Research Update 2: Summer at the Social Media Lab

From being cited in an Anonymous press release and speaking live on Sun TV, to attending my first slue of conferences and giving my first public lecture, this summer certainly has been full of excitement!

Last I checked in I’d just completed my Transfer of Status, the first milestone in my PhD program. I left Oxford for the summer, sites set on home (Nova Scotia, Canada), where I took up a position as a Visiting Scholar at the Dalhousie Social Media Lab from the end of June through to the beginning of October.

While at the Lab I focused primarily on my own work including preparing for multiple conferences and identifying my list of potential interviewees. I was very fortunate to have been welcomed with open arms — I had the opportunity to present my early thesis work to faculty and students within the Computer Science Faculty, the Information Management Faculty, and to political science undergraduate students.

I also helped the Social Media Lab organize their annual conference, this year called the Social Media and Society 2013 Conference. (I presented work Devin Gaffney and I have been doing on identifying influentials in Twitter networks).

Most recently, I took the lead on the Twitter analysis of the Nova Scotia Election, at the Social Media Lab. We wrote a number of blogs (here, here, and here), and will hopefully produce an academic paper in the coming months.

If there is a single lesson to be learned from this summer, I think it is the importance of connecting with people from all over. Every time I said yes to an interview, a conference, or a speaking engagement, I met new and interesting people with new and interesting perspectives. I’ve been able to start to build a base which can be hard to do when you get stuck in the Oxford bubble.

One of the things that makes me a particularly efficient DPhil student is my focus. When I set out a list of goals for myself I commit fully to the tasks required to achieve those goals. It is easy to spend hours in the office only to be so exhausted at the end of the day I can barely drag myself to rugby training and then home to bed. The last thing I want to do is go to a lecture (however interesting it may be) or a reception (regardless of what yummy treats are on offer) where I have to look presentable and say semi-intelligent things.

Clearly those periods of intense focus are important, but connecting with others – that is a big part of what I want to do also. If I want to help bridge the gap between academic and the general public, I need to be able to find times and places that facilitate that interaction. This summer has been a wonderful step in that direction.

Up next?

I am back in Oxford running Research Methods workshops for MSc students here at the OII, working as a Research Assistant on Bill Dutton’s Fifth Estate project, and working on the literature review and methods chapters of my thesis.

I've been taking a quick picture of all the workspaces of my PhD. This is my desk at Dal.

I’ve been taking a quick picture of all the workspaces of my PhD. This is my desk at Dal.

Alter the media! We found the journalists! [Social Media Lab blog]

Originally posted to the Social Media Lab blog.

Where in the world is…

It has taken an entire election campaign, but it looks like NS journalists are finally joining the online discussion about the Nova Scotia election and are beginning to actively interact with Twitter users.

In our first blog post  and in a Sun TV Battleground interview we noted the strange absence of journalists and the main stream media from the #NSpoli Twitter discussion. In other provincial political discussion on Twitter such as #BCpoli and #ONpoli, as well as within #CDNpoli, journalists and mainstream media Twitter accounts are very well represented. In cases where they are present in the discussion, they tend to be highly central in the communication network and in many cases work to bridge across partisan clusters. Being central in a communications network is often used by researchers as a proxy to determine one’s relative influence and authority within a network.

In the #NSpoli community prior to the election and during the first three weeks of the writ period, journalists were not highly central, they were not talked to or about much, and were not really part of the #NSpoli conversation at all. But today, election day, the story is different.

The graph below represents the #NSpoli network from mid-July to the morning of October 8 – election day. Just one week ago the graph looked very different (see our previous blog post). There were distinct clusters for each of the three major political parties, a cluster in which a union representative was most central, and no sign of journalists either in a distinct cluster, occupying a central role in the party clusters, or bridging across clusters.


In this more recent graph we see a large component in the center where we find accounts like @ctvatlantic and @chronicleherald. While both accounts were mentioned sporadically over the course of the election, neither had been particularly central, certainly not compared to the party leaders. To be sure, the number of tweets mentioning parties and leaders still outweighs that of any mainstream media account, but a change is undeniable. These accounts, and others linked to specific journalists and outlets are now a more integral part of that core group.

Interestingly, there is one grouping that has become more dense and distinct in the #NSPoli discussion. The graph below is a cut down version of the #NSpoli network and shows only this one cluster.


The cluster near the bottom is, roughly, made up of national media and federal politicians which links to the larger main component. @Sunnewsnetwork and @davidakin are the most central accounts in this group.

National media, or at least those who have engaged with the Nova Scotia election have now formed their own dense cluster, something that only came about in a big way over the final few days of campaigning. Why these national actors have joined the discussion on a decidely regional discussion is interesting and will require more analysis.

