Researching Facebook: ethics, techniques and discussions.

This paper is a discussion of the methods used in Examining the Social Media Echo Chamber (Knight, 2017, in progress) and in the research discussed  at and The paper is intended to highlight and open for discussion the issues surrounding social media research and its place in current social research.

The importance of researching news on social media

I was sitting in a panel discussion in July of 2016, listening to a series of papers on the media’s coverage of the 2016 UK Referendum on membership in the EU (Brexit) and the role this had played in the result, which was a surprise to many people (apparently even to the people who had campaigned for it). As is typical of media analysis, especially in the UK, discussion focused on newspapers and broadcast media, with a few mentions of Twitter. The researchers had all focused on print newspapers, not on online news sources, and none had considered how news content was targeted and shared through social media, when discussing how it had promoted and responded to Brexit. In fairness, the wider publication (Jackson et al., 2016), did include discussion of social media, but not of social media as the locus of news media – journalism and social media were discussed entirely separately. .

Social media has been extensively  researched since 2005, and as with all new media, the research has gone through phases, First, there is description and evangelising (Gant, 2007; Gillmor, 2006; Weinberger, 2007) – the focus here is on explaining the new medium and arguing for how it will change everything. The second phase is analytic, examining the new medium in detail, and comparing it with old media – (Knight, 2013, 2012; Knight and Cook, 2013). The final phase is normalisation, in which the new medium is simply absorbed into all discussions of media, and its place is assured as simply one of many media.

New media and social media should be moving into this phase, based on the overall usage and penetration of these forms of media (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016), but the rapid expansion of social media into the public sphere has left many researchers playing catch-up with  a technology that is moving faster than the academy can track it, and social media (and new media) present many specific technological challenges to conducting research into its content.

Most researchers conducting content analysis into the news media either collect physical examples, or use one of the standardised archives of news content (for newspapers this is usually Nexis, which archives the textual content of thousands of newspapers worldwide, and is readily accessible to most academic researchers). Broadcast media is more complicated, requiring the setting up of recording of broadcast shows, but still technologically straightforward. (Berger, 2011; Löffelholz and Weaver, 2008). Social media research methods are neither standardised, nor technologically straightforward and this presents specific challenges.

To start with, there is the problem of boundaries – how does one determine what social media content is news, and what is not? This is a more nuanced discussion than this paper has scope to consider, but it ties in to the fundamental collapse of professional boundaries which is the hallmark of the new and social media age (Gant, 2007; Knight and Cook, 2013). The second challenge is technological – how do you access and store social media content. Research requires that content be fixed and accessible, in order to allow for repeated viewings and analysis, and social media is by its nature fleeting and impermanent.

Social media sites allow for public viewing of content, but control the platform through which the content is viewed, and seldom allows for storage of content for later consumption or analysis. Social media companies grant more extensive access to the platform through an application programming interface (API) which allows for software tools to be written which can access and download the content for analysis. Different companies offer different facilities through their API, and many of them control access or charge for it, considering access to the raw and customisable data feed of social media as economic product.

The API is a fairly simple tool to use, but few media researchers have any programming skills. It will take a generation before knowledge of programming languages and the ability to write applications to access and analyse data becomes standard within media studies, and this makes researching social media more expensive and time-consuming than analysing more traditional forms. However, this is a problem, given that, increasingly, the news media is on social media, and for researchers who are interested in how the public use, view and engage with the news, social media research skills are fundamental.

Researching social media: the basics: beyond Twitter

Social media is generally accessed through a combination of search and the API, which allows for download and storage of the results of those search functions. Twitter has the most public search (most content is publicly viewable and open to search) and the most publicly accessible API of the main social media sites.  Twitter allows for any user to use the API to access and store content, up to seven days prior to the date of search, and with a limit of several thousand (the limits vary according to load and are not fixed)  (Twitter, n.d.). Because of this, several fairly simple tools are available to allow researchers to access and store data, such as Martin Hawksey’s TAGS service (Hawksey, 2013), and because of the accessibility both of Twitter content and the tools to store it, Twitter is by far the most researched social medium.

However, Twitter is not the most accessed medium for news content – the winner there is clearly Facebook. In 2016, 44% of US adults got some or all of their news and current affairs information through Facebook, and the number is increasing (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016) and only nine percent did the same for Twitter. Facebook is clearly where the researchers should be looking to understand news media consumption and content.

