Social Computing

White Twitter: Tracing the Evolution of the Alt-Right in Retweets, 2009-2016
Saif Shahin and Yee Man Margaret Ng. Proceedings of the 53rd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. 2020.

The alt-right White Nationalist movement, which emerged in response to the election of America’s first Black president, adopted Twitter from the outset. Tracing its evolution over eight years in retweets, our study suggests that the movement was relatively small and factionalized until 2015—but its subgroups closed ranks following Donald Trump’s candidacy and became a blowhorn for his campaign. Integrating social network theory with the emerging view of race and politics as dynamic processes, our study advances a “technosocial” understanding of White Nationalism and its journey from the fringes to the center stage of American politics.

Friend, ally, or rival? Twitter diplomacy as “technosocial” performance of national identity
Saif Shahin and Q. Elyse Huang. International Journal of Communication. 2019.

Drawing on the constructivist tradition in international relations, we examine the influence of national identity-or how a nation views itself in relation to other nations-on the tweeting practices of its diplomatic missions. Our analysis focuses on the use of Twitter by U.S. missions in Britain, India, and China over a four-month period brimming with diplomatic activity: June-September 2018. We find that not only do the three U.S. missions use Twitter in vastly different ways, but that their tweeting practices reflect and reproduce the specific identities the United States professes vis-à-vis these nations: a friend to Britain, an ally to India, and a rival to China. We argue that (1) Twitter is an emergent “technosocial” arena that enables nations to perform their identities online and (2) different national identities-friend, ally, and rival-derive their meanings in and through such practices. In addition, we distinguish a variety of tweeting practices and their symbolic significance in terms of national identity performance.

Understanding public engagement with global aid agencies on Twitter: A technosocial framework
Saif Shahin and Zehui Dai. American Behavioral Scientist. 2019.

Social networking sites can help global aid agencies converse with the communities they work with as well as listen to public conversations on vital issues. This study develops a technosocial framework that specifies how different affordances of Twitter—from the topical content of tweets to replies, retweets, hashtags, and hyperlinks—relate to different levels of public engagement with aid agencies. We combine computational and qualitative methods to examine tweets posted by three aid agencies—USAID, SIDA, and ICRC—as well as public tweets that mention these agencies (N = ~100,000). Results indicate that when an agency (1) replies to or retweets public tweeters, (2) includes publicly-oriented hashtags and hyperlinks in its tweets, and (3) tweets about topics that the public is also interested in and tweeting about, the social network that develops around the agency is more interconnected, decentralized, and reciprocal. Our framework can help aid agencies and other development institutions build more participatory social networks, bolstering the possibility of multiple voices helping determine collective goals and strategies of collective action for sustainable social change.

Facing up to Facebook: How digital activism, independent regulation, and mass media foiled a neoliberal threat to net neutrality
Saif Shahin. Information, Communication & Society. 2019.

This study traces how Facebook-promoted Basics, despite initial acclaim, was eventually rejected in India – and how net neutrality came to be codified in the process. Topic modeling of articles (N = 1752) published over two-and-a-half years in 100 media outlets pinpoints the critical junctures in time at which the public discourse changed its trajectory. Critical discourse analysis of different phases of the discourse then identifies the causal factors and contingent conditions that produced the new policy. The study advances an understanding of technologies as social constructs and technological change as a social process, shaped by the dynamic interaction of a complex array of social actors coming together at critical junctures. It also draws attention to how discourse, produced by social actors in contingent conditions, recursively shapes the dominant ideology and structures these interactions. In addition, the study demonstrates how algorithmic and interpretive research techniques can be combined for longitudinal analysis of textual data sets.

Live tweeting live debates: How Twitter reflects and refracts the US political climate in a campaign season
Pei Zheng and Saif Shahin. Information, Communication & Society. 2018.

Political campaigns mostly run parallel to each other during an election cycle, but intersect when the main candidates face off for televised debates. They offer supporters of these candidates a chance to engage with each other while being exposed to views and opinions different from their own. This study uses a combination of social network analysis and machine learning to examine how the three US presidential debates of 2016 were live tweeted (N = ∼300,000). We find that despite cross-cutting exposure across the ideological divide, people remain highly partisan in terms of who they engage with on Twitter. The issue agendas of Twitter posts during the US presidential debates is set well in advance of the debates themselves; it is highly negative and focused on personality traits of the opposition candidate rather than policy matters. We also detect a shift in the nature of online opinion leadership, with grassroots activists and internet personalities sharing the space with traditional elites such as political leaders and journalists. This shift coincides with the broader anti-establishment turn in the US political climate, as reflected in the early success of Bernie Sanders and the eventual victory of a political outsider like Donald Trump over the seasoned Hillary Clinton.

Social media and social mobilization in the Middle East: A survey of research on the Arab Spring
Adam Smidi and Saif Shahin. India Quarterly. 2017.

The role of the media, and especially the social media, in the Arab Spring has been extensively debated in academia. This study presents a survey of studies published in scholarly journals on the subject since 2011. We find that the bulk of the research contends that social media enabled or facilitated the protests by providing voice to people in societies with mostly government-controlled legacy media; helping people connect, mobilise and organise demonstrations; and broadcasting protests to the world at large and gaining global support. Some scholars, however, argue that social media played only a limited or secondary role, which ought to be viewed alongside other social, political, economic and historical factors. We also identify the spatial and temporal focus of the research and preferred theoretical and methodological approaches and draw attention to several blind spots that require further investigation.

Social media and their impact on civic participation
Homero Gil de Zúñiga and Saif Shahin. New Agendas in Communication: New Technologies and Civic Engagement. 2017.

In this chapter, we draw on empirical studies to understand the implications of technological advancements and the changes they have wrought for civic life and civic participation. We show that digital technologies such as SNS may indeed have a benign influence on civic participation, but under particular circumstances, for instance, when individuals use SNS to seek news and information about public affairs rather than simply for entertainment. We also show that the size of an individual’s social network, as well as the frequency of discussion with those people with whom they converse about public affairs and social issues, are good predictors of civic participation.