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Some Thoughts about Internet Research and Networked Publics

Also 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.

Twitter Bots and Hate Speech in Persian Gulf Countries

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.

Selfie Protests and the Creation of a Shared Sense of Identity

The post-lunch session at AoIR 2017 starts with Giovanni Boccia Artieri, whose interest is in the #selfieprotest phenomenon. Overall, online and social media platforms are playing an increasing role in protest movements, of course, and one of the challenges here is to find some of the boundaries of the public sphere that emerges through this, as well as to trace the dynamics of engagement in these spaces.

Different Bots in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

The next speaker at AoIR 2017 is Olga Boichàk, who begins by highlighting the role of social media platforms in structuring specific forms of human sociality. But this also means that automated accounts – specifically, bots – can imitate and affect genuine human interactions in these spaces. What does this mean for online discussions in the context of the 2016 U.S. election campaign, then?

Donald Trump's Campaign and the Hybrid Media System

The first keynote at AoIR 2017 is by Andrew Chadwick, who explores what the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign means for our understanding of the hybrid media system. Political communication is in the middle of a chaotic transitional period, due in good part to the disruptions brought by newer, digital media; some older media have also been renewed by integrating the logics of newer media. This then represents a systemic perspective that examines forces while they are in flow.

The hybrid media system is built on the interactions of older and newer media logics in the reflexively connected field of media and politics. Actors in this field tap and steer information flows in ways that suit their goals, enable or disable the agency of others, across various older and newer media settings. 'Hybrid' here shifts our conceptualisation from 'either/or' to 'not only, but also'; it foregrounds complexity, interdependence and transition. We pay more attention to boundaries, flux, and liminal spaces, where practices intermeshing and co-evolve.

Reply Trees in the Australian Twittersphere

The next speaker in this AoIR 2017 is my DMRC colleague Brenda Moon, whose focus is on reply chains on Twitter. There are a number of ways in which replies are chained together, and in fact the term 'reply tree' may be preferable to 'reply chains': there may be many replies to the same original tweet only, or a long dyadic interaction over a series of tweets, or various permutations between these two extremes.

Testing the Validity of Twitter API Data

The next speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Rebekah Tromble, whose focus is on the impact of digital data collection methods on scientific inference. Collecting data from social media APIs, how can we know whether we have 'good', valid data?

Patterns in Media References in the Dutch Twittersphere

The second paper in this AoIR 2017 session is by Daniela van Geenen and Mirko Schäfer, whose focus is on 'fake news' on Twitter. They began by tracking activities in the Dutch Twittersphere, and identified a number of communities within this userbase; within these communities, news and other information are being shared, and a process of social filtering takes place.

Using Social Media to Represent 'Public Opinion'

The third presenter in this Future of Journalism 2017 session is Shannon McGregor, whose interest is in the role of social media in the construction of public opinion by the political press. There's an increasing tendency for journalistic coverage to claim that 'Twitter' or even 'the Internet' responded in a particular way to specific political issues and controversies, and social media certainly play a role in how public opinion is shaped, but how might we think about the type of public opinion that can be observed on social media?

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