But Facebook is a more closed system. Twitter is a fairly simple structure – there are users, who post tweets, which can be reposted (retweeted), responded to, or favourited by other users. Tweets can be searched by content, or by simple metadata (user, location, language, date, links or media). All users and posts are by default publicly accessible (users can send private messages, and can limit access to an account’s content, but only by actively choosing to do so). Facebook is far more complicated. There are individual users, and services (pages or apps) which also provide content. Content can be posted, shared, liked, commented on and reshared, and access to content requires the reader to have the prior permission of the person/organisation who posted it. Most individual users’ content is only viewable by people who have a confirmed link with the user (“friends”). Most services’ content is publicly viewable.

Users see content that is based on users they are friends with, and services they have effectively subscribed too (by “liking” the service), but the content they see is controlled by Facebook’s algorithm, which selects from the possible content a user might see, and orders it in a combination of currency, popularity, similarity with content the user has previously engaged with, and other factors. The exact algorithm is secret, and Facebook does not reveal much about it, or how it works (Bakshy et al., 2015; Somaiya, 2014).

Access tools – the API

Facebook does have a public API, which can be used to access and download public content, and content the user already has access to. The API is more complicated than Twitter’s, because the content is more complicated, and has more layers of engagement, detail and permissions. Facebook’s API is mostly provided as a service for people who want to develop applications and games that will run on Facebook, garnering users and their information along the way, and this is a service that Facebook expects one to pay for, which makes it more complicated to access for researchers. Facebook also has extensive analytical tools, which are provided to service users who have applications or pages – they are very useful for accessing data about one’s own audience, but less useful for researchers. (Facebook, 2017)

A public research tool, Facepager, was developed by MIT in 2012. It is freely available and will download and store data in a reasonably accessible way, within the limits of the API. It does not allow you to see any data that is not publicly available, but is useful for analysing user engagement on public pages. It requires considerable awareness of data formats and the structure of the Facebook Graph API, and would not be easily understood by a researcher without a strong technology background. (Strohne, 2017)

For example, a simple Facepager research of the most recent 50 posts on each of the main UK news organisations reveals some interesting and useful insights. All sites were posting an average of 25 stories per day, with the exception of the Daily Express which had only 12 per day. By far the most popular news site, by count of “shares” was The Independent – its fifty stories were shared 17500 times. The Guardian was second with 10 600 shares and the Daily Mail a distant third with 4722 shares. The most popular stories on each service were:

Daily Express The man who wants to be our prime minister ladies and gentlemen
Daily Mail The Hollywood legend appeared in good spirits as he took a stroll through Beverly Hills on Friday
Daily Mirror She’d already had a dress specially-made when she found out she couldn’t go
The Guardian Can you still remember your landline number? Did you have a Hotmail account? Did you ever make a mix tape for someone you fancied? If so, you might be a xennial. Take our quiz to find out.
The Independent And an end to austerity
The Sun Low of bullets, this heroic group of soldiers decided to ‘go out fighting’ – with their BARE HANDS…
The Telegraph “There was something deeply emotional about Collins returning against the odds.”
The Times and The Sunday Times Resham Khan was injured in the 84th acid attack in London within six months


Which would indicate a strong interest in entertainment, sport and trivial news: something that is in line with popular perceptions of Facebook’s impact on news and civic society.

But the most shared stories overall were:

The Independent And an end to austerity
The Independent Intriguing
The Guardian Can you still remember your landline number? Did you have a Hotmail account? Did you ever make a mix tape for someone you fancied? If so, you might be a xennial. Take our quiz to find out.
The Independent America, 2017
The Guardian Barack Obama: “If people do not show respect and tolerance, eventually you have war and conflict. Sooner or later societies break down.”
The Independent Burma denies genocide claims
The Guardian “We know that MDMA works really well in helping people who have suffered trauma and it helps to build empathy. Many of my patients who are alcoholics have suffered some sort of trauma in their past and this plays a role in their addiction.”
The Guardian “The love I feel for my two eldest daughters, in their 20s now, is undiminished with the passing of time. I don’t get to express it so much, and they don’t feel the need to. Yet when I look at them sometimes, I feel exactly the same emotion I felt when they were barely walking, and helpless.”


Which is more hopeful, in that it contains considerably more hard news.

More detailed analysis would give  the number of comments per story, and even gives the identities of those who comment. There is considerable data available here, and considerable scope for further research.

But, if the researcher wants to access other users’ data (ie, to see what other people see and respond to, the researcher will need to develop an application that runs on the web, is subscribed to by users and is cleared by Facebook’s App Review process. This requires considerable web programming knowledge and access to a web server off of which to run the application. In my own case, I use PHP and export the data to MySQL, which then allows me to use standard database tools to analyse it.

