This project examines the ways in which members of the public and politicians engage interactively with one another using social media platforms. The overarching question is whether and how social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook serve democracy by bringing politicians and citizens into direct, constructive dialog with one another.
The first stage of the project employed an original dataset of tweets originating from, as well as those directed to, Members of Parliament and Congress in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and United States, and explored the interactions between these different actors in several ways.
- "Thanks for (Actually) Responding! How Citizen Demand Shapes Politicians’ Interactive Practices on Twitter" was just published (online before print) in New Media & Society. This article examines the factors that impact whether and to what extent politicians choose to engage with members of the public in genuinely reciprocal dialogue. I find that, contrary to previous expectations, structural factors such as the electoral system and culture of politicians' digital media use are not correlated with legislators' level of reciprocal engagement. Instead, the data suggest that the amount and the tone of demands received from the public condition politicians' willingness to converse via Twitter.
"The Great Leveler? Comparing Citizen-Politician Twitter Engagement across Three Western Democracies," which was recently published (online before print) in European Political Science, asks whether politicians are using social media to engage average citizens - and not just other political and media elite - in dialog. I find that a large share of politicians' genuinely reciprocal exchanges do in fact include average citizens. Though there is much room for improvement, this study suggests that Twitter is indeed opening spaces for citizens and policymakers to engage one another on matters of political import.
“She Belongs in the Kitchen, Not in Congress? Political Engagement and Sexism on Twitter,” co-authored with Karin Koole (Leiden University), is forthcoming in Javnost - The Public. The article recognizes that social media provide mechanisms and spaces for members of the public to share their opinions as never before. They offer direct lines of communcation to democratic representatives and, on a societal scale, provide policymakers, journalists, and other elite gatekeepers with a better sense of the will of (at least some portion of) the people. But, the paper asks, are the views expressed on social media worth listening to? After all, instantaneous, impersonal, and anonymous communication has the tendency to bring out the worst in us - inviting crassness, negativity, and abuse of others, including racism and sexism. Indeed, extensive evidence suggests that women face particularly high levels of abuse online. And yet we know relatively little about the role of sexism in citizen's digitally-mediated interactions with their political representatives. Do people engage more with male politicians? Do they direct more criticism and hostility toward women? While the Twitter data employed in this study do provide some evidence that members of the public engage with men slightly more than with women, citizens actually direct more positive messages toward their female representatives. The codebook for this article can be found on my Supplementary Materials page.
In the next stage of this project, which I have just begun to develop with Leiden colleague Michael Meffert, we will use experimental research designs to explore (1) whether the mechanisms my own and previous studies have suggested might promote interactivity between politicians and citizens bear out and (2) whether interaction between politicians and citizens has positive effects on citizens' political engagement. We are designing a number of different experiments to run in the context of parliamentary elections in several European countries in 2017.
research methods & ethics
Though social scientists now make extensive use of data gathered from social media platforms, many still lack a firm understanding of the limitations of that data and how they are collected. And important ethical considerations often receive much less attention than they are due. With these concerns in mind, I am currently engaged in a project with Daniela Stockmann (Leiden University) and Andreas Storz (University of Amsterdam) that examines (1) the biases that may be introduced when we use various application programming interfaces (APIs) to collect data from Twitter, (2) how social media data decay (i.e., disappear from their original source) over time, and (3) the implications of observing the so-called "right to be forgotten" in social media research.
Addressing the latter two topics, Daniela Stockmann and I have a book chapter forthcoming in Internet Research for the Social Age: New Cases and Challenges (edited by Michael Zimmer and Katharina Kinder-Kurlanda) that asks how we balance the digital media user's right to privacy against the social scientist's need for data integrity and reproducibility. As various public and private actors have begun to recognize internet users' "right to be forgotten," finding an answer to this question has become ever more difficult. Should social scientists acknowledge that, when obtained without formal consent, we have little right to maintain - and, in particular, to share - social media data once they are removed from the public domain, our research may become effectively impossible to reproduce.
Our study explores this possibility by taking Twitter activity during the 2014 "Umbrella Revolution" in Hong Kong as a case study. We compare two datasets collected from Twitter's historical archive, both of which contain tweets issued between October 1st and 15th, 2014 containing at least one of six popular hashtags. However, the two datasets were collected one year apart, in December 2014 (just as the protests were ebbing) and December 2015. Because deleted tweets are removed from Twitter's archive, analysis of these data allows us to better understand how digital media might "decay" over time when researchers respect users' right to erase their public content from various platforms. We find that though only 9% of tweets disappeared after a year, statistical analyses performed across the two datasets produce significant discrepancies. We conclude that honoring the right to be forgotten in social media research could have substantial consequences for social scientific research, as the inferences drawn from such decayed data are likely to be considerably biased. We encourage a much more vigorous debate among researchers on this important topic.
In "The Life and Death of Frames: Dynamics of Media Frame Duration," which is forthcoming in the International Journal of Communication, Michael Meffert (Leiden University) and I note that though media framing scholars have long examined why journalists select certain frames over others at a given point in time, we know much less about why certain frames persist over time in the media while others fade away and still others disappear very quickly. In this study, we bring attention to the analysis of frame duration and offer an approach based in event-history methodologies that can assess the causes of repeated frame deployment over both long and short periods of time.
The study of frame duration holds a particular advantage over empirical analyses of frame selection in that it avoids problems with systematic selection bias inherent in the latter. Unable to determine "what might have been," most empirical studies of frame selection cannot fully ascertain what frames journalists could have selected at a given point but ultimately did not. As such, the data resulting from these studies systematically omit frames that were not selected - truncating the dependent variable. By comparing only those frames that are already selected to one another, examination of frame duration avoids this problem.
By way of illustration, we examine British coverage of the 2006 Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy, demonstrating a rigorous and analytically sound approach to the longitudinal analysis of media frame dynamics.