Contemporary sociology: false news spreads faster than true news

A recent MIT study led by Sinan Aral, published in the journal Science in early March (2018) found that ‘false news’ spreads much more quickly than real news—and it seems to be humans, more than bots, who are responsible for the imbalance.

Fake political news stories spread the fastest, but the findings also applied to stories on urban legends, business, terrorism, science, entertainment, and natural disasters.

Aral’s team of researchers looked at sample of 4.5 million tweets created by about 3 mmillion people over an 11 year period. Together these tweets formed 126,000 “cascades” of news stories, or uninterrupted retweet chains. The researchers compared to spread of false vs. true news stories, verified by using sites such as factcheck.org.

The main findings

Fake News Twitter

  • false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted,
  • while true stories never reached past a  ‘cascade-depth’ of 10, false stories spread to a depth of 19,
  • false studies reached a cascade “depth” of 10 about 20 times faster than true ones.
  • true news stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 readers as false ones did,
  • “False political news traveled deeper and more broadly, reached more people, and was more viral than any other category of false information,”
  • humans were more likely to spread the false news than bots,
  • Fake news tended to be associated with fear, disgust, and surprise, whereas true stories triggered anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.

Why do people spread fake news?

The authors of the study offer a ‘neutral’ explanation – simply that fake news is more ‘novel, novelty attracts more human attention, and ‘novel news’ is more valuable – individuals gain more status for being the ones who share novetly (or at least peopel think they will gain more status) and novel information tends to be more useful in helping us make decisions about how to act in society.

Ironically, spreading false news tends to have the opposite effect: it makes individuals who spread it look stupid and may lead to us taking fewer risks and to a misallocation of resources as we attempt to mitigate this (non-real) risks.

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

This is a great example of hyperreality…. to paraphrase Baudrillard, False News never happened… but it has real consequences.

It’s worth noting the limits of the study too… it’s limited to Twitter and doesn’t really help us to understand where fake news comes from, for example.

The fact that it’s humans, not bots spreading false news means that interventions will be more difficult and more complicated, because it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to find a technological fix for the problem.

I could imagine that Gomm and Gouldner would criticise this study as being ‘too neutral’… it could have looked more at the ideological bias of the political fake news stories, and the profiles of those spreading fake news, for example.

Sources 

The Spread of True and False News Online – Science, March 2018

Fake News Spreads Faster than the Truth on Twitter – Forbes

 

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Homophobic Friends?

It’s almost 15 years (!) since the hit T.V. show ‘Friends’ went off the air. The show has been voted the best sitcom of all time, but since it started streaming on Netflix this month, many millennials have been shocked by its themes, perceiving the show as somewhat homophobic and transphobic.

Friends gender

Most of the criticism focuses on the way the show deals with sexuality and gender: younger viewers are offended by the recurring jokes about Ross’ Lesbian ex-wife, for instance, and Chandler’s cross-dressing father.

They have also criticized the show for ‘fat-shaming’ Monica, following the flashbacks to herself as an undesirable fat teenager, and the lack of diversity in the show: it is, to say the least, very white!

It’s amazing how our sensitivity to such issues has changed in the space of just one generation. 

NB – here’s an article defending Friends, suggesting that it isn’t actually homophobic etc.

Sources:

The Week, 20th January 2018

The Internet as an Object of Content Analysis

Websites, social media posts and similar virtual documents are all forms of secondary data, and thus amenable to both quantitative and qualitative content analysis.

 

global internet use stats.png
The sheer number of internet users creating online documents makes researching them a challenge

 

There are, however, many difficulties in using web sites as sources of content analysis. Following Scott’s (1990) four criteria of assessing the quality of documents, we need consider why a web site is constructed in the first place, whether it is there for commercial purposes, and whether it has a political motive.