The process uses the Facebook Graph API, which gives data about a user, including:

  • email
  • user_hometown
  • user_religion_politics
  • user_likes
  • user_status
  • user_about_me
  • user_location
  • user_tagged_places
  • user_birthday
  • user_photos
  • user_videos
  • user_education_history
  • user_posts
  • user_website
  • user_friends
  • user_relationship_details
  • user_work_history
  • user_games_activity
  • user_relationships

All of these pieces of information require the explicit permission of the user, which is obtained through the application install interface. The basic creation of an app on the system and its install by the end user gives the researcher access to the user’s name, public profile (user_about_me) and list of friends. All other information requires the application to go through the Facebook app approval process, and to justify the use of the data. This is not onerous, although it assumes that you are a commercial user, and is rather opaque. There is no clear access for researchers, or evidence of the importance of research.

The API is extremely limited, however. It does not allow you to see the user’s “feed”, the list of content the user sees, only to access content the user has posted, shared, or applications/pages they have followed. It also only allows you to access the most recent 25 of each of those items. As such, although it shows some evidence of engagement with content, it does not show the full nature of how the user experiences Facebook, and for news researchers, does not give the full picture of a user’s engagement with news by showing articles they have clicked on, read, or even seen in their feed.

In my most recent research, a corpus of 92 users was generated (mostly university students), and preliminary findings indicate that only 4% of the content followed on Facebook is explicitly news content, and only 10% of it is explicitly civic-minded (social and political campaigns, or news content). (Knight, 2017)

Although the tools Facebook already provides are useful, and open up considerable research for those with the skills and expertise to use them, there remains a significant gap in the access researchers need in order to adequately consider the impact the service is having on civic society. The “Facebook algorithm”  and the subsequent “echo chamber” it has created, has become something of a mythical beast in the public sphere. To date, there has been one published paper on the subject, which analysed the extent to which users’ feeds limited their exposure to points of view which with they disagreed. Bakshy et al’s paper found that users were less exposed to content that conflicted with their stated political affiliation (political viewpoint is a field in the Facebook profile), and less likely to click on or share a link that they disagree with. (Bakshy et al., 2015). Eytan Bakshy worked at Facebook and had unique levels of access to the raw data, something no researcher has had since. As Facebook becomes increasingly important in the civic sphere, it becomes more and more essential that researchers be given access to the full corpus of data, in order to adequately assess the impact of this increasingly dominant media company.

Ethical concerns

Social media is widely perceived as private communication by its users. Facebook, especially, is viewed as private, and not something that random members of the public should be able to see. Researching social media has the tendency to trigger concerns about the ethics of looking at people’s social media content, as though it were truly private.

In the case of Twitter, there is now considerable awareness of the public nature of the service, and in several countries there is legal precedent that recognises Twitter posts as legally the same as any other public speech, which renders ethical concerns largely moot.

Facebook is more complicated – public content is common, but it is not clear to what extent users are aware that their posts are public, despite Facebook giving users considerable control over their own privacy settings. In addition, Facebook makes a large number of interactions with public pages public, so in my corpus of news articles mentioned above, I have the Facebook names of everyone who commented on any of the stories in the corpus. Logically, this makes sense, but I suspect that if I collated those comments and contacted their authors for additional commentary, they would be surprised, and a fair number would feel that I had invaded their privacy. This creates a problem for researchers – ethical guidelines require that people not be observed without their knowledge and consent, but how do you get consent of someone who has posted publicly, but thinks they are in private?

When an application is created using the Facebook API, the user is prompted to allow the application to access their content, and because this prompt is generated by Facebook, not the researcher, there can be no deception. However, within the corpus of data that can be extracted from the feed are names and potentially identifying details of friends of the person who consented. In my corpus of data there are multiple posts that reference things like drug taking with named friends: although the names of the posters are stripped out (a requirement of the research approval, Facebook has no problem with my knowing the names of people who participated), it would be fairly easy for me to identify the poster and their friends.

Facebook’s permissions are, in fact, considerably less strict than research ethics guidelines would normally find acceptable, since they are designed to maximise revenue from advertising (data about their users is what Facebook sells, and the more detailed and specific that data is, the more lucrative it is), leaving academics to construct their own guidelines and norms within the practice.

Further questions

This is not intended as a comprehensive paper, but as a starting point for discussion and considerations for the development of methods, guidelines and tools for researching Facebook’s impact on the news. A few considerations:

  1. Development of public tools for Facebook research. Facepager is open source, and could be developed further, with the right skills/tools. It is not clear what MIT’s plans for it are, but it is built on an older version of the API, and is likely to stop working unless updated.
  2. Petitioning Facebook for additional access for researchers. Facebook can be responsive and helpful in many cases, and it might be possible to approach them with a view to developing a more open version of the API for researchers with bona fides?
  3. Development of sandbox and black box research tools?