Leaders and Their Followers

Over the course of the campaign dense clusters of users formed around each of the three main political parties and their leaders. A cluster around union organizers also formed. There were small groupings of accounts from elsewhere – a small pocket of Newfoundlanders, a grouping of #CDNpoli enthusiasts, federal politicians, etc.

Today, the NDP and Liberal groups have merged into one big central mass, in fact @premierdexter, @stephenmcneil, @nsndp, and @nsliberal are all occupying nearly the exact same space on the graph. For those keeping track, @nsndp is still the most central in this community.

The @nspc and @jamieballie accounts are still found in their own cluster, but even that is being drawn into the center mass and is relatively less isolated in the #NSPoli communication network.

The graph below shows the main cluster which houses the NDP and Liberal accounts (yellow and green) and the cluster off to the bottom right (turquoise) in which we find the PC accounts.


What does all of this mean?

Well, it means that in the frenzy of the final few days of campaigning, Twitter users, regardless of party or political role (i.e. journalist, candidate, volunteer, etc.) were all chatting to, and about, a wide range of others. The partisan camps have been vacated and users are pouring into the commons. We know that within that commons journalists have piped up alongside partisan supporters, candidates, parties, and interest groups. The question remains, are average citizens engaging in this political chat? We haven’t got much evidence to suggest they are. And so, how to engage less politically active social media users and how to bring them into the conversation remains a challenge for campaigns.

#NSpoli, partisans patting themselves on the back?

[See full post on the Social Media Lab blog.]

When we think about tracking political discussion on Twitter, inevitably two questions come up. Who is talking? And what are they talking about? In our first post Who is #NSpoli?, we started to answer the “who” question. In that post we showed that the NDP and their supporters were more engaged in the #NSpoli chatter relative to other political parties and their supporters in the Twitterverse. 

Since that initial analysis of the Twitter conversations on #NSpoli, a lot has happened. The writ dropped (election was officially called), new candidates, journalists, volunteers, and citizens all joined the conversation about events they are to attend and policies they support. As a result, it is no surprise that during this past week the #NSpoli hashtag hit a three month high with 2,657 tweets on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 – the day of the Leader’s Debate.

The more things change the more they remain the same:

The top tweeters and most mentioned accounts have remained largely the same since the last post. Overall, we do see denser and more distinct communities forming or clustering around each of the three major party leaders, but at the same time we also see that there remains a fair amount of cross-partisan communication.

The network graph below shows the major clusters of accounts using #NSpoli. The light blue is home to both @nspc and @jamiebaillie. Chatter about these two accounts has increased the most compared to the accounts of the other two major parties and their leaders. @nsliberal and @stephenmcneil are found in the purple cluster at the top of the graph and @nsndp and @premierdexter are found in the pink cluster to the right. On the left in the dark blue cluster are a variety of advocacy groups, union representatives, and lobbyists. Before the election was called these groups were much less distinct. This suggests that users have started tweeting to and about others who are similar to themselves and might share common goals or interests.











Partisans Patting themselves on the back?

With this in mind we are in a good place to start to answer that second question. What are #NSpoli users talking about?

Looking at the 12 most common topics on debate day we saw that health care and Cape Breton politics were the only two issues that came up. #NSpoli users, as a group, did not focus on any of the many other issues discussed during the debate. Instead, users were very interested in discussions of who was winning and who was losing. @jamiebaillie, @premierdexter, @stephenmcneil, @nsndp, and mcneil, were all terms most commonly used.

Mentions of a leader’s account tended to be positive, which suggests one of two things (or two things happening simultaneously): 1) the #NSpoli community is actually partisans patting themselves on the back or 2) undecided voters are expressing new-found support. Our content analysis paired with the growing density of communities around each party leader noted earlier, however, suggests that we are seeing groups of decided voters becoming increasingly vocal online, rather than undecided voters making their first foray into the Nova Scotia political Twittersphere.

That said, the term “McNeil” tells a bit of a different story. Most tweets containing the term “McNeil” were critical of him, his debating style, and/or his policy. On the one hand he gained much more exposure, in terms of number of tweets, than any other leader. On the other hand, that exposure was less positive. Questions for politicians arise. Is all press good press on Twitter? How do you engage with people who don’t support you (yet)? Is engaging with citizens who are not supporters even a goal?