In addition, we also need to consider the following potential problems of researching web sites:

  • Finding websites will probably require a search engine, and search engines only ever provide a selection of available web sites on a topic, and the sample they provide will be biased according to algorithm the engine uses to find its websites. It follows that use of more than one search engine is advisable.
  • Related to the above point, a search is only as good as the key words the researcher inputs into the search engines, and it could be time consuming to try out all possible words and combinations.
  • New web sites are continually appearing while old ones disappear. This means that by the time research is published, they may be based on web sites which no longer exist and not be applicable to the new ones which have emerged.
  • Similar to the above point, existing web sites are continually being updated.
  • The analysis of web sites is a new field which is very much in flux. New approaches are being developed at a rapid rate. Some draw on traditional ways of interpreting documents such as discourse analysis and qualitative content analysis, others have been developed specifically in relation to the Web, such as the examination of hyperlinks between websites and their significance.

Most researchers who use documents accept the fact that it can be difficult to determine the population from which they are sampling, and when researching documents online, the speed of development and change of the Web accentuate this problem. The experience of researching documents online can be like trying to hit a moving target that not only moves, but is in a constant state of metamorphosis.

Three examples of content analysis of documents online

Boepple and Thompson (2014) conducted quantitative analysis of 21 ‘healthy living blogs’. Their sampling frame was only blogs which had received an award, and from those, they selected the blogs with the largest number of page views.

They found that content emphasised appearance and disordered messages about food/ nutrition,with five bloggers using very negative language about being fat or overweight and four invoking admiration for being thin. They concluded that these blogs spread messages that are ‘potentially problematic’ for anyone changing their behaviour on the basis of advice contained in them.

Davis et al (2015) conducted an analysis of postings that followed a blog post concerning a cyberbullying suicide y a 15 year old named Amanda Todd. There were 1094 comments of which 482 contained stories about being bullied, 12% about cyberbullying, 75% about traditional bullying, the rest a mixture of both.

The research found that the main reason victims of bullying are targeted is because they do not conform in one way or another to society’s mainstream norms and values, with the most common specific reason for bullying being a victim’s physical appearance.

Humphries et al (2014) conducted content analysis on the kinds of personal information disclosed on Twitter. The authors collected an initial sample of users and they searched friends of this initial sample. In total the collected 101, ,069 tweets and took a random sample of 2100 tweets from this.

One of their findings was that Twitter users not only share information about themselves, they frequently share information about others too.

Concluding Thoughts 

Researching documents online may be challenging, but it is difficult to see how sociologists can avoid it as more and more of our lives are lived out online, so researching documents such as web sites, and especially blogs and social media postings is, I think, very much set to become a growth area in social research.

 

 

Gap Year Blogs – A Thematic Analysis

Snee (2013) was interested in how representations of cultural difference were portrayed in ‘gap year’ narratives. She sought out blogs containing the phrase ‘gap year’ using two blog search engines (Google blog search and Technorati) and also searched some websites which seems to be associated with the blogs she uncovered through this search. She selected those whose author was from the UK and whose gap year was taken overseas, was sandwiched between school and university, and included more than a couple of posts. Initially she uncovered 700 blogs but these were narrowed down to 39 because she sought a balance in terms of both gender and the type of gap year.

These blogs blogs form her data, along with interviews with nine of the bloggers. The interviews indicated that bloggers wrote up their experiences in this formant because it was the most convenient way to provide a ‘record of their travels’ suggesting that blogs are very much a modern form of diary. Her inductive analysis of the blogs yielded four themes:

  1. The bloggers dew on common representations of the exotic qualities of the places they visited in order to portray their destinations. For example: ‘we sailed to White Haven Beach which is just like on the postcards; white sands and light blue sea’.
  2. Bloggers often convey a sense of feeling out of place in these exotic locations, expressed through their awareness of physical or cultural differences. For example, one blogger realised that by standing with her arms folded in Uganda she was being rude.
  3. Through their interaction with local people and their physical environment, gap year bloggers often displayed a sensitivity to local customs and to the complexity of the locations in which they were travelling. For example, one blogger expressed his unease at other tourists clambering all over Ayres Rock (Uluru) in Australis
  4. There is often a narrative of the danger, risk and someone’s irritations associated with the local environments – there are complaints abut the quality of driving in Delhi, lack of concern for safety in Ecuador and frightening air quality of Rio de Janeiro. These involve comparisons with the U.K.

