Social Media and Democracy

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It seems clear now that social media is changing democracies around the world. When I was teaching social media courses in 2010 and 2011, there was a lot of discussion about the role of social media in the “Arab Spring.”  The Arab uprisings started a debate over the role and influence of social media. Did Facebook and Twitter power the ousting of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the imminent overthrow of Mubarak.

The perceived Facebook and Twitter revolutions seemed to be centered on young protesters mobilizing on their feet and on mobile devices. Some called this “citizen journalism.”

My students, like many critiques, felt social media was a democratizing tool. But in the years since, opinions on social media and democracy seem to have turned the other way towards it as hurting democracy.

For example, Facebook has had to look at its impact it has on the democratic process after receiving much criticism for content on the platform during the Clinton/Trump campaigns. Facebook actually said it could no longer guarantee that social media is beneficial to democracy. That is a surprising admission.

For example, Facebook has had to look at its impact it has on the democratic process after receiving much criticism for content on the platform during the Clinton/Trump campaigns.

Facebook actually said it could no longer guarantee that social media is beneficial to democracy. That is a surprising admission.

One critique of social media is the ability to create echo chambers — online spaces that only surround users with like-minded people and ideas.

Soledad O’Brien examined how social media is impacting democracy on her program Matter of Fact.

Harvard professor Cass Sunstein studies this effect in his new book Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Sunstein talked with O’Brien to discuss the pros and cons of social media and why the ability to filter out opposing views is a threat to our democracy.

There’s another phenomenon at work: “group polarization” which says that when you are in an echo chamber, you can become more extreme and intolerant.


 

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Can We Measure Social Media Sentiment?

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Social media sentiment is the perceived positive or negative mood being portrayed in a social media post or engagement.

If you could track sentiment accurately, it would help you understand the person’s feelings behind the post. As a marketer, this would be very useful, but would also be useful for individuals.

Certainly, there is sentiment behind every post. But can it be measured with any certainty?

There are scholarly articles about social media sentiment and a good number of companies that are working on trying to measure sentiment, which you might also see described as sentiment analysis or opinion mining. By any name, this is the analysis of the feelings (i.e. attitudes, emotions and opinions) behind the words.

Most of the tools use natural language processing. Natural language processing (NLP) is a field of computer science, artificial intelligence, and computational linguistics concerned with the interactions between computers and human (natural) languages.  It allows you to talk to your phone or some device in your home or car. These devices can understand your words (usually), but can they read your emotions? When you ask for directions are you angry, tired, frustrated or in a wonderful mood?  When someone responds to an offer posted in social media by a company by saying “This is crazy!” is that a good kind of crazy or an insanity crazy?

In social media, this is analysis that goes beyond Likes, Shares or Comments. Did people respond to the original post in a positive, negative, sarcastic, humorous or biased way? A human reader may be able to discern that, but can a tool do the same thing for hundreds, thousands or millions of posts?

The  complexity of emotional responses makes this analysis difficult. You have heard a lot lately about sites like Twitter and Facebook being told that they need to better monitor hate speech in their networks. How do you do that? Rely on users to report it? Have other humans monitor it? That won’t work when every second, on average, around 6,000 tweets are tweeted on Twitter, which corresponds to over 350,000 tweets per minute or 500 million tweets per day.

You need technology, but technology is famously not very good at reading human emotions.

There are some simple tools that some of you might already use for analysis.  Hootsuite Insights and Facebook Insights and SocialMention are some of the easy and more common free(mium) tools for analysis, but they are lacking in the analysis of sentiment. Many businesses and individuals use Google Alerts as a simple way to monitor their name, brand, and to track “content marketing” with the result being emailed as they occur, daily or weekly.

We are still a good ways off from a time when some combination of NLP and AI can read the sentiments of social media posts accurately, but the desire and need for it only grows more critical as networks grow.