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Discussing Illicit Drug Use on Social Media

The third speaker in this Social Media and Society session is Alexia Maddox, whose interest is in the study of online discussions of illicit drug use. Illicit drugs are a stigmatised topic, which has pushed discussion into more permissive spaces such as social media. In Australia, there has been a renewed push to legalise medicinal marijuana, which has increased the volume of discussions about the drug, and this provides the current context for this study.

The project, then, aims to explore the dynamics of the discussion about marijuana on Twitter in Australia, and especially also to identify the key actors and stakeholders in this debate. The project draws on TrISMA, a tracking infrastructure that captures the full range of tweets being posted by some 2.8 million identified Australian Twitter users on an ongoing basis. From this, the project is able to filter a stream of activities related to the core topic of illicit drugs, and to identify the network of interactions.

Part of this is also to identify the 'dripping edges' where Twitter activity intersects with other social and mainstream media platforms. This enables a thematic analysis of the paradigms being used to discuss illicit drugs, in the context of specific events over time. Twitter, in other words, is just a point of entry into a much wider mediaspace across which public debate about illicit drugs takes place. The idea here is to move out from relevant, known hashtags to identify other, related hashtags, @mentions, keywords, etc. that are also clearly related. How this operates may be different from event to event.

There are also significant ethical concerns to be considered here. Illicit drug use is, well, illicit, and the liminal case of medicinal marijuana has been selected for this study, therefore; but even so, the identities of participating users may still need to be obfuscated, and it will be crucial also to transform any quotes to be used so that they are no longer directly googleable.

What should emerge from this study are both new methodological perspectives that indicate how the different and more comprehensive dataset available via TrISMA can shed new light onto Twitter analysis, and new perspectives on how issues like illicit drug use are being discussed using social media.