Snee notes that these four themes in gap year blogs reveal a tension: on the one hand there is a desire to learn about and understand the local, reflect on global issues and experience what places are really life… on the other hand, established discourses are reproduced of an ‘other’ that is romanticised or criticized.

Right Wing American Media Bias

Identifying media bias through content analysis is a key skill in sociology. The American media is often accused of having a right-wing bias which means they will present a pro-capitalist, pro-business world view as normal and desirable and promote a neoliberal policy agenda. (1)

Below I analyse one newspaper article (about why 66 million Americans have no savings at all) to illustrate how agenda setting, or what and what isn’t included in the article, results in a subtle right-wing, neoliberal bias. 

The article is as follows: Can you guess how many Americans have absolutely no savings at all – BY KRISTEN DOERER AND PAUL SOLMAN  June 21, 2016

OK – It looks like it might be a lefty topic, because it’s about the precarious financial life of the poorest sections of American society, but there’s no class-based analysis focusing on how it’s mainly low-paid and temporary jobs in the context of 30 years neoliberal economics resulting in productivity gains, but increasingly unequal national income distribution meaning the very rich get richer, while most of the rest of us, especially the poor, get relatively poorer.

Having alerted us to these ‘shocking statistics’ (oh those poor, poor Americans), we are then told that this low-savings rate is spread among all households –

‘the problem is hardly confined to the poor. Yes, more than half of all households with an annual income under $30,000 have no emergency savings. But fully one in six households with an annual income between $50,000 and $75,000 had no emergency savings either’.

The article then goes on to talk about how Gen Y is better at saving than Gen X – the tone of which seems to blame 40 to 60 somethings for having too high consumption levels and not saving enough… (‘if your damn kids can save, then why not you too’?) –  here ignoring the following two important contextual facts:

  • (A) Gen Xrs were encouraged to consume in the context of a growing economy, then the neoliberal crash came in 2007, and here we are: hyper-precarity;
  • (B) OK Yes – Gen Yrs may appear to be better at saving, rather than avoiding debt, but why are they saving? I bet once you take out all of those saving to go travelling (and hence consuming) or saving for a mortgage (you now need a bigger deposit than your parents), you’d have similar rates of debt being racked up across the generations.

The article ends with the classic neoliberal trick of individualising the whole problem:

“The biggest barrier to saving is not being in the habit of saving,” says McBride. “You have to set some money aside with every paycheck.” Making it automatic can help, he advises. But no matter how you do it, start now.”

Ignoring the fact that for the typical person with no savings (mots of them are in low-paid jobs) there simply isn’t enough money left at the end of the week to put something extra by!

In summary: why don’t people save according to the narrow agenda of this right-wing, neoliberal article?

  • 40-60 somethings got into the habit of consuming too much.
  • It’s a problem which effects all levels of income
  • 20-30 somethings are much better at saving than their parents
  • Irresponsible parents need to learn from their kids and just save more….

What’s not considered/ emphasised 

  • There are 10-15% of American households which are in no position to save for emergencies
  • This is because 30 years of neoliberal policies have created precarious and low-paid jobs, which has meant productivity gains, the gains from which have gone disproportionately to the top 1%.
  • Generation Yrs are shit-scared of their futures and so are more likely to save compared to their parents.
  • We need state-intervention to redistribute wealth away from the richest 1% and back to the lowest paid workers who actually created this wealth through their labour power.

Notes

(1) I didn’t intend to write this today, it just sort of happened, I was actually looking up stats on inequality in America, and I got quite annoyed when I read (and thought) about the content of this article.

Related posts 

Do the media influence our voting behaviour? – Deals withe bias in newspaper reporting of the 2017 U.K. Election

Is America and underdeveloped country?

