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Written By

Tianna Killoran

College

College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

1 September 2021

From media to metadata

As many people rush to their keyboards to voice concern, contention and consternation over a variety of issues, JCU Master of Philosophy student Carly Lubicz is asking how social media users and media outlets are engaging with divisive environmental issues in these online spaces.

Social media may be a fantastic way to keep up with long distance friends or live vicariously through other people’s travel photos, but social scientists like Carly are interested in what these networks can reveal about ourselves and broader society. For Social Sciences Week (September 6-12), research like Carly’s reminds us of the importance of exploring the connections between people and their digital and physical environments.

Carly, who previously worked as a journalist and communications professional, says she has always been interested in the media and its role in society. “Ever since I was a child, I found the media fascinating in the way that it works and the way people engage with it,” Carly says.

Looking for a career change, she decided to make the jump to studying at JCU. Carly began with a Master of Social Science and then made the move to a research-driven Master of Philosophy. Her current research into polarisation on social media and the way information diffuses through these networks was a natural move that blended both her passion and skill. “There have been issues that I’ve been pondering over recent years that my research in social science has now given me the theories and tools to explore. It’s been really awesome to put all of my passions and interests together into one project,” Carly says.

Carly’s research has enabled her to learn the tools of the trade in social science, and even develop some coding experience. “I really wanted to reposition myself career-wise and computational social science was something I wanted to learn to help me answer these research questions. I’m hoping I can expand on those skills more in my PhD in the future because I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface,” Carly says.

JCU Master of Philosophy student Carly Lubicz at the top of Mount Halifax.
Seven people's hands gathered around a table each holding phones.
Left: Master of Philosophy student, Carly Lubicz. Supplied by Carly Lubicz.

The nitty gritty of networks

Social scientists like Carly can conduct either quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods research. Mixed methods research like Carly’s is a blend of both qualitative and quantitative research. For Carly, this involves examining social networks and online interactions at a broad level, then also interpreting the patterns and themes present in online discussions to understand their overall meaning and significance.

Carly’s research involves collecting a large set of publicly-available data from the popular social media sites Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. This data includes both the social media posts and their written or visual content, as well as information about connections between users commenting on posts, the volume and type of interactions on posts, and the most commonly-shared information sources within the networks.

Carly is focusing in on mainstream media outlets’ social media posts across a six-week period during June and July 2021. This content will be focused on social media coverage and responses to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee’s consideration to label the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’ due to climate change.

“My aim is to provide some insight into how online networks of social media users are interacting with media outlets and their framing of the World Heritage Committee’s draft recommendation and later decision,” Carly says. “This will allow me to explore any signs of polarisation in networks, but also in attitudes towards environmental protection.” The polarisation Carly refers to involves the division of people’s opinions and perspectives into distinct and opposite groups, a phenomenon that is often linked to social media.

Example of network map created with NodeXL from the Social Media Research Foundation

Supplied by Carly Lubicz

Mapping connections

Carly is taking this data from the social networks using a programming language called 'R'. She then transforms the data into network maps using visualisation and analysis tools like  NodeXL, VOSON and Gephi. This specialty software can visualise important information about different online groups and their connections on social media.

“I can use all of the data I’ve collected from social media and then look at different clusters within that network. That includes examining the different influencers, or hubs, in different social networks, but also looking at what information is being shared and even what media outlets are most prominent on different social media platforms,” Carly says.

She will then look at the most popular news stories on each social media network and examine social media users’ comments to see what the narratives and themes are and how this relates to mainstream media framing. If there is any evidence of polarisation, she will look at the discursive tactics being used.

“Hopefully this research can contribute to our understanding about information-consumption dynamics,” Carly says.  “I am essentially examining whether social media users are engaging with certain media outlets that share similar attitudes towards environmental protection or not. This also includes how that engagement plays out across the three different social media networks, and what that could potentially mean for support for environmental protection policy.

“I think these dynamics are important to understand, particularly when we consider the changing media landscape with condensed ownership, the loss of local journalists and media outlets, and the dominance of ‘big tech’ companies,” she says.

Close up of one person's hands holding a phone that is lighting up the dark around them.
Different national flags on flag poles set against a blue sky and leading towards a large building with 'United Nations' written on the front.

Problematic information and polarisation

One of the more concerning aspects of social media can be the potential for people to use these networks to share misinformation and disinformation, but Carly says the issue is much more complex with polarisation also a key consideration in information-sharing networks.

“While correcting blatant health misinformation is one thing, something I have been grappling with is the recent rush and need to classify everything as ‘truth’ or ‘non-truth’. I think binaries like these are actually part of the problem as it reduces the understanding that, in many cases, there are often a myriad of nuances in between. It can instead set up a counter-productive opposition,” Carly says.

“Think about the term ‘fake news’ – this has been used to delegitimise information that people simply don’t agree with so they can pursue a certain agenda. Plus, it raises interesting questions about who decides what is ‘fake’ and ‘real’. What happens when new evidence comes to light?

“I think the issues we are facing with social media and polarisation are actually much broader, and that’s something I’m really looking forward to exploring in my research career.”

JCU Master of Philosophy Student, Carly Lubicz

This important research helps us to better understand human and societal values and behaviours as we all engage in these networks.

“In essence, I hope that we can use the social sciences – including computational social science – to understand more about how we connect and disconnect as a society, both on and offline. This will position us all to better engage in a world that’s inescapably information-driven,” Carly says.

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