16. december: Social Media & Reasoned Arguments – Københavns Universitet

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16. december: Social Media & Reasoned Arguments

KU's Alumneforening har bedt forskere fra Københavns Universitet fortælle om aktuelle forskningsprojekter. Det er tilsammen blevet til de 24 låger i årets forskningsjulekalender, hvor du kan læse om alt fra livets oprindelse til den personlige julemad. I dagens låge fortæller ph.d.-studerende Michael Bossetta fra Det Samfundsvidenskabelige Fakultet om sin forskning i politik og sociale medier.

In a perfect world

Imagine this scenario. Citizens with diverse opinions get together over coffee and debate politics. They discuss pressing issues in a way that is informed, respectful, and polite. When the coffee runs dry, everyone walks away from the meeting with an appreciation for others’ viewpoints. While some are reaffirmed in their existing beliefs, others decide to change their mind on a few things after listening to others’ perspectives. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

"Increasingly, civic debate about politics doesn’t take place over coffee; it takes place over the Internet and on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp.

Michael Bossetta

This rosy picture is the ideal of deliberative democracy. It’s an ideal that has been championed by political theorists over the past thirty years – and rightfully so. Citizens’ opportunity to discuss political issues without fear of consequence is what sets our liberal democracies apart from authoritarian regimes. But increasingly, civic debate about politics doesn’t take place over coffee; it takes place over the Internet and on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. And unlike the ideal espoused by political theorists, the political discussions taking place on social media are often conflictual, crude, and populated by bots and trolls. 

What social media did to Brexit

In a recent (and still ongoing) project, I partnered with two colleagues, Anamaria Dutceac Segesten from Lund University and Duje Bonacci from the University of Zagreb, to investigate the quality of deliberative debate in the comment fields of three political Facebook pages associated with the 2016 Brexit referendum – Remain In, Vote Leave, and Leave.EU.

Since we know from previous research that the deliberative ideal of informed, civil discussion is unlikely to occur on social media, we are rethinking the concept of deliberation and focusing on solely on ‘reasoned arguments’. In this study, we consider a reasoned argument to be: about a political issue relating to Brexit, making a claim, and supported by facts or examples. Using this definition, we are seeking to uncover: Where can reasoned arguments be found in Facebook comments? What predicts the presence of reasoned arguments on Facebook?

1.8 million Facebook comments

To answer these questions, we harvested over 1.8 million Facebook comments from August 2015 – November 2016. By manually coding a random sample of 4,225 comments, we find that only 10% of comments include a reasoned argument – meaning 90% of the Facebook comments have little substantial information about the issues at stake in the Brexit referendum.

However, using this sample we were able to identify three characteristics of a Facebook comment that predict the presence of arguments at a level of statistical significance. The first is the length of the comment: longer comments tend to contain arguments. The second is that comments in reply to another user, rather than a campaign’s post, tend to contain arguments. The third measure, ‘formality score’, is a natural language processing method that detects the overall number of parts of speech that convey substantive (i.e. deictic) content, such as nouns and adjectives, in comparison to non-deictic speech, such as pronouns and interjections.

Online trolls and democracy

Using these measures, we find that the Remain page harbors the highest degree of reasoned arguments, whereas the Leave pages contain much less. However and interestingly, our data suggests that it is not Remain supporters commenting among themselves that breeds argumentation. Rather, we find that the overwhelmingly tendency of Leave supporters to post on Remain pages spurs the argumentation necessary for deliberation to arise. That is to say, our findings suggest that reasoned arguments are generated when two opposing viewpoints clash on Facebook, and it was the Leave EU supporters who aggressively posted their opinions on pro-Remain forums that sparked this debate.

We have not yet analyzed the content of these Leave to Remain posts, but it in light of deliberative democratic theory it raises a provoking question: Can trolls actually enhance the quality of debate in online spaces? And further, are online trolls actually positive for democracy?

Læs mere

Følg med i Bossettas forskning i podcasten "Social Media and Politics".

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