although some might think of The British Library as a vast repository of knowledge held only in physical books, newspapers and archives, the future of the Library is increasingly digital and data-driven. We face the mammoth task of collecting and preserving information created in our digital age and a responsibility to help our current and future users unlock this knowledge. This means that we also have some big data challenges of our own, well-matched with the goals of The Alan Turing Institute which was started in the Library building last year.

And that’s also why we are convening a debate about social media data in partnership with the Turing Institute, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.  On 21st Sept we are bringing together historians, social scientists, social media gurus and big data experts at the first of our Data Debates. Join us to be part of that conversation.