Changes in the Topics:

The graph below shows a timeline of the most common words (Top 100 Concept/Word chart) used in #NSpoli tweets.  (Note: the more common a word, the more space it occupies in the graph.) At the halfway point, around September 11, 2013, we see a stark change in patterns of language use.The biggest game changer here is the introduction of new hashtags: #nsvotes and #nselxn13. The co-use of multiple hashtags is common on Twitter. For example, if you want to talk about federal Liberal Party Leader, Justin Trudeau’s visit to Nova Scotia you might use both #CDNpoli and #NSpoli to connect with national and provincial groups. In the case of the Nova Scotia election users have to decide which tag they want to use to indicate they are talking about the election. We see from this graph that during the first week of the campaign #NSpoli users were opting to simply tack on #NSvotes and or #NSelxn13 but over time the latter has dropped off in terms of co-use.

Screen shot 2013-09-30 at 1.17.06 PM

#Hashtags and their Importance to Tweeters:

The appearance of these new hashtags in the #NSpoli dataset raises an interesting question, are we tracking the right tweets? How do we know we are actually getting a representative sense of what Twitter users think and say? Well, the truth is we don’t. It is one of the challenges of studying an event as it is happening. For those of you who are not familiar with Twitter lingo and convention, a hashtag is a form of user generated, community-driven metadata tag. They provide an opportunity for disparate tweeters who share a common interest to easily find each other on Twitter and share their thoughts. Because they are community driven, hashtags are not used in the exact same way over time; how they are used at any point in time is driven largely by members of the Twitter community, and they can be challenged by new tags (because there is only 140 characters to a tweet users can only add a limited number of hashtags per tweet), and many users choose not to use hashtags at all.

A Leader’s Debate is a perfect example of an instance instance when users might be especially motivated to use a hashtag since the event happens live and conversation might be especially difficult to follow without the hashtag. For journalists, candidates, and other political players, there is extra motivation to also use the hashtag because they know many eyes will be on that stream at that moment. Over the course of a normal day they might opt to go hashtag-less relying on their followers to re-tweet their posts in order to widely disseminate their message instead.

So, is all lost, should we pack up and head out? Not quite.

We are dealing with a limited set of users, users who have self-selected into a community (or communities). Though this means we can’t generalize widely, it also means we can gain some pretty rich insight into who those specific users are and what they care about.

Written by Elizabeth Dubois (@lizdubois) with contribution from Anatoliy Gruzd (@dalprof) and Philip Mai (@phmai).

Who is #NSpoli? [Social Media Lab blog]

Originally posted to the Social Media Lab blog.

As the next Nova Scotia provincial election draws near, candidates from all political parties are cranking up their advertising and PR machines to engage with the voters. From town-hall meetings, to interviews with traditional media, to a well maintained website, the communication strategies of MLA-hopefuls will most certainly span a wide range of technology and applications. Twitter is one example of a social media application that has been established as a core space in which politicians, journalists, activists, and average voters can interact, share, learn, and even attack.

We started collecting the #NSpoli hashtag on July 12, 2013 in anticipation of the upcoming election. #NSpoli has been the most consistently popular hashtag used by those interested in provincial politics in this area. We wanted to get a sense of what the Twitter community connected to this hashtag looks like and talks like as the province’s politicos prepare for a campaign. Later in this campaign season we will compare our findings about the #NSpoli community from the period before the election is called to after, but for now we provide a foundational overview focusing on the size of the community, the key players, and the kinds of sub-communities that form.

From July 12 to August 22, 2013 16 044 tweets were made containing “#NSpoli.” In total 1 947 unique users made tweets during this time period.

#NSPOLI Posts Over Time (jul12-aug22, 2013)

In the “Posts over time” graph you see the rate of #NSpoli tweeting is not consistent. Some days see no more than 150 tweets, while others hit upwards of 550. On one day in this sample we see the exceptional high of 917 tweets (Aug. 19). This tells us a few things. First, tweets are following the work week. The lulls in Twitter activity correspond with weekends, the highs with the start of a new week’s political agenda. Second, the spike on August 19, 2013 highlights the potential of the hashtag as we look forward to the impending election. On that day the NDP were pushing the line “Nova Scotia Forecast Update Confirms Budget Surplus.” The line comes up across tweets from party officials, candidates, and journalists. It also appears in NDP press releases and within the mainstream media. A budget update is a likely newsworthy event and would generate chat regardless, but framed as a core reason for re-election, the topic peaked the interest of Twitter users across the political spectrum.

Now that we have a sense of the size of the #NSpoli community, lets take a look at who is involved.

#NSPOLI Top 10 Posters (jul12-aug22, 2013)

Brother Anonymous (@broanonymous) is the most avid #NSpoli poster. The hacker group “Anonymous” is known for their digitally enabled acts of political contention. This particular account tends to focus on a variety of topics and places within Canada and the US, Nova Scotia being a core topic among the 16,000+ tweets made.

Concerned Voter (@concernedvoter) is a user with an “X” as their twitter profile picture and appears to be a bot which, for a period of only a few days, made hundreds of nearly identical tweets mostly concerning MLA Percy Paris who, that spring, had resigned his cabinet position after assaulting a Liberal MLA.

