Social media sites are rapidly becoming one of the most important forums for public deliberation about advocacy issues. However, social Scientists have not explained why some advocacy organizations produce social media messages that inspire far-ranging conversation among social media users, but the vast majority of them receive little or no attention. I argue that advocacy organizations are more likely to inspire comments from new social media audiences if they create “cultural bridges,” or produce messages that combine conversational
themes within an advocacy field that are seldom discussed together. I use natural language processing, network analysis, and a social media application to analyze how cultural bridges shaped public discourse about autism spectrum disorders on Facebook over the course of 1.5 y, controlling for various characteristics of advocacy organizations, their social media audiences, and the broader social context in which they interact. I show that organizations that create substantial cultural bridges provoke 2.52 times more comments about their messages from new social media users than those that do not, controlling for these factors. This study thus offers a theory of cultural messaging and public deliberation and computational techniques for text analysis and application-based survey research.
CULTURAL CARRYING CAPACITY: ORGAN DONATION ADVOCACY, DISCURSIVE FRAMING, AND SOCIAL MEDIA ENGAGEMENT
Social media sites such as Facebook have become a powerful tool for public health outreach because they enable advocacy organizations to influence the rapidly increasing number of people who frequent these forums. Yet the very open-ness of social media sites creates fierce competition for public attention. The vast majority of social media messages provoke little or no reaction because of the sheer volume of information that confronts the typical social media user each day. In this article, I present a theory of the “cultural carrying capacity” of social media messaging campaigns. I argue that advocacy organizations inspire more endorsements, comments, and shares by social media users if they diversify the discursive content of their messages. Yet too much diversification creates large, disconnected audiences that lack the sense of shared purpose to sustain an online movement. To evaluate this theory, I created a Facebook application that collects social media posts produced by forty-two organ donation advocacy organizations over 1.5 years, as well as supplemental information about the organization, its audience, and the broader social context in which they interact. Time series models provide strong evidence for my theory net of demographic characteristics of social media users, the resources and tactics of each organization, and broader external factors. I conclude by discussing the implications of these findings for public health, cultural sociology, and the nascent field of computational social science.
HOW DO CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS CREATE CULTURAL CHANGE IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE?
Numerous studies indicate that civil society organizations create cultural change by deploying mainstream messages that resonate with prevailing discursive themes. Yet these case studies of highly influential organizations obscure the much larger population that have little or no impact. It is therefore unclear whether civil society organizations create cultural change by deploying mainstream discourses or if they become part of the mainstream because of their success. I present an evolutionary theory of how discursive fields settle after major historical ruptures that highlights framing, social networks, and emotional energy. To illustrate this theory, I use plagiarism detection software to compare 1,084 press releases about Muslims produced by 120 civil society organizations to 50,407 newspaper articles and television transcripts produced between 2001 and 2008. Although most organizations deployed pro-Muslim discourses after the September 11th attacks, I show that anti-Muslim fringe organizations dominated the mass media via displays of fear and anger. Institutional amplification of this emotional energy, I argue, created a gravitational pull or “fringe effect” that realigned inter-organizational networks and altered the contours of mainstream discourse itself.
2) HOW DO CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS ATTRACT PUBLIC ATTENTION VIA SOCIAL MEDIA?
Though many studies explain how advocacy groups raise funds and shape the policy process, very little is known about how they raise awareness about social problems among the broader public. This article suggests groups that produce emotional messages are more likely to secure public attention and that emotional reactions to such messages create a feedback effect that increases the number of people they reach over time. To evaluate this theory, this study employs a Facebook “app” that collects detailed information about the interaction between forty-seven advocacy groups that seek to raise awareness about the lack of organ and tissue donors in the United States and more than 123 million Facebook users. Negative binomial regression models provide strong evidence for the theory of emotional feedback—even after controls are introduced for organizational capacity and tactics, demographic characteristics of their audiences, and various indicators of public interest in organ donation at the state and local level.
3) MEASURING CULTURE USING BIG DATA
The rise of the Internet, social media, and digitized historical archives has produced a colossal amount of text-based data in recent years. While computer scientists have produced powerful new tools for automated analyses of such “big data,” they lack the theoretical direction necessary to extract meaning from them. Meanwhile, cultural sociologists have produced sophisticated theories of the social origins of meaning, but lack the methodological capacity to explore them beyond micro-levels of analysis. I propose a synthesis of these two fields that adjoins qualitative and quantitative methods in iterative fashion. First, I explain how automated text extraction methods may be used to map the contours of cultural fields. Second, I discuss the potential of automated text-classification methods to classify different types of culture such as frames, schema, or symbolic boundaries. Finally, I explain how these two methods can be combined to trace the evolution of such cultural elements over time. While my assessment about the integration of big data and cultural sociology is overall optimistic, my conclusion highlights several challenges in implementing this agenda. These include a lack of information about the social context in which texts are produced, the construction of reliable coding schemes that can be automated algorithmically, and the relatively high entry costs for cultural sociologists who wish to develop the technical expertise currently necessary to work with big data
4) CREATING APPS FOR SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH
The continued decline in survey response rates has reinvigorated critics who argue that this research method does not capture the complexity of most social processes. Meanwhile, the rise of social media has produced an unprecedented wealth of qualitative data that provide rich, longitudinal detail about social relationships as they unfold. Unfortunately, such “big data” is neither representative nor reliable. I present Social Media Research Apps as a new tool that combines the strengths of big data and survey research. This new tool, 1) systematically extracts large amounts of data from a large number of social media users; 2) asks such users a series of questions which enable researchers to place their online behavior in broader context; and 3) returns analysis of these data back to the user to create incentive for public participation in social science research. I illustrate this methodology via an app that collected 192 variables that describe how more than 123 million Facebook users interacted with 9,911 messages produced by a large group of organ donation advocacy groups across 1.4 years. I conclude by discussing how apps improve the scope, scalability, sampling, cost, efficiency, public relevance, and convenience of conventional survey research but also highlight new technical, logistical, and legal challenges in implementing this new methodology.
5) THE PUBLIC LIFE OF SECRETS: HOW LEAKS SHAPE POLICY DISCOURSE
Although most social policies are designed behind closed doors, few studies ask how secrecy shapes the policy process. This article explains how leaks of classified information shape the discourses states craft to communicate the root causes of social problems and corresponding solutions to redress them. I argue that leaks enable non-state actors to amplify contradictions between the public and secret behavior of the ruling party in the media. States respond by “ad hoc-ing,” or presenting their secret behavior as an obvious or logical extension of their public policy agenda. While ad hoc-ing thus enables ruling parties to repair breaches of the social order, these attempts to avoid contradictions have a cascading effect on the discursive options available to states over time. In this way, leaks trap states within a web of deception that gradually detaches public policy discussions from the social problems they are meant to resolve. I illustrate this theory through a case study of the British Labour Administration’s response to domestic terrorism between 2001 and 2008 that combines in-depth interviews with state officials, content analysis of policy and media documents, and observation of the policy process.