Posts Tagged ‘Facebook’


Moving forward: RQ2. How do we know what Facebook affects?

“Trump didn’t win because of X” has become a popular genre of punditry in the last two and a half weeks, along with any number of declarations backed up by little or no specific data.[1] In the wake of concern about “fake news” and partisan echo chambers online, fed by both Russian intelligence and American hoaxsters, Facebook (and social media more broadly) has become the focal point. Keith Hampton and Eszter Hargittai make this point, but like most such analyses, don’t have data specific to actual voters; instead, they note that the demographics of Trump support are negatively correlated with social media use, and that most people don’t click through from headlines in their Facebook feeds.

But this sort of supposition ignores a range of ways that we know information filters through even pre-Internet social networks, let alone the supercharged networking that is the core function of Facebook. The point here is not to say that Facebook did or didn’t do anything, but that stitching together population-level generalities is not going to provide anything like compelling evidence.

So how do we figure out what Facebook affected, if anything, and how it did it? It’s important to have some handle on what we mean here, because no what matter we do there are going to be lots of variables tangled up in a mess of colinearity. We also need to note that getting a look at actual Facebook content is difficult to impossible, but the online environment presents a lot of problems along these lines. Survey respondents might be able to recall how frequently they visited a major source; can they recall whether or not they ever read something from one of the minor partisan sources that use Facebook as their primary distribution platform?

If actual content is out, we’re going to need to contextualize Facebook use. One way to do this is at the model level, putting Facebook use for news into an mediation model with other media use, and online and offline political discussion. Some co-authors and I have a paper in development that takes one approach to this, essentially wrapping an online version of the communication mediation model in a Facebook-based container. We find no direct effects of Facebook news use on any outcomes outside of Facebook, but significant indirect effects running through links to other media and discussion behaviors. This sort of thinking also suggests examining the relationship of Facebook shares to prominence in other media, and especially major partisan media. Facebook may act as a conduit for stories that bubble up from 4chan, Reddit, or Twitter to make their way to Fox News and conservative talk radio, for example.

Understanding potential Facebook effects at the individual level requires understanding individuals within their network contexts, as both senders and receivers of information. This helps us get at the central complicating factor of measuring Facebook’s effects, which is that everyone’s Facebook experience is different. Unlike a measurement of how often one watches network news broadcasts, for example, just asking for Facebook use frequency tells us basically nothing. However, what if we also knew something about people’s networks? In a survey this would be imperfect self-reported data, but we could ask questions about political homogeneity of one’s network, along with things like tendency to engage with agreeing or disagreeing others. An interaction term between frequency of Facebook use for news and network homogeneity would give us a measure of Facebook as a filter bubble or echo chamber; putting that in a model with reflection, elaboration, and talk would start us toward a model of how a variety of influences affect individuals’ attitudes. I have another paper in progress that utilizes an interaction term like this, and one problem with it is that it’s basically an impossible measure to validate. But that’s a problem for another day!


[1] This is especially weird given the ultimate closeness of the election. Anything that could have cost Clinton 100,000 total votes across Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin could be said to be the reason Trump won. The existence of multiple “but for” causes doesn’t make any single one invalid.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 13:32, November 26 || No Comments »


Her likes are real, but she is not

OMG cant wait 2 have sum Kraft Anything Dressing & Welch's Fruit Snacks 4 dinner lol

Facebook’s business model, like that of Amazon, Google and myriad other network-driven companies, depends to a great extent on having good predictive algorithms for what their users will respond positively towards. Amazon uses characteristics about you and your past purchases to show you things that maybe you’ll want to buy; Google and Facebook want to show you ads that will be relevant and effective.

But with Facebook, it’s not just ads; they also use algorithms to determine what things you might want to like, what events you might be interested in, and which people you might already know. Generally, when those people come up for me, they’re people who have some connection to my family, school and work networks — I may know this person, and Facebook tells me we’ve got 12 mutual friends. Occasionally, though, I get people that I have no clear connection to, and sometimes I’ll click through to see if it’s someone I’m connected to locally or through some group.

Today I got the one seen in the screenshot to the right (names and images obscured). Who is this? It’s a young lady who apparently graduated from Lyndon High School in Lyndon, KS, in 2010; she has three Facebook friends. She has an extremely common last name, which is shared by two of her friends. Two of her friends are also part of the Lyndon High School network. Now that seems weird. Needless to say, I don’t know her. I’ve spent a total of about nine hours in the state of Kansas, and none of it in Lyndon, which is about 30 miles due south of Topeka.

But check out the things she likes: PetSmart, Honey Bunches of Oats, Seattle’s Best Coffee, etc. Everything she likes is a retail store or a consumer product in the food and beauty sectors. How many 20-year-olds do you know that have three Facebook friends and like Snausages? So I’m pretty sure this is a bot, designed to get slow-witted, 30-something men to check out how Country Time Lemonade can bring a little excitement to their lives. This is a pretty interesting tactic if that’s what it is, but you’d think a cross-promotion with a record label and a TV network would make the thing look a lot more realistic.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 16:52, September 10 || No Comments »


Gordian knots in research methods

Whenever I have a project in mind that involves Facebook, there’s a methodological stumbling block that almost always comes up: Most of what’s interesting isn’t accessible unless you are friends with the people you’re trying to study. So maybe you rework the research questions, or you come up with a way to address them using survey data, etc.

But now I see that I was overlooking the obvious solution: Just create fake profiles to friend people with, as a group of four researchers at the University of British Columbia did. For them, it was entirely necessary, as they were studying the vulnerability of online social networks to malicious bots, so they basically created their own benign bots and observed what they accomplished. The very first phase resulted in about a 20% friend-acceptance rate, so if you’ve got a good sampling method, this is looking decent enough as a way of getting real, live Facebook content.

