Monday, 28 April 2014

Why I love online interview research

Janet Salmons is a network member and a contributing expert to the online team. 

There are nearly as many kinds of research approaches as there are questions to study. While it is the task of the researcher to match approach to question, it is clear that some researchers simply prefer one approach over another, and select types of questions that permit them to carry out the inquiry in the preferred way. I admit it, I am guilty. While I see the value in all sorts of studies, I would not be content to crunch Big Data, even if it meant I could generate impressive maps and diagrams. I want to learn about their experiences first hand. I want to know why. Why did you make that choice and not another, why was it important to you, why do you plan to do things differently in the future? I cannot ask an extant mountain of Big Data to tell me more.

Online interviews allow researchers to pose questions in a variety of ways with participants anywhere, at any time. In synchronous interviews we can capture the immediacy and emotion of the moment, and when we click on the webcam to video conference we can have a dynamic exchange that is close to being there in person. We can traipse around a virtual world together or share a desktop or application, and discuss what we are experiencing. Or we can use a whiteboard to diagram and draw perceptions of the phenomena. With flexible asynchronous emails we can create an extended narrative correspondence or text message on the go, and ask participants to share their observations on site-- perhaps even relaying pictures or maps back to us.  It can be a rich exchange!

And yet, as always in scholarly research there are more issues and requirements to be considered including rigour, ethics, and methodological alignment. There is also the all-important acceptance by dissertation chairs and ethics boards, editors and peer reviewers. To add to the challenge, many of those who would hold the study’s fate in their hands are not familiar or comfortable with online methods.

Resources and upcoming events

To help researchers navigate these matters and create well-designed, coherent studies that merit approval, I have been focusing my attention on the development of design approaches for online interview methods. I created the “E-Interview Research Framework,” a holistic, systems-thinking set of guiding questions and models (Salmons, 2012, 2015). My new book from Sage Publications, Qualitative Online Interviews, is organized using this Framework.

To celebrate the May book release I am organizing an interactive, global online multi-platform extravaganza of free webinars, discussions and tweetchats about using e-interviews in research and teaching online methods. In addition to NSMNSS, SCoPE, e/merge Africa and IT4All are offering opportunities to learn together and exchange ideas. You are invited!

SCoPE, an online community interested in technology, educational research and practice, will host events from May 1 to 16, and additional events will be offered throughout the summer. Visit SCoPE at for free registration, webinar log-in information and related resources. Follow @einterview for updates.

Save the dates

Asynchronous Discussion Forum May 2-16:
·         Teaching Digital Qualitative Interview Methods
·         Designing an (Approvable) Study with Digital Qualitative Interview Methods
·         Open Discussion and Q & A

Webinars, May 5 and 12, and June 7:
·         Monday, May 5, 2014 at 17:00:00 Fair and Good? Ethics and Quality in Online Interview Research
·         Monday, May 12, 2014 at 17:00:00  See, Share, Create: Visual E-Interviews
·         Saturday, June 7, 2014 at 15:00 Online Interviews for Active Online Learning

NSMNSS Tweetchat, May 8:
·         Thursday, May 8, 2014 at 14:00:00  5 Tips for Teaching E-Interview Methods. Follow @NSMNSS and include #NSMNSS in all your tweets.

e/merge Africa Events,
July 21-25:
Details TBA

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Hard Evidence: how does false information spread online?

By Farida Vis, University of Sheffield and NSMNSS member

Last summer the World Economic Forum (WEF) invited its 1,500 council members to identify top trends facing the world, including what should be done about them. The WEF consists of 80 councils covering a wide range of issues including social media. Members come from academia, industry, government, international organisations and wider civil society.

The top three issues highlighted for 2014 concerned rising societal tensions in the Middle East and North Africa; widening income disparities, and persistent structural unemployment. Perhaps surprisingly, in tenth place was a concern over the rapid spread of misinformation online, specifically social media’s role in this. At a value of 3.35 this was seen as somewhat to very significant.

World Economic Forum

False information and the news

Within a number of professions, journalism being an obvious one, the spread and potential for reporting misinformation is a genuine concern. Being first to report breaking news has long been a key value for traditional media outlets. Though this may no longer hold the appeal it once had.

Now some news organisations are instead placing higher value on being right even if that means not being first in reporting a story. This is probably a result of various high-profile mistakes made recently using social media information.

