SA researchers measure democracy on social media

2 March 2015

There can be no denying that social media platforms are playing an increasing role in the political mobilisation of citizens and how they participate in democracy.

This was seen during the Arab Spring uprisings, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and more recently, following the attack on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris. The French attack turned the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag into one of the most popular hashtags in Twitter’s history and was central to the organisation of the largest street protest in Paris – more than 1.6 million people participated.

“Digital social media, with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as leading examples, have become major global channels of communication, with ramifications for established democracies and their social bases – some positive, others disruptive,” explain Barend Lutz and Pierre du Toit from Stellenbosch University.

The researchers, who worked together to develop a method to measure public expressions of support for democracy on Twitter, have published a book focused on social media platforms and how computational linguistics can make sense of this landscape.

Defining Democracy in a Digital Age: Political Support on Social Media was published by Palgrave MacMillan and written by Lutz, a political/security risk analyst and digital media consultant, and Du Toit, a professor in the university’s political science department.

Democracy in digital age

“With the ‘real world’ influence of social media growing, it is crucial to listen to and understand what citizens globally are saying on these platforms as it provides a chance to define and look at how we measure the state of democracy in a new digital age,” they say.

According to Lutz and Du Toit, there has been concern among scholars across the world regarding the viability of democracy as a political governance system. This doubt is further entrenched through events such as the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and the failure of democracy to expand to authoritarian countries globally.

“One of the ways that social media enhances democratic participation is through the connectivity of this technology. Individuals have near complete control over the content of statements published on the internet.

“Up to now, there has been no effective way of converting the articulate mass self- expression by individuals on social media into coherent forms capable of influencing public policies,” say Lutz and Du Toit.

Traditionally, survey data has been used to attempt to articulate mass sentiment on democracy, but this is a time consuming and expensive exercise. Their research attempts to create a complimentary methodology to expand on traditional survey data research.

Analysing sentiment and language

Lutz, who developed the methodology as part of a Masters’ thesis on international relations and next-generation internet, says he analysed more than 70 000 publically available tweets over a three-month period. This was done via computer assisted computational analytics, sentiment analysis and natural language processing, which in this case refers to the automated collection and analysis of statements from Twitter.

“Social media has now effectively extended the public sphere into a global electronic platform, far removed from the city squares of the classic Greek democratic city- states. On social media platforms, issues are debated, questions of public import are deliberated on and people can call a spade a spade, so to speak.”

Their research clearly shows how the spaces where democracy is usually played out, have changed and that this will require analysts of democracy to look at these new spaces differently.

“Democracy is something that takes place in groups. The idea of the nation was usually conveyed through newspapers – so people who read the same newspapers conceived of themselves as being part of a community. Social media is much more individualistic and the idea of a community or a sense of community from that part of the public sphere becomes nearly inconceivable. As we saw with the Arab Spring, you can draw people together for a protest through social media, but what happens afterwards when everyone returns to their individual lives?”

Lutz and Du Toit explain that the influence of social media and other forms of digital media is a double-edged sword. On the one hand these platforms could lead to people becoming more engaged when it comes to current issues and therefore stronger democratic citizens, or on the other hand people could get caught up in the entertainment of social media and thereby become less effective citizens.

“The methods of data analysis presented in this book can help the global citizenry to reimagine themselves as being part of new, more coherent units of democracy, able to pursue their ideals more effectively than has been the case to date,” say the authors.

Source: Stellenbosch University