Social movement research and big data: critiques and alternatives
This paper examines the growing use of big data, social media-oriented approaches in the study of social movements, including Occupy and the Arab Spring, and suggests an alternative research methodology. We argue that although big data studies provide valuable contributions to the literature, there are both analytical and ethical reasons to complement this work with fieldwork. The Mapping Movements project provides a framework for a blended approach, developing mixed methods in order to examine the physical and the online aspects of social movements, with case studies of social movements in North America, Africa, and Europe; our preliminary research, from 2012, analysed the uses and perceptions of Twitter within Occupy Oakland, combining Twitter data with fieldwork from Oakland, including interviews with activists. Subsequent fieldwork and data collection was focused on the 2013 World Social Forum, held in Tunis, and Greek antifascist movements in 2013.
Recent years have seen a growth in the use of quantitative analyses in social movement research, taking advantage of the huge volume of data available through platforms like Twitter and YouTube. There has been considerable work on the Occupy movement focusing on hashtags (Conover, Davis, et al., 2013; Conover, Ferrara, Menczer, & Flammini, 2013), YouTube linking networks (Thorson et al., 2013), and even Facebook (Gaby & Caren, 2012), despite the difficulties involved in accessing data on the platform. Similar analyses have focused on the Arab Spring (Papacharissi & Oliveira, 2012; Starbird & Palen, 2012). This work makes important contributions to our understanding of these movements; a large-scale, quantitative approach enables a comprehensive overview of Twitter coverage across the lifespan of these social movements. Such data can demonstrate key patterns of activity, such as periods of heightened or lessened online communication, and in particular how these patterns develop over time in response to events affecting the movement. Datasets also provide valuable details on information sources cited or the attention received by individual users.
However, big data approaches have significant blind spots, and are most effective when complemented by qualitative methods, especially fieldwork and other direct contact with movement participants. Although other research has adopted a mixed-methods approach (Costanza-Chock, 2012), there has been little active reflection on this methodology when it comes to social movement research. The approach which we have framed for the Mapping Movements ties together big data research, participant observation, and interviews, working to complement and test data gathered through each technique. Such an approach is particularly vital for social movement research, where the online platforms used by participants may be different between movements, and also where the platforms employed – and their functions – change in response to the evolving needs and concerns of the movement.
Our preliminary research suggests that this methodology highlights issues which may not be visible to big data approaches. Interviews from the case studies indicate that many activists are currently engaging in strategic avoidance of social media. Participants also engage in self-censorship when they do use social media. This means that important participants and tactics are effectively hidden from the view of research based purely on big data. Similarly, our research suggests that many participants perceive Twitter and other social media platforms to be engaging in censorship or otherwise limiting activists’ online presence, with tweets or other material disappearing suspiciously, or accounts associated with activism being unfollowed. Recent developments, including the apparently targeted shut-down of Greek left-wing Facebook profiles (Ματθαίος, 2013) and the introduction of a Twitter ‘report’ button, are likely to further diminish the visibility of certain kinds of social movement activism on social media.
There are also important ethical issues associated with big data research on social movements. Chesters argues that ethical social movement research requires reciprocity with movement participants (including an openness to being challenged), and that we remember the “academy has no a priori reason or justification for making demands upon those it seeks knowledge of” (2012, p. 155). This suggests two ethical critiques of big data approaches to social movement studies. The first is that in gathering data from public or semi-public spaces we are drawing on participants’ activism, and transforming it into “commodifiable objects of knowledge” (Chesters, 2012, p. 145). The second is that the distance involved means that there is little dialogue involved with movement participants, and few chances for them to challenge the researcher’s position of power. Whereas participant observation and interviews frequently require the researcher to answer difficult questions about their work (as has happened in the case of our research), it is possible to carry out big data research without ever interacting with movement participants. If research is published in paywalled journals, participants may never even be able to read it, let alone comment on it.
The Mapping Movements methodology is not just an approach for gathering research data, but also shapes how findings and discussions are later disseminated. Our research enables a nuanced analysis of social media use by activists, looking beyond the object of study (the social medium of choice) at a quantitative level, to examine the intersections between the online and the physical aspects of social movements, and how these influence one another and affect the social media strategies at hand.
Chesters, G. (2012). Social Movements and the Ethics of Knowledge Production. Social Movement Studies, 11(2), 145–160. doi:10.1080/14742837.2012.664894
Conover, M. D., Davis, C., Ferrara, E., McKelvey, K., Menczer, F., & Flammini, A. (2013). The Geospatial Characteristics of a Social Movement Communication Network. PLoS ONE, 8(3), e55957. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055957
Conover, M. D., Ferrara, E., Menczer, F., & Flammini, A. (2013). The Digital Evolution of Occupy Wall Street. PLoS ONE, 8(5), e64679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064679
Costanza-Chock, S. (2012). Mic Check! Media Cultures and the Occupy Movement. Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 11(3-4), 375–385.
Gaby, S., & Caren, N. (2012). Occupy Online: How Cute Old Men and Malcolm X Recruited 400,000 US Users to OWS on Facebook. Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 11(3-4), 367–374.
Papacharissi, Z., & Oliveira, M. de F. (2012). Affective News and Networked Publics: The Rhythms of News Storytelling on #Egypt. Journal of Communication, 62, 266–282.
Starbird, K., & Palen, L. (2012). (How) will the revolution be retweeted?: information diffusion and the 2011 Egyptian uprising. In Proceedings of the ACM 2012 conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 7–16). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/2145204.2145212
Thorson, K., Driscoll, K., Ekdale, B., Edgerly, S., Thompson, L. G., Schrock, A., … Wells, C. (2013). YouTube, Twitter and the Occupy Movement: Connecting Content and Circulation Practices. Information, Communication & Society, 16(3), 421–451. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2012.756051
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