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Jackson, D., Thorsen, E., Wring, D., 2016. EU Referendum Analysis 2016.

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Knight, M., 2012. Journalism as usual: The use of social media as a newsgathering tool in the coverage of the Iranian elections in 2009. J. Media Pract. 13, 61–74.

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Somaiya, R., 2014. How Facebook Is Changing the Way Its Users Consume Journalism. N. Y. Times.

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Weinberger, D., 2007. Everything is miscellaneous: the power of the new digital disorder. Henry Holt and Company, New York.


Analysing Twitter feeds: notes and experiences

I have a bad habit of doing complicated things once, and then having to reinvent the wheel the next time I attempt something similar. I know enough code to be a frustration to myself and others, so I keep forgetting things I used to know. I’ve just finished a paper (or a draft of a paper) for IAMCR2016, in which I collected and analysed 30-odd Twitter feeds over three months worth of data, something like 120 000 Tweets. So, here is what I did, and what I learned about doing it. The actual paper is here.

To collect the actual Tweets, I used M Hawksey’s Twitter Archiving Google Sheet (TAGS), available here.

I started collecting everything from the #oscarpistorius and #oscartrial hashtags, but the sheets have a limit of around 50 000 tweets, and were crashing often. I used various lists and reading/checking to gather the names of thirty journalists who were Tweeting the trial. I set up a separate TAGS sheet for each one, limiting the search by using from:username in the search field. There are various search operators you can use, there’s a list here.

I set the sheets to update every hour, and kept an eye on them. It’s fortunate that Twitter allows you to collect Tweets from up to seven days ago, so I had a few days from the start of the trial to get my searches and sheets in order.

I had to create several Twitter accounts to use for the OAuth keys, I kept getting locked out for overusing the free API. TAGS version 6.0 doesn’t seem to need OAuth, or it’s fully scripted, but I would worry slightly about being locked out. The sheets crashed a few times, hitting the spreadsheet limit, so I had to create multiple sheets for some users. At the end I had around fifty sheets. TAGS is very easy to use, and doesn’t need a server to run, but the limit of working with Google Sheets is a bit frustrating. Setting everything up was very slow.

Once I had the data, I bulk downloaded everything, and ended up with Excel files on my desktop.

I used MS Access for the main analysis. I know a bit of SQL from way back, and Access is pretty readily available. I imported all of the sheets into a single table, called archive. I had already created a separate table called users, which contained information about each account. The table structure for the archive table was pretty much determined by Twitter’s data structure.


Data structure. The Tweetdate and Tweettime fields were added later.

I used Access’s inbuilt tools to remove duplicates from the archive. TAGS has a function to do this in the Google Sheet, but the files were so large the script was battling, so I opted to do it once I had a full archive.

Twitter provides a date/time stamp for all Tweets, in a single field, formatted “Fri Sep 12 11:56:48 +0000 2014”. I split this field into two new fields, one date, one time, by copying the field and then using Access’s field formatting to strip the time and date out respectively. I then filtered all tweets by dates on which the trial was in session (based on this Wikipedia article, I confess, but I did check that this tallied with the data I had). I also filtered the Tweets by time, limiting the archive to time between 9am and 5pm, South Africa times (Twitter’s timestamp is universal time). I then read through the feeds, and removed any days in which it was clear thejournalist was not in the courtroom. I also removed a large number of Tweets from the official news organisation accounts (in retrospect, I wouldn’t include this if I did it again) that were not about the trial. I initially intended to filter by hashtags, but hashtag usage was inconsistent, to say the least, so this didn’t work.

That left me with around 80 000 Tweets to play with. I did some basic select queries to pull out volume of Tweets per day, and per user per day, pasted into Excel and made charts.

I then pulled the text of tweets, converted to json using this tool and then used Marco Bonzanini’s excellent tutorial on mining tweets with Python and the NLTK to extract hashtags from the corpus.

Mentions and retweets are harder to analyse. Twitter does store replies as metadata, but not retweets. The NLTK can’t work with two-word terms (or I couldn’t work out how to do this), so they can’t be counted. I replaced all occurrences of “RT @” with “RTAT” (after first checking whether that string occurred anywhere else within the corpus) and then used the NLTK to analyse all terms starting with RTAT, to extract most popular retweetees.

It was simpler to extract 24 separate JSON files for each user, and run the same analysis again than to iterate the code (my Python skills are woefully bad), so I did that.