On the anniversary of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, it’s worth remembering that information posted on Reddit led to the New York Post printing images of two suspects on its front page, who had nothing to do with the bombings.

Following the disappearance of Malaysia Airways flight MH370 in March, NBC news also highlighted various false reports spreading on social media, which alleged that the plane had made a safe landing.

Time-consuming verification practices make it near impossible for newsrooms to compete with social media’s speed. Online verification is increasingly important if this allows for reporting of online information that is factually correct. Trust in the source of information understandably continues to be one of the most, if not the most important asset a news organisation has.

Are internet users concerned?

While the WEF data showed the rapid spread of false information as a key trend for 2014, the 2013 Oxford Internet Survey found that trust in the reliability of online information among British internet users has changed very little in the past ten years.

More than that – and this is especially important in relation to false information and the news – users identify the internet as the most reliable source of information over television and radio (at 3.6 on average, with 5 being totally reliable).

 The authors note:

This stability suggests that users have learnt to what extent they can trust information online. In this light, we can see that people have a learned level of scepticism about information that can be found online, which is contrary to many expectations of people being unduly influenced by misinformation distributed online.

But even if internet users are not terribly concerned about false information, it remains an issue.

How does information spread?

False information spreads just like accurate information. Important work is being developed on the spread and circulation of online information, specifically academic and industry studies on virality. This work seeks to better understand the circumstances under which information has or may spread. What is clear is that it is difficult to isolate specific patterns, users or types of content that may result in the spreading of information online.

But some patterns do emerge. In their analysis, Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley found the role of “gatekeepers” is central to whether something goes viral or not. These gatekeepers – people who are well placed within a network to share information with others – are often old-fashioned journalists or people “in the know”. Nahon and Hemsley provide the famous example of Keith Urbahn, chief of staff of Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense. His single tweet reporting the death of Osama bin Laden went viral before the President had been able to address the news media. This visualisation by Social Flow highlights the importance of both Urbahn and CNN’s Brian Stelter in the spread of this information.

Industry research by Face also shows that gatekeepers can be important, following on from an emotional trigger and validation by the relevant audience.

A further body of work focuses on a specific type of online content that often spreads rapidly: internet memes. Limor Shifman defines an internet meme as:
a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which b) were created with awareness of each other, and c) were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the internet by many users.
When it comes to memes, the idea of “false information” takes on a very different meaning compared to how journalists may verify online information.

Take for example the incident of a police officer seemingly casually pepper spraying a group of Occupy protesters at a University campus in late 2011. While this incident did take place it also gave birth to a popular meme. This meme shows the police officer photoshopped in a series of art works as well as well as other contemporary and historical settings. So while the original information is accurate, its further treatment turns it into something else.

With the rapid development of platforms like Twitter, these different types of content (and different types of users, including fake and spoof accounts) all exist in the same place and can relate to the same event, which adds complication.

How do we know it’s false?

When it comes to verifying information online, journalism could be seen as a type of frontline service in dealing with false information online. Initiatives such as the Verification Handbook offer important insights and guidelines about how to deal with different types of false information. It essentially encourages readers to assume online information is false until verified.

Understanding the spread of false information online requires a better understanding of two things. First, how information spreads online; second, what we mean by false information.

In this emergent field of study we need solutions that not only help us to better understand how false information spreads online, but also how to deal with it. This requires different types of expertise: a strong understanding of social media combined with an ability to deal with large volumes of data that foreground the importance of human interpretation of information in context.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.
The Conversation

Farida Vis is affiliated with the World Economic Forum. She sits on the Global Agenda Council on Social Media.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Read the original article.

Going Viral: An Interview with the Authors

Janet Salmons is a network member and a contributing expert to the online team. 

The cover of the Going Viral book attracted my attention at the Association of Internet Researchers’ conference—and stimulated my curiosity. “Going viral” is another of those terms we commonly use, but what does it really mean? By understanding the term, can we become better observers of viral events? I asked the authors, Karine Nahon @karineb and Jeff Hemsley @JeffHemsley if they would share some insights with the NSMNSS community. Our discussion went like this:

JS: Can you discuss the research or thought process that went into your definition for “virality” as described on page 16?

Virality is a social information flow process where many people simultaneously forward a specific information item, over a short period of time, within their social networks, and where the message spreads beyond their own social network to different, often distant networks, resulting in a sharp acceleration in the number of people who are exposed to the message.

