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March 27, 2013, 10 a.m.

What’s New in Digital Scholarship: Real-time censorship and whether online news actually increases knowledge

When NGOs act like news organizations, narratives of the Arab Spring, and predicting who you are from what you “like”: all that and more in this month’s roundup of the academic literature.


Editor’s note: There’s a lot of interesting academic research going on in digital media — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers?

Our friends at Journalist’s Resource, that’s who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry. Roughly once a month, JR managing editor John Wihbey will sum up for us what’s new and fresh.

This month’s edition of What’s New In Digital Scholarship rounds up the findings of eight studies that touch on many of the major themes scholars are exploring: how an era of social media and citizen media production are affecting journalistic norms and the business fundamentals and operations of journalism; how issues of participation and access are affecting citizens’ experiences and roles in the information ecosystem; and, looking abroad, how digital technologies are being used and curtailed in various conflict and authoritarian situations. In addition, the potential uses and abuses of online data continue to be an area of focus for academics.

“Innovation in hybrid spaces: 2011 U.N. Climate Summit and the expanding journalism landscape”: Study from the University of Denver, published in Journalism. By Adrienne Russell.

More academic research is documenting how “hybrid” norms are evolving within legacy news media grappling with the participatory logic of digital culture, and how non-traditional organizations and NGOs are playing quasi-press roles as producers of watchdog-oriented media and conveners of public discussion. This paper looks at coverage of the 2011 Durban climate change conference and uses it to examine the new interplay between legacy and advocacy media. Because journalists could not produce nearly the sheer volume of media — videos, pictures, blog posts, tweets, etc. — that the NGOs could, traditional media had to draw on NGO materials and even point to their creation as significant news events in their own right. By the same token, NGOs sometimes operated as news organizations, soliciting comment from news makers and turning themselves into platforms for public participation and discussion.

“Unlike USA Today and the New York Times,” the author writes, “NGO coverage was exhaustive and included the actions and comments of high-profile international and national officials, scientists, civil society, and locally focused grassroots groups. In fact the news flows from activist and social media outlets were so much more robust and dynamic than legacy journalism coverage that even the New York Times referred its readers to Twitter for ‘the best way to track the finale and afterthoughts.'” Moreover, when NGO communications staff interview officials and delegates “using questions from the public, or…enlist youth delegates to report on their country negotiator, these organizations are opening up the discourse, going beyond their own specific climate agenda or the agenda of climate justice movement leaders.”

“Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior”: Study from the University of Cambridge and Microsoft Research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). By Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell, and Thore Graepel.

The study examines the degree to which information available online can successfully predict an individual’s personal — and private — attributes. The researchers correlated public records of Facebook “Likes” from more than 58,000 users with results from personality and intelligence tests and information from public profiles. The researchers were able to accurately predict a male user’s sexual orientation 88 percent of the time. While less than 5 percent of users were explicitly linked to gay policy or advocacy groups, “predictions rely on less informative but more popular Likes, such as ‘Britney Spears’ or ‘Desperate Housewives’ (both moderately indicative of being gay).”

The model was able to predict a user’s ethnic origin (95 percent) and gender (93 percent) with a high degree of accuracy. “Patterns of online behavior as expressed by Likes,” the researchers write, “significantly differ between those groups, allowing for nearly perfect classification.” The model also predicted a user’s religion (82 percent), political views (85 percent), relationship status (67 percent) and substance use (between 65 percent and 75 percent for drugs, alcohol and cigarettes) with a high degree of accuracy. The researchers caution against the potential negative outcomes that ready access to this type of personal data might have: “Commercial companies, governmental institutions, or even one’s Facebook friends could use software to infer attributes such as intelligence, sexual orientation or political views [that] could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom or even life.”

“User-generated visibility: Secondary gatekeeping in a shared media space”: Study from the University of Iowa, published in New Media & Society. By Jane B. Singer.