 

 

Content Analysis of The Mass Media in Social Research

This post looks at the advantages and disadvantages of using formal (quantitative) content analysis and qualitative textual and thematic analysis of media sources.

(NB For some reason, all of the AQA approved text books only seem to expect you to know about content analysis applied to film/ TV and Print Media, rather than applying this to online media (web sites/ social media/ dating sites) – So I’m only here focusing on analysis of ‘traditional media’ rather than ‘new media’ – DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER – if you want to know why AQA insist on being stuck in dark ages – ask them!)

Mass Media resources are widely used in Social Research. Some Mass Media sources may provide sociologists with information about the social world, but their main interest to Sociologists is as objects of study rather than as sources of information.

Sources produced for entertainment purposes (films/ TV shows, special interest magazines) cannot reasonably be expected to paint a true picture of the social world, but they of interest to sociologists because they can tell us what media producers think people want to see, and it also interesting to see how different groups are represented in fictional TV shows, and the extent to which distortion takes place. When we look at the issue of crime, for example, we find that violent crime is disproportionately featured in crime dramas, whereas 75% of crime is less-serious property crime, and where groups are concerned, sociologists are interested in the extent to which the media perpetuates stereotypes.

News sources may claim to provide accurate information about what is going on in society – but to most sociologists the news is a social construction – it may reflect reality to an extent, but it also reflects the selection biases (what people think are important) and political prejudices of journalists and news editors. NB In the UK Journalists disproportionately come from private school (wealthy middle class backgrounds) – and so there is an inherent right wing bias in media reporting.

Below I distinguish between two basic types of content analysis – formal (quantitative) content analysis and qualitative content analysis

Formal (Quantitative) Content Analysis

Formal Content Analysis is a quantitative approach to analysing mass media content and involves developing a system of classification to analyse the key features of media sources and then simply counting how many times these features occur in a given text.

The simplest form of content analysis is a word or phrase count, which these days can be done on millions of books which have been scanned into Google’s database, more complex forms involve looking at broader categories of content – which types of crime appear in news media for example, or what are the major categories of news (entertainment/ sport/ politics) – or one can analyse pictures to see the representation of men compared to women for example.

The strengths and limitations of formal content analysis

It minimises researcher bias and typically has good reliability because there is less room for the researcher’s interpretations to bias the analysis.

It is quicker to do than qualitative forms of content analysis.

Weaknesses emerge when you start to use broader categories – which can be interpreted differently by different people.

Simply counting the content of a media text tells you nothing about the context in which it takes place, or the broader meaning which the words or pictures convey.

Qualitative Content Analysis: Thematic and Textual Analysis

Thematic Analysis involves trying to understand the intentions which lie behind the production of mass media documents by subjecting a particular area of reportage to detailed investigation.

A good example of this is Soothill and Walby’s (1991) study of newspaper reporting of sex crime. They found that the reporting tended to emphasise the danger of being raped in public places and the pathological nature of individual rapists. It tended to ignore the prevalence of rape by partners and friends of victims and the wider context of patriarchal power within sex crimes.

Textual Analysis involves examining how different words are linked together in order to encourage readers to adopt a particular view of what is being reported.

A classic example of this is the Glasgow University Media Group’s reporting of the miner’s strikes in the 1980s. They found that the miners ‘demanded’ better working conditions, while the managers ‘offered’ certain changes to working conditions.

Textual analysis also involves the use of semiology – which is the analysis of signs and symbols.

The strengths and limitations of qualitative content analysis

Qualitative content analysis allows the researcher to look at the full context in which media reporting takes place, it thus allows for a fuller description of what the media is portraying.

Both thematic and textual analysis lack objectivity and are reliant on the researcher’s own interpretation of the meaning of media texts.

Critics of these forms of analysis have also suggested that those who use these methods tend only to pick samples which reflect their own views, and it would be difficult to do such detailed analysis on a wide range of texts.

Related Posts 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Sociology