The proliferation of social media use over the last decade or so has raised significant questions about whether online media can facilitate civil discussion instead of partisan posturing. Is it possible to have balanced political discussion on social media in this day and age?
Indiana University Bloomington sociologist Byungkyu Lee and colleagues from IU and other universities are exploring that question in a new $352,000 study funded by the National Science Foundation.
“In 21st century America, social media is here to stay as a key platform for political conversation,” said Lee, an assistant professor of sociology in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences. “If we’re going to figure out how to promote democratic political deliberation online, then we must understand what conditions sustain civil interaction.”
With collaborators Mark Hoffman of Stanford University and Barum Park of Cornell University, Lee is investigating how political deliberation and polarization play out on Facebook. Lee and his colleagues are studying what they call “online foci,” which they define as distinct pages, forums and groups where people exchange ideas around a certain focus—for example, The New York Times or Fox News Facebook pages. Studying these different groups, and the ideologies and norms the groups reinforce, allows the researchers to understand how context and content shape conversation online.
The research team is studying large-scale data collected from comments and likes across more than 1,000 public Facebook pages of varying political orientations during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. The data includes 1.2 billion comments, 8.2 billion reactions to posts, and 2.6 billion reactions to comments from 300 million users across 7.5 million posts.
To handle such a volume of data, the researchers are using a variety of approaches, including network analysis, natural language processing, and machine learning models, to measure social interactions, rationality, civility and abusive language, and to identify what mechanisms and factors foster respectful deliberation.
“We will identify where abusive language spikes and look at how and why some online communities can counter hate speech, while others fail,” Lee said. “What characteristics enable one group of users to foster deliberation in the face of polarizing events?”
Lee and his collaborators intend to provide a toolkit for analyzing social interaction and discourse on social media that will, in turn, help others build a more inclusive and democratic online public sphere.
“We want to provide everyone—from scholars to page moderators to social media site designers—with tools for cultivating a more civil and inclusive online culture,” Lee said. “Our long-term goal is to produce knowledge that will improve the design of online communication platforms, moving them from polarization to inclusion.”
Lee’s NSF-funded project grew out of an earlier project, “Political Polarization, Political Deliberation, and Hate Speech on Facebook,” that was funded through the Social Sciences Research Funding Program, offered through IU Bloomington’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research.