The study evaluates the broad set of practices that now commonly constitute audience engagement and pulls them together toward a new theory of the role of journalism in a digital society. The researcher examines how news audience members are becoming secondary “gatekeepers,” helping to communicate their tastes to news outlets and decide what is best or most worthy in terms of content. Of course, this is partly accomplished not only through the now-ubiquitous “most popular” displays (more broadly called “usage boxes”), which reflect reader data, but also through comment management systems like Disqus and social media platforms that foster engagement and allow crowds to record their approval or disapproval. The researcher analyzed the practices of websites of 138 newspapers during a two-month stretch in 2011.

Her sweeping conclusion is that “journalists who long have defined themselves largely as society’s gatekeepers now find the role is broadly shared with members of an increasingly active audience. Users are choosing news not only for their own consumption but also for the consumption of others, including those within their personal circle of acquaintances and those who are part of an undifferentiated online public. This shift toward ‘user-generated visibility’ suggests a new way of looking at one of the oldest conceptualizations of the journalist’s role in our society.” Finally, there’s a great historical nugget in the study to put all this in context: “Not since 18th century newspapers left their fourth page blank so that people could add their own observations for the benefit of subsequent readers…have news consumers had this sort of power to make editorial judgments not only for themselves but also for others — and, importantly, to act on those judgments by serving as secondary distributors of the material they deem worthy.”

“Does exposure to online media matter? The knowledge gap and the mediating role of news use”: Study from DePaul University, published in the International Journal of Communication. By Hai Tran.

This study falls somewhere in the “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” category, though its findings are nuanced. The public has a woeful understanding of many public policy issues — that much we know. And though much depends on whether local or national topics are at issue, in general people of higher socioeconomic status have tended to acquire knowledge more rapidly in the mass media age. But how do the ways people access information — particularly, traditional versus online media channels — affect what they learn about policy topics? Are people learning more because of online access?

The tentative answer is no. This new study analyzes Pew Research Center data on news consumption to assess how modes of access and socioeconomic status aid political learning about issues. The researcher concludes that “affluent and educated groups are more active in seeking news from various channels and taking advantage of new technology to get the news.” Overall, however, the study’s “analysis indicates that online news use has not yet contributed substantially to political learning,” contradicting some previous research about the perceived benefits of nearly ubiquitous online news and information. The study speculates that this may be because “online news is highly individualized and tailored to personal preferences, which limit its ability to inform about a broad range of issues relevant to the larger society.” However, the data used were a little old (2006) and the respondents to the Pew survey skewed older (average age 50.)

“The velocity of censorship: High-fidelity detection of microblog post deletions”: Study from Rice, University of New Mexico, and Bowdoin. By Tao Zhu, David Phipps, Adam Pridgen, Jedidiah R. Crandall, and Dan S. Wallach.

Twitter commands all the attention from U.S. media watchers and social media researchers, but the dynamics on China’s Sina Weibo microblogging platform are in many respects more interesting, as it features a 24/7 massive cat-and-mouse game between censors and dissidents. This study set out to establish the precise speed and comprehensiveness of the Chinese social media censorship regime, which is comprised of both software bots and human minders (in 2012, Sina Weibo also began offering “user credits” for those who report on fellow users). The researchers monitored more than 3,000 users who often get into trouble to see what the censorship response rate was.

The researchers found that “especially for original posts that are not reposts, most deletions occur within 5-30 minutes, accounting for 25% of the total deletions of such posts. Nearly 90% of the deletions of such posts happen within the first 24 hours of the post.” Other interesting and weird aspects of China’s censorship apparatus include: If you use the word “Falun,” as in the religious group “Falun Gong,” you are likely to be told that there is a delay in posting the material due to “server data synchronization” problems; this gives human censors the time to evaluate the content and zap it if need be. Further, the censors have a way of fooling users by “camouflaging” the deletion: “Weibo also sometimes makes it appear to a user that their post was successfully posted, but other users are not able to see the post. The poster receives no warning message in this case.”

