ASSESSING THE RUSSIAN INTERNET RESEARCH AGENCY'S IMPACT ON THE POLITICAL ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIORS OF U.S. TWITTER USERS IN LATE 2017
There is widespread concern that Russia and other countries have launched social-media campaigns designed to increase political divisions in the United States. Though a growing number of studies analyze the strategy of such campaigns, it is not yet known how these efforts shaped the political attitudes and behaviors of Americans. We study this question using longitudinal data that describe the attitudes and online behaviors of 1,239 Republican and Democratic Twitter users from late 2017 merged with nonpublic data about the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) from Twitter. Using Bayesian regression tree models, we find no evidence that interaction with IRA accounts substantially impacted 6 distinctive measures of political attitudes and behaviors over a 1-mo period. We also find that interaction with IRA accounts were most common among respondents with strong ideological homophily within their Twitter network, high interest in politics, and high frequency of Twitter usage. Together, these findings suggest that Russian trolls might have failed to sow discord because they mostly interacted with those who were already highly polarized. We conclude by discussing several important limitations of our study—especially our inability to determine whether IRA accounts influenced the 2016 presidential election—as well as its implications for future research on social media influence campaigns, political polarization, and computational social science.
Read the article here. This research was funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and Duke University
EXPOSURE TO OPPOSING VIEWS CAN INCREASE POLITICAL POLARIZATION: EVIDENCE FROM A LARGE-SCALE FIELD EXPERIMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
There is mounting concern that social media sites contribute to political polarization by creating "echo chambers" that insulate people from opposing views about current events. We surveyed a large sample of Democrats and Republicans who visit Twitter at least three times each week about a range of social policy issues. One week later, we randomly assigned respondents to a treatment condition in which they were offered financial incentives to follow a Twitter bot for one month that exposed them to messages produced by elected officials, organizations, and other opinion leaders with opposing political ideologies. Respondents were re-surveyed at the end of the month to measure the effect of this treatment, and at regular intervals throughout the study period to monitor treatment compliance. We find that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative post-treatment, and Democrats who followed a conservative Twitter bot became slightly more liberal post-treatment. These findings have important implications for the interdisciplinary literature on political polarization as well as the emerging field of computational social science.
Read the article here. This research was funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and Duke University
CHANNELLING HEARTS AND MINDS: ADVOCACY ORGANIZATIONS, COGNITIVE-EMOTIONAL CURRENTS, AND PUBLIC CONVERSATION
Do advocacy organizations stimulate public conversation about social problems by engaging in rational debate, or by appealing to emotions? We argue that rational and emotional styles of communication ebb and flow within public discussions about social problems due to the
alternating influence of social contagion and saturation effects. These “cognitive-emotional currents” create an opportunity structure whereby advocacy organizations stimulate more conversation if they produce emotional messages after prolonged rational debate or vice versa.
We test this hypothesis using automated text-analysis techniques that measure the frequency of cognitive and emotional language within two advocacy fields on Facebook over 1.5 years, and a web-based application that offered these organizations a complimentary audit of their social media outreach in return for sharing nonpublic data about themselves, their social media audiences, and the broader social context in which they interact. Time-series models reveal strong support for our hypothesis, controlling for 33 confounding factors measured by our Facebook application. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for future research on public deliberation, how social contagions relate to each other, and the emerging field of computational social science.
Read the article here. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation and Duke University.
PRESTIGE, PROXIMITY, AND PREJUDICE: THE DIFFUSION OF GOOGLE SEARCH TERMS ACROSS 199 COUNTIES, 2004-2014
A large literature examines the global diffusion of institutions and policies, yet there is much less systematic research on how cultural tastes, consumption preferences, and other individual interests spread across the globe. We present a dataset that tracks the most popular Google search terms in 199 countries between 2004-2014. Drawing upon Gabriel de Tarde, we introduce a theoretical framework that emphasizes how country-level differences in power and prestige, geographic, political, or economic proximity, and social prejudices associated with cultural, religious or linguistic boundaries shape how populations around the world imitate each other’s cultural interests and consumer tastes. Contrary to popular accounts of cultural globalization, we find that such cross-national diffusion is surprisingly rare—and seldom U.S. led. Instead, cross-national diffusion occurs through a multi-channel, variegated network with many different centers. Applying negative binomial regression models to a dataset that counts cases of imitation within 346,620 country-year dyads, we find strong evidence that cross-national differences in power and prestige, proximity, and cultural boundaries pattern global imitation flows. These findings persist even after we account for a variety of other factors—including the influence of large organizations that are capable of broadcasting their products or events across the world. To see an interactive version of the visualization above click here.
Read the article here. This research was funded by Duke University and Columbia University.
USING INTERNET SEARCH DATA TO EXAMINE THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ANTI-MUSLIM AND PRO-ISIS SENTIMENT IN U.S. COUNTIES
Recent terrorist attacks by second or third-generation immigrants in the United States and Europe indicate radicalization may result from the failure of ethnic integration—or the rise of inter-group prejudice in communities where “home-grown'' extremists are raised. Yet such community-level drivers are notoriously difficult to study because public opinion surveys provide biased measures of both prejudice and radicalization. We examine the relationship between anti-Muslim and pro-ISIS internet searches in 3,099 U.S. counties between 2014 and 2016 using instrumental variable models that control for various community-level factors associated with radicalization. We find anti-Muslim searches are strongly associated with pro-ISIS searches—particularly in communities with high levels of poverty and ethnic homogeneity. Though more research is needed to verify the causal direction of this relationship, this finding suggests minority groups may be more susceptible to radicalization if they experience discrimination in settings where they are isolated and therefore highly visible—or in communities where they compete with majority group members for limited financial resources. We evaluate the validity of our measures using several other data sources and discuss the implications of our findings for the study of terrorism and inter-group relations as well as immigration and counter-terrorism policies.
Read the article here. This research was funded by Duke University.
CULTURAL NETWORKS AND BRIDGES: HOW ADVOCACY ORGANIZATIONS STIMULATE PUBLIC CONVERSATION ON SOCIAL MEDIA
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.
Read the article here. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation and Duke University
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.
Read the article here. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation and Duke University
TERRIFIED: HOW ANTI-MUSLIM FRINGE ORGANIZATIONS BECAME MAINSTREAM
In July 2010, Terry Jones, the pastor of a small fundamentalist church in Florida, announced plans to burn two hundred Qur'ans on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Though he ended up canceling the stunt in the face of widespread public backlash, his threat sparked violent protests across the Muslim world that left at least twenty people dead. In Terrified, I demonstrate how the beliefs of fanatics like Jones are inspired by a rapidly expanding network of anti-Muslim organizations that exert profound influence on American understanding of Islam.
In this award-winning book, I trace how the anti-Muslim narrative of the political fringe has captivated large segments of the American media, government, and general public, validating the views of extremists who argue that the United States is at war with Islam and marginalizing mainstream Muslim-Americans who are uniquely positioned to discredit such claims. Drawing on cultural sociology, social network theory, and social psychology, my book shows how anti-Muslim organizations gained visibility in the public sphere, commandeered a sense of legitimacy, and redefined the contours of contemporary debate, shifting it ever outward toward the fringe. I illustrate this pioneering theoretical argument through a big-data analysis of more than one hundred organizations struggling to shape public discourse about Islam, tracing their impact on hundreds of thousands of newspaper articles, television transcripts, legislative debates, and social media messages produced since the September 11 attacks. The book also features in-depth interviews with the leaders of these organizations, providing a rare look at how anti-Muslim organizations entered the American mainstream.
Read a review of Terrified here or order the book here. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.