Links to images are stored in the “entities” metadata with the media tag, but this field is too long to be stored as text in Access, so it can’t be easily analysed – it can be filtered, but not queried, for reasons I don’t understand. I filtered by the media tag, and exported to CSV where I used Excel to select a random set of images to analyse. These had to then be manually viewed on the web to conduct the analysis.

Links were likewise extracted from the metadata by filtering, exporting to Excel and using Excel’s matching tools to extract the actual URLs. Links are shortened in the text, but in most cases the meta tag retains the full URLs. In some cases, the URL in the metadata is again shortened, and I used Python to extract the full URLs and then updated the table with the correct URL. These were then analysed in the database, and tagged by type manually. (I could have done this automatically, but there are times when doing something manually is quicker and simpler than automating the code).

Queries were used to extract numbers of various occurrences and exported to Excel to generate graphs and charts.

I know there are better and more efficient ways to do all of this, but focusing on what works is what matters to me most of the time.

Facebook and the news

Paper for Rhodes Journalism Review, May 2016.

Facebook is changing news. We know this, we have known it for some time. This is not another piece about how the news industry is under threat, how social media is stealing its audience and advertisers (although all of those things are true). This is about Facebook, and how it is becoming the “newspaper of record” for the world, and how disturbing a thought that is.
If Hollywood is to be believed, Facebook was founded by a guy who wanted to get girls. It’s the classic story, boy meets girl, boy loses girl (actually girl dumps boy, but let’s not get into issues of women’s agency in popular culture representations here), boy invents new technology to get revenge on girl and find new girl. It’s probably not that simple, but the basic impetus is true – Facebook was founded as a means to foster social connections, initially within a university campus, and then across the Internet.
In its initial iteration, Facebook’s focus was on the profile, and the information contained within. This section was the only section that allowed pictures, and it originally allowed you to say whether you were looking for friendship, relationships, or something else. Status updates were limited to words, and were not preserved in a timeline or “feed”. All members of the site were searchable, and connections could be easily made. In other words, it was like a dating site. From here, the site evolved to allow people to see a timeline of their friends’ activities, the “news feed”, which changed the system from a directory to a regular source of information. This changed the site from one you used occasionally to find someone, to one that contained all the latest information about your social circle, and thus needed to be checked regularly, and is the thing that made Facebook the most successful social media site by far. This change was followed by the ability to post pictures (and later video), the creation of apps and games, groups and then pages, companies, messenger services, money transfer and so on. (Anders, 2014; Prashanth, 2013).
In many ways, the evolution of Facebook mirrors the maturing process of its audience. From a site to find friends and relationships, to share gossip and make plans, much in keeping with its late adolescent users’ focus on social interactions within a closed group, it has become a place to share comment and ideas about the larger world, as those users grew up and developed outside interests. Facebook has not necessarily embraced these changes – in many cases, functions and services were added because users were themselves “gaming the system” to provide those, or because of the fear of losing users to other services and sites that did provide them. Facebook Messenger is a clear example of this, being direct competition to Google Chat/Hangouts/Voice, which was itself a response to the facilities offered by Skype.
Facebook recently made the tech news again, with a leak from a source claiming that the company was concerned that people were no longer posting personal pictures, images and stories, but were using the site to share third party information (cat videos, memes and jokes, but also news). (Frier, 2016) This has apparently been dubbed “context collapse” although it’s not clear why. What is clear is that the posting of original content by users on the site is down, that users are reposting more material from elsewhere (Efrati, 2016) and that Facebook is introducing new features to encourage more personal sharing, such as live video (recently used by Fahamalo Kihe Eiki to stream the birth of his child to 90 000 people (Woolf, 2016)), near-automatic posting from mobile phone cameras and reminders of things that happened in the past.
It is also reasonably easy to work out why people are posting less and less of their own content and information to the site. Aside from concerns about privacy and security (an issue for many people, yes, but not for the majority of users, yet), there are a number of other reason why users may have changed their posting style. One is the increased use of mobile phones to access the site: in December 2015, of the 1.59 billion accesses to the site, 1.44 billion of these were from a mobile device (Facebook, 2016a). Mobile devices make it easy to share links and posts from other people, but typing an original post is fiddly and annoying. It is obvious to anyone who has accessed the Internet from a mobile device that although it is convenient, portable, and cheap, it changes the focus of the experience from interaction to consumption (with the occasional “like” or other one-click response).
Age is another factor, and the changing nature of friend groups on Facebook. Facebook is increasingly the mature person’s social network: in 2015 79% of online Americans between 30 and 49 were active users of Facebook, 64% of those 50 to 64 and 48% of those over 65 using the site. Compare Instagram, with only 11% of people between 50 and 64 using the site, and Twitter at 13 (Perrin, 2015). The South African Social Media Landscape 2016 report shows that 54% of Facebook users are over 30 (World Wide Worx, 2016). Reliable statistics for other countries are scarce, but sources from 2014 claim that globally 47% of the people on Facebook are over 35, with an additional 24% being 25 to 34 (Jetscram, 2014; Statista, 2015).
Older people tend to have a wider circle of friends and acquaintances on the Internet, to be more concerned about how they appear to those people (which may include colleagues, classmates and distant relatives), and to be more constrained by concerns for the privacy of others (as an example, I don’t post about my work on Facebook because most of my work involves information about students which I am not at liberty to share), and to be aware of the consequences of injudicious disclosure.