“Mediated martyrs of the Arab Spring: New media, civil religion, and narrative in Tunisia and Egypt”: Study from Arizona State University, published in the Journal of Communication. By Jeffry R. Halverson, Scott W. Ruston, and Angela Trethewey.

Part of the expanding academic literature on the Arab uprising and the role of digital media, the study casts doubt on the view that the Internet “caused” these events. But the researchers do “contend that the complex interactions between communication platforms (social media), communication phenomena (narrative and social bonding), and collective identity (civil religion) are a salient feature of the revolutions.” Most importantly, though, the online narratives that formed around Egypt’s Khaled Saeed and Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi fit squarely into pre-existing Islamic frames of martyrdom.

So the “reason” for viral online campaigns around these two figures and their stories — state brutality in the case of Saeed, and politically motivated suicide for Bouazizi — is that the power of the digital networks met up with a well-primed social-cultural pathway, the authors suggest: “There must be conditions in place that create a context in which certain narratives can resonate and serve as the foundation for an imagined solidarity and imagined politics of hope and change. We contend that greater understandings of the narrative landscapes before and after the Arab Spring can shed light on possible tipping points and that our analysis has elucidated two cases where the combination of a moment of crisis, vertical integration (of a longstanding cultural narrative, contemporary narrativized events and personal investments, however, small), civil religion, and social media, yielded a mediated politics of hope for the citizens of Tunisia and Egypt.”

“The social journalist: Embracing the social media life or creating a new digital divide?”: Study from the University of Gothenberg, published in Digital Journalism. By Ulrika Hedman and Monika Djerf-Pierre.

Based on survey of more than 1,400 Swedish journalists, the study divides up media members into three groups with respect to social media participation: skeptical shunners, pragmatic conformists, and enthusiastic activists. It’s a division that would be familiar to American newsroom professionals. But what’s most interesting is how little the “enthusiasts” see their core values changing: “With regard to traditional professional ideals (objectivity, scrutiny, neutrality, independence, and so on) our study, however, shows no significant differences between [social media] users and non-users. This suggests that social media are indeed changing the journalistic profession in terms of how it relates to the audience/public, but not in terms of how it perceives its fundamental societal role as the fourth estate.”

“State of the News Media 2013”: Report from the Pew Research Center’s Project on Excellence in Journalism. By Amy Mitchell, et al.

Likely you’ve already heard much about this — and the Lab has a valuable interview with the report’s lead author. In any case, key findings include: As news outlets have slashed staff and reduced the quantity and quality of coverage, the report suggests, many consumers have responded negatively: “Nearly one-third — 31% — of people say they have deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to, according to [a] survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults in early 2013.” About half of all people surveyed said news stories are not as thorough as they were previously. Of the consumers who reported abandoning certain news outlets, 61 percent said the decision was based on issues of quality, while 24 percent said there were not enough stories. Newspaper ad revenue is now down 60 percent compared to a decade ago. The number of U.S. news jobs is likely now below 40,000, compared to the historic high of 56,900 in 1989, a 30 percent decrease overall.

Amid the gloom, bright spots include: “In 2012, total [online] traffic to the top 25 news sites increased 7.2%, according to comScore. And according to Pew Research data, 39% of respondents got news online or from a mobile device ‘yesterday,’ up from 34% in 2010, when the survey was last conducted.” Further, the emerging mobile market offers another opportunity, as many people appear to be consuming more news because of Internet-enabled devices. This offers opportunities for the news business: “One piece of [the mobile] market that news can exploit is sponsorship advertising, and in 2012, so-called native advertising (a type of sponsorship ad) made headlines. Though it remains small in dollars, the category’s growth rate is second only to that of video: sponsorship ads rose 38.9%, to $1.56 billion; that followed a jump of 56.1% in 2011. Traditional publications such as The Atlantic and Forbes, as well as digital publications BuzzFeed and Gawker, have relied heavily on native ads to quickly build digital ad revenues, and their use is expected to spread.”

Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 27, 2013, 10 a.m.
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