JH: In previous research projects looking at blogs and videos, we looked for a definition and couldn’t find one. We had a lot of discussion to come up with a definition that was rigorous, that researchers could use.
KN: We started in 2008, and at the beginning, the definition was similar to those used in marketing and communications literature. It talked about speed of virality and distribution of information inside and in between networks. But it wasn’t refined enough, or crystalized enough, it was missing something. The definition has to have these components. It’s a social process-- a social information flow, not just an information flow, and it has to be social, moving from one person to another. It is not just broadcasting. The speed is important and also the reach and spread, not only the number of people it reaches but also the networks it hops through.

JS: Can you explain the “viral information event” (p. 17)?
KN: We distinguished between a viral “event” and a viral “topic.” An event is an information item, a video, a text, any information item that spreads through network. An information topic is a combination of many different viral and non-viral events around a particular topic. For example, think of Snowden as a topic, it was a combination of  information events that were non-viral and some went viral. So while not all events went viral around the Snowden leaks, the whole topic is defined as a viral topic.
JH: To say something is a viral event is to narrow it down to something specific, one event.

JS: Can you discuss your thinking about many-to-many? In the book you talked about how the “many” have a role beyond just forwarding a message.

KN: There is a misconception that when we discuss virality, we refer to the same information item being spread. But in many cases what happens is that when I post something on Facebook, and add to it some text, I have reframed the item. In creating a social information flow, people shape it according to their own values and norms.

JH: When I share a video into my network, I usually add a comment and when I do that I am essentially framing the message and re-contextualizing it for my audience. That’s an important aspect of why these events are social. The many-to-many part of it means that it subtly or not so subtly changes the meaning of the message or augments the meaning embedded in the content.

JS: I was intrigued by the point that sometimes reframing actually negated the message from the original content. Other thoughts to add about re-framing?

JH: In our first viral study of blogs and videos, we started to realize there is this idea in networks that people create links because they are similar in some way, this is called “homophily.” We looked at blogs linking to viral videos, and we saw that liberal blogs linked to the same videos that other liberal blogs do. And conservative blogs link to the same videos.  When they cross-link, when the conservative blog links to a liberal video, it is because the conservative can re-frame or re-cast the video in a way that supports their own ideas. When a liberal blogs linked to a conservative video and says, those dirty conservatives are sending out attack ads again, they are changing the way their audience is perceiving the video. When they click it, the viewers see it as an attack ad, without even listening to the conservative message. Instead we are pre-conditioned to see the video as an attack ad because of the re-framing of the message.

JS: At NSMNSS we’ve discussed ways that social media is not neutral. There are real control factors. Your book shows that virality is not just an organic phenomenon, there are some real control factors.  You said: “the power of network gatekeepers is hidden…this is key to social transformation in networked societies” (p. 48) and “…every tool we use on the Internet is a type of gatekeeper” (p. 57). Talk about implications of Network Gatekeepers and the power of network gatekeepers to influence politics and society…

KN: When I developed network gatekeeper theory in my dissertation I didn’t realize it would be popular 14 years later! There is a lot of information control and power dynamics in social networks. Information technology design is not neutral, it is very political, not political in the sense of partisan. When we design social networking sites we promote certain values, interests and political interests. Once we agree that technology is not neutral, we can also discuss how information control (gatekeeping) is political as well.

We see different types of network gatekeepers. Each one of us can be potentially a network gatekeeper, if we exercise any type of information control. If I ask my children not to enter to certain sites, I am creating a gatekeeping process. Network Gatekeeping Theory enlarged the traditional gatekeeping concept from selection of information, as editors did, to encompass something larger, to encompass information control.

What is the connection between network gatekeeping and virality? There is a strong connection. For something to become viral it needs to be driven by two kinds of forces. One, which is top-down, through the network gatekeepers, where certain actors exercise power and information control and help to spread the information. The other is a bottom up force, about information influence, that is organic, sharing data and interests between people and networks. When these two forces come together, that is when virality happens.

Almost every viral event goes through network gatekeepers. Facebook is a gatekeeper, Twitter is a gatekeeper, the government is a gatekeeper. Each one of them exercises a different level of gatekeeping, but viral events must go through gatekeepers.