What is not clear is why Facebook cares how much personal content you post, as opposed to sharing of other content. In fact, the company seems somewhat confused on this issue, since it has been actively creating services and functions which make it easier to do so.
Facebook Pages were launched in 2007, a clear response to the ways in which the service was being used. Not all users are individual people, and companies and services were using the site to promote themselves. Rather than have an organisation complete a profile (complete with relationship status and details about where you went to school), the site allowed entities other than inviduals to create pages within the site. Pages have been somewhat controversial, with many users finding them frustrating, and increasingly linked to paid services and promotions, but they were the mechanism by which news organisations began to appear on the site as entities, rather than as a function of journalists’ personal profiles.
In 2008 Facebook launched Facebook Connect, which allowed users to share their profile information with other websites and which in turn led to the development of Facebook Share in 2009 (Ostrow, 2008; Parr, 2009). Both functions seemed to have been tailor-made for news organisations – Facebook Connect provide sites with the ability to track and identify users without them needing to register separately for each site, and was widely used for comment management by news sites, Facebook Share allowed sites to provide a button that automatically shared that page on Facebook, under the user’s profile. This had been possible previously, and many sites did offer this as a way to attract users to their site, but the official button allowed sites to track shares and comments that the article garnered on Facebook itself. This trackback allowed publishers to see Facebook usage as part of their own traffic, and to track the popularity of their stories across the social network (Parr, 2009).
Both of these services were created in response to other social networks, such as Twitter, which has always made it easy to share links and stories across their network. Twitter has been perceived as being more of interest to journalists and news organisations than Facebook was, primarily because of the public nature of profiles and feeds, and its early adoption by journalists worldwide (Knight, 2013, 2012, 2011; Manjoo, 2015), and it seems clear that Facebook was wanting to capitalise on the traffic generated by news on social media.
More recently, additional services have been added which clearly point towards the site being seen by its management as providing a news distribution and consumption service. Instant Articles, launched in May 2015, allows news organisations to publish directly to the site, and generate advertising, commentary and traffic not to their main page, but to their presence within Facebook. Response has been mixed, but support is still strong, and many major players, including The New York Times, Buzzfeed and Gawker, are continuing to use the service (Griffith, 2015a, 2015b; McAlone, 2015).
Coupled with Instant Articles was the launch of “Trending News” in mid-2015. This is a panel of links and articles to things that are trending on the site, sorted by category (news, politics, science and technology, entertainment and sports), and based on “a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location” (Facebook, 2016b). Comparisons to Twitter’s Trends feed are inevitable, and not unwarranted. The Follow option was added in 2013. Technically, this was not a new service, but a rebranding of the old “subscribe” option to more closely mimic the wording and behaviour from other sites. The function of the “Follow” button is similar to other social networks. Instead of requiring a reciprocal relationship and the explicit exchange of Friendship status on the site, a user with a public profile (Facebook themselves suggest that the service can be used to follow celebrities and journalists, specifically (Facebook, 2016c)) can allow people to Follow them, which will allow followers to see their updates and comments without needing to be their friend. The service is clearly intended to allow celebrities and public figures to maintain an asymmetrical relationship with strangers, using the site more as a publishing platform than as a social sharing and interaction system (Darwell, 2012).
This is being used to interesting effect by a number of people and small news organisations. Definitely, the ability to post lengthy posts, to have followers who see your content, and to manage your Facebook page/account as a sole proprietor has meant that many people use the site as a kind of personal blog or website. Certainly, there is an increasing amount of original content on the service, and only on the service (as opposed to being published elsewhere and linked or shared on Facebook), and the barriers to entry for this kind of publishing are infinitesimal. However, this is a limited and closed option for anyone producing content. You cannot generate revenue (as things currently stand) by posting on Facebook alone, since the advertising is not yours. In addition, it is not unheard of for Facebook to close accounts that it sees as violating its terms, which change frequently. For anyone posting content on Facebook, you are agreeing to their terms of service, which includes granting them a license to use your content as they see fit.
All of these services indicate that Facebook is clearly happy to have news organisations use the site to engage with their readers, to share and comment on stories, and to provide content that can be easily shared and read. And users agree. Increasingly, Facebook is being used as a source of information about the world. According to the Pew Research Centre, 63% of the service’s users see it as a source of news. Flipping the statistic, in 2015, 41% of US adults got some or all of their news and current affairs information through Facebook, and the number is increasing. The trend is moving away from Twitter as a news source, not because Twitter has less news, or is less used by its membership as a source of news, but because Twitter has fewer active users. (Barthel et al., 2015).
People have to get their news from somewhere, and if the public, and the news organisations are on Facebook (and they increasingly are), then getting news from Facebook makes sense. The issue is what kind of news is available on Facebook, and what users actually see.
