Social Media Studies

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 internet.org/Free 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.

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