Geotagging matters? the role of space and place in politicised social media discourse
Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis
Voting results in marginal constituencies often determine wider political outcomes. Always a focus for campaigners, it is now apparent that voters in these areas have been individually and geo-behaviourally targeted by elaborate ‘psychological warfare’ operations designed to manipulate viewpoints and electoral results through advertising, (mis)information and/or ‘fake news’ disseminated online via popular social network sites. During the 2016 US Presidential Election, Russian operatives placed highly-politicised content supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy on Facebook and Twitter, segmenting audiences on these platforms by age, interests and location. In 2018, political marketing consultancy Cambridge Analytica was revealed to have earlier ‘hijacked’ data from Facebook, fusing it with other Big Data sources to promote Trump, in the US, and Vote Leave, in the 2016 UK European Union (‘Brexit’) Membership Referendum. Attempts to track the geographical diffusion of online politicking are hindered by incomplete geospatial referencing in available social media (meta)data; just ~1-2% of publicly-posted Twitter tweets, and even fewer Facebook posts, are typically ‘geotagged’ with Latitude and Longitude coordinates. Used successfully to monitor disaster situations or human mobility patterns this research examines ~8m interactions, created by ~2.4m users during the 2012 US Presidential Election and the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, to assess the role of space and place in politicised social media communications. Results of text, data-mining and statistical analyses demonstrate that coordinate-geotagging users of Twitter and Facebook, a) make fewer references to place in their message text, b) link to articles making fewer mentions of place in their content and; c) make far fewer links to external content than their non-coordinate-geotagging peers. Despite offering some valuable geospatial information, coordinate-geotagged interactions form only an inadequate and unrepresentative proxy for tracking the spread of all places, news, views, opinion, linked content or (mis)information shared online. Tackling the ‘crisis’ in deliberative democracy highlighted by recent data misuse and targeting scandals will, therefore, most likely require new political, regulatory and technical responses. One approach, suggested here, would store lower-resolution spatial information, e.g., identifiers uniquely referencing 1x1km grid squares or degraded Latitude and Longitude coordinates, alongside all social media interactions; enabling electoral officials, platform operators and others to more easily identify potentially nefarious content targeting specific areas as well as specific individuals.
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