Facebook was set up as the original social network and it was explicitly designed to only allow online connections to people with whom you have some connection in the real world. The reciprocal nature of connections on the site (in order to be connected to someone, both of you have to agree that you are “friends”) and habits around privacy and searching means that most Facebook connections remain within the original scope of the site: people you are friends with in the non-online world. This is in contrast with Twitter, where all users are public by default, and people tend to follow a wider range of other users.
For Facebook, this means that most people’s networks resemble their own social group in terms of class, race, language and culture. Given that Facebook’s “trending” list is not an absolute measure of popularity (unlike Twitter’s), but is customised based on your own likes and information, and that the material that appears in your news feed is only that which has been seen and reposted by your friends, that makes the site an echo chamber, in which you are unlikely see news and opinions you disagree with, or to be exposed to news from places and communities with which you have little connection. As Facebook’s news feed algorithm responds to what you comment on and share, this can easily become a spiral of repetition, so that if you never “like” something a friend posts, you will be unlikely to see anything else from them again. In the interests of keeping you on the site, or making it a comfortable place to hang out, Facebook doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t make you think or make you uncomfortable, and it will deliberately shield you from things you disagree with. This is diametrically opposed to what is often considered to be the point of journalism – to tell you something you don’t already know, to make you think about things differently, and to illuminate things that are hidden.
A study conducted in 2014 by researchers based at Facebook and at the University of Michigan found that users were less exposed to content that conflicted with their stated political affiliation (political viewpoint is a field in the Facebook profile), and less likely to click on or share a link that they disagree with (Bakshy et al., 2015). As the algorithm learns from this behaviour, it will show less and less of that content, and it will be lower down the feed. An interesting demonstration of this is available on the Wall Street Journal’s site, with an interactive tool using the same data as Bakshy et al’s study. The difference in news content is startling. (Keegan, 2016) Although this article, and this demonstration, is based on US users and US-based content, the algorithm is universal, so users in any country and language will see the same pattern emerge.
Facebook’s algorithm is invisible. Although it is possible to turn off the automatic ranking of posts on your news feed, and see material in chronological order, it is not offered as a highly visible option (and is not available at all on the mobile application, which is how the majority of users use the service (Facebook, 2016a; World Wide Worx, 2016)) so most users have no idea that they are seeing a filtered selection of the posts available. The algorithm itself is secret, and based on constantly updated proprietary code. (Somaiya, 2014)
Facebook’s trending news service is not purely algorithmic, but is based on a curated list of content, that may or may not be subject to direct political interference, depending on which news source you believe. Gizmodo recently ran articles on how the curation service works, and included accusations from one former journalist that they had been instructed to ignore popular news from conservative news organisations when choosing stories for the trending list. The accusations have not been repeated elsewhere, but the fact remains that what is presented as a simple “what is popular now” service, is in fact a customised and selected list of what the company thinks the reader might be interested in. Selection is fundamental to traditional news organisations, but this is based on a complex set of ideas about what news is, what is important, and what is interesting to the readers. This is not to imply that the mix of news provided by traditional news outlets is perfectly balanced, but there is more thought and consideration put in to the mix. Facebook’s service seems to be based purely on popularity, and privileges particular kinds of content. Bakshy’s study shows that only 13% of news shared on the site is hard news (politics and current affairs), a far lower proportion than is typical of traditional news outlets. The fact that Buzzfeed and Gawker are now among Facebook’s key partners in the development of Facebook Live and Instant Articles indicates the appeal of the service to particular kinds of content and news.
The economy of the Internet privileges particular kinds of content, content that has a hook, or the ability to generate lots of comment and sharing. As Facebook now makes it possible for news organisations to track stories’ popularity across the site, and to gain instant feedback on what is popular, and as news organisations increasingly rely on online advertising for revenue, it is inevitable that organisations will look to create stories that will be popular on the site. Since popularity is not linked only to what people like, but to what they share and comment on, this means that extreme points of view are more likely to become popular (and there is an argument to be made that Donald Trump’s popularity is the result of this). This is not to say that Facebook is alone in this – all news organisations are increasingly focused on popularity and sharing, and the effect is readily visible on many news sites. However, the combination of this tendency, coupled with the echo chamber effect of the news feed, and the overwhelming popularity of the service (at the expense of other media consumption, inevitably) creates a vicious circle.
A plurality of information sources is widely considered to be important for the development of society and its citizens. Facebook tends to monopoly (as do many other things in free market capitalism), in an ever-decreasing circle of popularity and consumption. The use of an automated algorithm, and a singular incentive (to increase the number of clicks, views and page shares) will inevitable mean that the system narrows and narrows the kinds of content it shows us. It is possible that people will become bored and frustrated by this, and move away from the service, or that the service will recognise this happening and alter the algorithm to surprise and inform people, but waiting for that might be too risky in the long term. Who’s to say that the providers of serious, thoughtful and intelligent comment and information will still be there, if we ever emerge from our bubble of cat videos and extreme rants.
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This supposed TERF war is just another manufactured catfight