Filed: Science Is Real || 23:10, November 6 || 2 Comments »


Beyond selective exposure

Whenever possible, I get my news from local pizza joints' Facebook accounts. Still waiting for somebody to break the pizza donation story, Wisconsin State Journal!

In the wake of massively increased ideological media availability (particularly cable news analysis shows and blogs), many political communication scholars have become concerns about the effects of selective exposure — that is, what happens when we choose to only or predominantly use media sources we believe will present agreeable viewpoints or information. This general area of interest has produced a variety of findings, from the obvious (Republicans love Fox News) to the less obvious but intriguing (people who only read blogs they agree with are much more likely to engage in political participation than those who read ideologically diverse blogs). But one thing it hasn’t done much of is challenge the notion of what exposure is, or what types of sources we’re being “exposed” to.

A confluence of two things has brought this to mind. First, along with my colleague Narayanan Iyer and several grad students, I’m prepping a study that looks at the agenda-setting potential of Facebook among college students. In a more general sense, we’re interested of how much influence the inadvertent exposure to news information might have on a low-information audience. In this case, we talking about a very different kind of exposure than one gets from institutional media sources (and I’m thinking of blogs as institutional here), as well as a case where the “selection” has nothing to do with the news content that might appear in your Facebook news feed. Rather, selections are made based on some combination of social connection and social distance. Our “friends” are our family members, classmates and co-workers, but they’re also people we’ve met fleetingly or maybe even have never met in person. There is some evidence of ideological clustering within the Facebook network (see this article by Gaines and Mondak), but there’s no reason to suspect this is any different than the clustering that occurs in offline social networks.

The second thing that happened was that, as a former member of a Wisconsin public employee union, my news feed exploded with updates from my friends are still in the state and involved in the ongoing protests. Some of what’s been posted has been links to news stories, background information, analysis, etc., but most of it has been first- or secondhand accounts from protesters themselves. I’m finding this an unusual experience, because as a voracious news consumer, it’s pretty rare that my Facebook friends post anything I don’t already know about. Now that they’ve become part of the news, Facebook has become my primary source of information about the protests and developments surrounding them. A lot of what they’re posting is not ideologically tinged in the typical sense — that is, it’s not just a bunch of anti-Scott Walker screeds — but rather it’s broadly framed in ways that are sympathetic to the protesters’ concerns. It’s also informative in a way that traditional news coverage has not been, and clearly appeals to me in part because of the minute social distance between myself and my friends. These are people who, apart from being friends, are demographically similar to me, work in the same sector and share a similar disposition toward political engagement. I’m wondering now if the effects of this type of news consumption — both agenda and opinion effects — might not be much stronger than those of reading more distant ideologically agreeable sources, even for a heavy news consumer like me.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 15:15, February 20 || No Comments »


The black box of Facebook

Facebook’s latest innovation is its new Lightbox-esque picture viewer, a very slight change in comparison with the recent big profile changes. Some are predictably annoyed by this change, but it’s an interesting illustration of the inability of any large web organization to ever let well enough alone. Unlike other media, the web is in a constant state of flux. People inside Facebook would probably tell you that this is part of an effort to capitalize on the intense user interest in using the site as a Flickr/Picasa/Imagebucket alternative. But really, those are pretty diverse services serving diverse markets and needs. Instead, I suggest the following is at play.

First, Facebook, the site itself, is a fairly complicated thing. Together with the databases that power it, understanding the site is a big undertaking, and one that requires a decent-size permanent staff of coders. And even if it weren’t that complex, it’s the kind of thing you probably wouldn’t want a bunch of freelancers coming and going on anyway. So you’ve got all these in-house hackers, occasionally doing something big and visible like the new profile, and often doing lower-visibility things like optimizing site speed, developing new ad opportunities, etc. But some of these folks are interface specialists. They just did the new profile. Do you suppose Facebook wants to pay them to sit on their thumbs until it’s determined that the user base is ready to tolerate another significant interface change? Probably not. They need to be working on and changing something in order to justify their salaries. And that’s fine, because a) users have consistently shown that their initial annoyance will subside without any significant number of account deletions, and b) some seemingly minor interface changes that are hated at first become major deals later on (e.g., the news feed). If this really is just about Flickr, well, Flickr is constantly updating, too. So is Google and everybody else. And before you know it, the market has produced a non-stop interface churn.

(And yes, after more than a month, this is what gets me back to posting.)

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 23:56, February 19 || No Comments »


The charge of the like brigade

In my particular position as a journalism professor who studies and consumes a lot of political media, I’ve been hearing from many corners that social networking is vital to political campaigning and the future of the news industry. No one ever seems to be able to tell me why, and I remain extremely skeptical. I consider this new Trilogy Interactive report a bit of vindication:

[Trilogy] found only a slight correlation between social media popularity and success in the Senate. That correlation “effectively disappeared” in House and gubernatorial races. … Trilogy says the Facebook margin of victory only explained about 13% of voting results. For gubernatorial races, that correlation is even lower, with the strength of a candidate’s Facebook presence only explaining about 0.8% of the vote margin. And for House races, there was actually a slight negative correlation, meaning a stronger Facebook popularity was associated with a smaller margin of victory.

And the visuals — first Senate, then House:

Senate/Facebook chart

House/Facebook chart

On a semi-related note, I’m presenting a paper called “Sarah Palin Likes This: Discussion of the ‘Death Panel’ Note in Social Media” at the annual MAPOR conference this weekend.

Filed: We R in Control || 16:29, November 17 || No Comments »