Department of Computational Social Science Seminar - Deen Freelon

Friday, March 21, 3:00 p.m.
Center for Social Complexity Suite
Research Hall, Third Floor

Border Control: The Evolution of Epistemic Communities in Twitter’s Syria Discussion

Deen Freelon, Assistant Professor
School of Communication
American University

BIO: My primary research interests lie in the changing relationships between technology and politics, and encompass the study of weblogs, online forums, social media, and other forms of political interactive media. Collecting and analyzing large amounts of such data (i.e. millions of tweets, wall posts, etc.) require methods drawn from the fields of computer science and information science, which I am helping to adapt to the long-standing interests of political communication research. Beyond that, I also have an interest in quantitative research methods generally and intercoder reliability specifically, one manifestation of which is the online intercoder reliability calculator ReCal which is housed on this site.

ABSTRACT: The expectation that online political discourse will tend toward polarization and insularity over time was originally explained as a consequence of social and technological shifts in stable, Western democracies. Recent research has begun to test this hypothesis in non-Western contexts, arriving at a variety of conclusions depending on local circumstances. This presentation offers an empirical examination of insularity in Twitter-based discussions of the Syrian conflict spanning over 2.5 years. It analyzes a unique dataset consisting of every public tweet posted between Jan 2011 and Aug 2013 containing the term “Syria” or its Arabic equivalent, totaling over 57 million messages. I conceptualize retweeting as a social signal that binds individuals together as members of distinct epistemic or interpretive communities that share common sets of information sources. Using both computational and qualitative methods, I extract, classify, and track the insularity of the most robust retweet communities over the 32-month period, paying particular attention to the overlap and directions of information flow between English- and Arabic-language communities. In the presentation I will also discuss in some depth the methods used to extract, preprocess, and analyze the data.