JH: We are all gatekeepers in social media. Each one of chooses to share, or not share, the content we come across. When we choose share it, we broadcast it out to our network. As a gatekeeper in my network, I don’t have the same kind of diffusion power that Huffington Post has. But, the 150 or so followers I have, may not be exposed to that message unless they hear it from me. So gatekeeping is a process that has to do with the choices we make.

JS: Gatekeeping seems to relate to a lot of wider issues of identity and the choices we make to create networks that promote our identity.

KN: Network gatekeeping is not only about filtering information. The main role of the new gatekeeper is to connect one network to another, like boundary spanners that are described in management literature - they can link one network to another, allowing the virality engine to spark.

Virality has the power to  challenge social structures, the institutional structures, the main basis and rules and practices that regulate behavior of people in society.  Transparency is one of the mechanism that together with virality challenges social structures - Virality has the force because with many people are exposed to the message very fast. As a result, the mass demands answers, greater accountability. It forces governments and nations, public and private institutions and people to act and respond. This power of people to share information can circumvent traditional gatekeepers and elites to demand accountability and that changes the structure of society.

JH: A lot of times we think of network gatekeepers as bad because we are afraid that they are controlling info in ways that aren’t good, but these gatekeepers also tie us together. When gatekeepers share and promote information, they give us a common experience that keeps our society linked together. So on one hand, gatekeepers can hinder important information or on the other hand they also tie us together.

JS: Can you talk about the methods used in study of blogs.

JH: We collected and analyzed large heterogenous data sets. One person who was key is Sean Walker. We collected a large amount of videos from the 2008 [US] election and blogs, stored in Sql data bases. We used social network and econometrics regression to look at life-cycles of virality. When we categorized videos, we used content analysis. Both statistical techniques and content analysis methods were used. For the book, we found new cases, involving additional data and analysis. We used a lot of existing research- with interdisciplinary synthesis of marketing, communication, computational social science, political communication, sociology, and network theory. We structured book and chapters in logical groupings that could be used to teach a course.

JS: What advice can you share with researchers who are interested in virality?

KN: Next steps involve incorporating different disciplines and not looking from just one. Compare virality today and before we had social networks, what has changed? Another thing that is important to continue and study is the impact on societal structure. We are only at the tip of the iceberg to understand the impacts.
JH: This is a new area that has really not been touched. The people who went into this first were in marketing and there is research in that area that is in depth. Then the computational social scientists have started looking at very big events with millions or billions of views or shares. But what is really missing is the qualitative social look at virality. How is this tied to identity? When people share things, why this and not that? Those are some really important questions we would like to understand. There is also this question of scale. 

Computational social scientists are interested in looking at these big events, there is almost a data fetish about looking at really big things. But a viral video that’s shared an indigenous communities in the Northwest [of the US] that just gets 5,000 views may be more impactful on that community than Gangnam Style that got a billion views and was seen all over the world. We need to think about virality as scalable. What are the boundaries? When it stops, why? What about context? Something that goes viral in the US may not go viral in Canada. We’d like to understand why. We look at tweets and videos and talk about research in other areas, but how is it that viral games that spread differently than videos? What about viral tweets versus viral news stories? There are a huge number of questions.

The methods that people need to use are every method that every researcher uses. There is a really strong case for doing qualitative work, we need to interview people to ask them why they are spreading or not spreading content. We need to do grounded theory to understand these questions from the ground up. We need to keep doing the big data quantitative analysis, because that does give us a perspective. But I think this is a topic that can be studied many different ways, in different fields. I hope our book is a starting point.

KN: Virality is a complex phenomenon with impacts on the individual level, communal and societal level. It is important to raise the ethical issues around virality, because when something goes viral the spread of information is out of control. Once something becomes viral, it is hard, almost impossible to control. The non-controllable nature of virality raises hard questions about privacy or breach of privacy of individuals. What are the limits, what are the red lines of society? What are the ethical rules that we employ in terms of the data we analyze? Can we use the data? The easy way is to think it is OK if we anonymize the data. But if someone is harmed there is no way back, the life of the person, the course of history will change because of that virality.