Pope Shakey (@popeshakey) is a different story. This account is very active on a regular basis within the #NSpoli community and is critical of the Liberal Party which is currently the Official Opposition. The owners tweet content, respond to the content of others, and re-tweet regularly.

Of the remaining 7 accounts which make up the top 10 posters, one is a re-tweet bot which re-tweets anything tagged with “#Halifax,” one is a left-leaning student, and all others are explicitly NDP affiliated.

When considering those who-are-most talked about (based on number of times their user name is mentioned in tweets) and accounts whose tweets are most often re-tweeted, the story is much of the same. Some accounts cross each list, like @NSNDP, @PremierDexter, NDP staffer @MarkLaventure, and NDP @MLA MatMLA. That said, some critical of the NDP government are also found in the top 10 most mentioned and re-tweeted. This suggests that, though the #NSpoli chat is largely dominated by the NDP and its supporters, other perspectives are present.

#NSPOLI Top 10 Mentioned (Jul12-Aug22, 2013)

In fact, when we map the connections between users of #NSpoli (see below), we can see there are a number of fairly distinct groups. In the graph each dot represents a Twitter user (nodes), lines (edges) connecting dots indicate a communicative relationship, the color represents which sub-community (modularity) they are part of. The node size is relative to how many other nodes they are connected to.


When we map social networks we use specific rules to place each dot on the virtual paper. In other words, we have an algorithm, a specific “layout,” that calculates where each dot is placed relative to all other dots. The layout used here is “OpenOrd” and is designed to highlight sub-communities within large networks.

At the top of the graph we see one large multi-colored mass which is a “main component” where multiple sub-communities overlap. We also notice a number of smaller communities along the bottom half of the graph. Finally, a few isolated or very small groups of nodes exist on the outskirts of the graph. What this means is that there is a core group of accounts which consistently communicate with each other, the main #NSpoli community is quite tight-knit. Yet, there are also distinct groups which tells us that #NSpoli is not homogenous.

At this point it is worth investigating a little further.

@NSNDP is the most connected account in this community. Qualitative analysis reveals that the blue community in which @NSNDP is found is primarily made up of NDP and NDP supporter accounts including the highly central @premierdexter account which is run by the Office of  Premier Dexter. This is the most dense of the sub-communities and is very central to the wider graph.


The red cluster which is embedded in the main component is most dense on the right side of the graph. Within this cluster we find the most central account is @nsliberal with the leader of the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia, @stephenmcneil, very similarly placed. Though we may be tempted to assume the red cluster is “Liberal,” the reality is many NDP and NDP supporters are also found in this group.


The light green cluster tells a similar story with Liberal and NDP politicians, organizations, and supporters all identified. This suggests that the NDP and Liberals are talking to, or about, each other.

Added to the list of central accounts in this cluster are journalists like @larochecbc, government accounts like @nsgov in the left side of the graph which, among many others, serve to connect the two distinct groupings in the light green class. Interestingly the PC party’s most talked about accounts are found in a fairly tight-knit pink cluster to the top right of the graph, they are connected to the main cluster primarily by journalists and other accounts run by mainstream media.


Finally it is worth mentioning a few of the smaller cluster which are much more loosely connected to the main component. The dark green and yellow groups depicted bellow are both made up of accounts which are not necessarily tied to any specific party or place. For example, @premiernb, which is the official account of the Office of the Premier of New Brunswick is found in the yellow cluster. Many re-tweet bots or accounts which explicitly claim to primarily re-tweet news and political commentary are also found in these groups. Without deeper investigation it is hard to tell what connects these smaller communities, what we can say is that it does not appear to be an affiliation with a specific party.



As the campaign develops it will be particularly interesting to track the existence of sub-communities for a couple of reasons. First, having distinct communities in a communication network like this one suggests there is disparity in the messages different politically engaged individuals are receiving and sending. Second, noting which accounts are linking these groups can help us understand who is talking about who. If journalists are the connectors between two parties we might guess it is a matter of giving equal publicity to each party. On the other hand if it is a party connecting to an opponent we might explore the content of their communication to see if they are collaborating, debating, or perhaps attacking the other.

Political communication, particularly on Twitter, is not just about the message or even the sender and receiver, it is about the interaction. It will be interesting to see just how that interaction develops over the course of the campaign.

More blog post about this election will be forthcoming. Stay tuned for our regular updates and analysis of the #NSPoli Twitter community during this provincial election cycle.

Written by Elizabeth Dubois (@lizdubois) with contribution from Anatoliy Gruzd (@dalprof) and Philip Mai (@phmai).