The 7th chapter attempts to think forward about the concept of virality. The question we need to ask ourselves is: what will we be left with? What will history look like 200 years from now because of viral events, sharing and many-to-many interactions? It is not like the traditional gatekeepers can only give us certain pieces of information, like they used to 200 years ago. Now that we have viral events being curated, what will that mean for history, for the many narratives that constitute history? Are we going to get a more equitable and just society because we hear more narratives? Or maybe the opposite, because of the power interactions behind the scenes? What will be the prevailing narratives when people look back at our time? What are we leaving to the next generation in how we archive these viral events?
I hope NSMNSS readers can grasp the discussion—and research— potential for the topics covered in the book, Going Viral. For this reason I think it would be a terrific text in a course where generative conversations could be had with future researchers of digital culture and communications. If you are doing research in a related area, I hope you will use the comment area to share ideas and links to your work.

PS. I did not pay Jeff to make that comment about the need to do interviews about the motivations for online sharing, but I hope it goes viral!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Back to University: Summary of ‘Research Ethics into the Digital Age’ Conference

Kelsey Beninger is a researcher at NatCen Social Research.

Recently I was invited to speak at Sheffield University’s ‘Research Ethics into the Digital Age’ Conference. It was an exciting opportunity, not in the least because it involved a swanky pre-conference speaker’s dinner. But really, it was exciting because the University was celebrating ten years of its research ethics committee and was launching their new purpose-built online ethics submission portal. Paper-based applications, be gone!

Usually at these type of ethics and internet mediated research events there are a diverse bunch of cross discipline and cross institution technicians, practitioners, ethical specialists, to name a few. This event had a diverse audience but in a different way; they were mostly from Sheffield University. The great turnout demonstrated how there was not only commitment to high ethical standards, but actual interest from across departments and job roles at the University. I met a few administrators that manage the huge numbers of ethics applications, members of the university research ethics committee, and students and professors galore!

The morning had a great line up of key note speakers. Professor Richard Jenkins from Sheffield University provided a nice overview of ethics in international projects around three themes:

  1. data must satisfy the host country’s legal and ethical requirements,
  2. data must satisfy your university’s REC policy, and
  3. data must satisfy the professional standards of the profession you are associated with.
Some obvious but important key points included knowing the specific cultural, legal and social laws of the country you are going to research in before you get there and keep a detailed paper trail of everything you do. Also, you share risks with any collaborators so if they don’t have governance framework in their country then discuss it early and encourage the application of your UK standards. The moral of the story: the ethical situation is more complex with international research but the responsibilities you have as a researcher with respect to ethics are the same.

Professor Joe Cannataci from the University of Malta cut the legal jargon and conveyed important points about data protection and the use of personal data from the internet. He drew on an intriguing array of international projects (one of which may have involved a funny story of him dancing his entrance to gain acceptance when meeting a rural tribe in Malaysia). He started his presentation by discussing the principle of relevance in data protection law. This is something many of us in research are familiar with- collect only the right data, collected only by the right people, at the right time and used by the right people in the right way for an agreed time. Say that 10 times fast! Of particular relevance to researchers beginning studies across Europe is knowing where the data is to be stored because there are different data protection laws in European countries compared to EU countries.

Next up was Claire Hewson from the Open University. Claire provided an overview of the challenges associated with the ethics of internet mediated research. A point that got me thinking ‘Is there truly an ‘unobtrusive’ type of data collection?’ was her distinction between obtrusive and unobtrusive methods. Obtrusive are activities such as actively recruiting individuals and those individuals knowingly partake in research. Unobtrusive methods included big data, data mining, and observations. It’s only unobtrusive because people are not aware of it in the first instance. It would become pretty obtrusive to some if participants were cognisant of what was being done with their personal data. A nice take away point from the presentation was that ‘thinking is not optional’ when it comes to applying ethical frameworks to changing online environments.

After a tasty lunch in Sheffield University’s lovely new student union building my turn was up! I delivered a session on the challenges of social media research, drawing upon recent exploratory research with users of social media ( about their views on researchers using their data in their work. I also drew on the work of the network and the survey conducted by network member Janet Salmons on researcher and practitioner views of the ethics of online research. My group explored the challenges associated with three themes: recruitment and data collection; interviewer identity and wellbeing; and analysis and presentation of data. Summarising key points that we as researchers are familiar with, I pushed the issues home by using direct examples from our exploratory research.

We wrapped up with a section on recommendations including only using social media in research if it is appropriate for your question; being transparent with participants and other researchers about risks of the research and the limitations of your sample; taking reasonable steps to inform users of your intention to utilise their data in research. Read the full list of recommendations in the report, here.