All of a sudden, we seem to be suddenly back in the early nineties, or at least it feels like it. An article published in the New Yorker (which, incidentally, seems to be getting much more publicity and comment while its archive is open – here’s hoping the interest stays after the firewall goes up) last week about the dispute between some (and nobody knows how many – 20? 50?) radical feminists and transgender activists over, essentially, who is a woman, seems to have reignited interest in what was always a fairly obscure and academic point in feminist politics. This is not to say that the issue was (is) not important, or to dismiss the real pain caused by it, but it seems like such a throwback, such an old argument that has not been aired in so long, that I almost expect to find myself back in Joe’s Cafe on Commercial drive, wearing purple Doc Martens and arguing about sex-positive feminism with someone wearing a Queer Nation t-shirt (don’t ask me how much I miss those things).

I say seems to have reignited interest, because the article is getting considerable discussion, and response in many places, but I’m not seeing any support for the exclusionary side (abbreviated as TERFs, for Transgender-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), nor really any debate. In fact, I’m not seeing much to prove the continued existence of transgender exclusionary radical feminists at all. The original article mentions a meeting in New York in May, and previous meetings in 2013 and 2012 of the same group, but doesn’t actually quote anyone from that organisation. The meeting was organised by Radfems Respond, who state that they want to “end gender”, but not that they explicitly exclude transgender people. There is a discussion of tweets and contemporary comments condemning TERFs, in aggressive terms. There are no tweets (or any other form of quotes) from anyone defending the TERF position. Goldberg does quote a radical feminist, Lierre Keith, but does not link her explicitly to Radfems Respond, or even mention whether she herself is in favour of excluding transgender people from  the feminist movement. The New Yorker’s copy editing and fact checking is far too good for that to simply be an omission.

The article then goes on to rehash academic arguments from twenty and thirty years ago, and to ignite a fire, all condemning the supposed TERFs among us. The responses, including an excellent piece by Juliet Jacques in the New Statesman and a column by Lucy Mangan in the Guardian all condemn TERFs in no uncertain terms. Jacques’ column is more about the exclusion of transgender people from all aspects of society, about the liminal space in which transgender people live, especially in a society in which social support structures are heavily gendered. She writes eloquently about her own experience of gendered violence, and her unsureness as to whether she would be welcome at a rape crisis centre. This trepidation is based on her understanding of the debate (erstwhile debates – these are old arguments) within such centres over whether women would feel safe with a transgendered person, and not on her own experience of being excluded. I am not questioning her fear, or her response to it, but this is not evidence that rape crisis centres are barricading the doors and excluding anyone from entering without a chromosome test. Yes, the Michigan Woman’s Festival still holds the old line, but really, when was the last time you ever even heard of the festival? Do you know anyone who has been? Can you name a performer? It matters to the people involved, I am sure, but it is not important. They will win, or lose, the latest court case, and eventually they will either change, or dissolve, or both. That is what happens to outdated ideas and ways of doing things. There is still a minority of feminists who explicitly reject the idea of gender, and through that the idea that anyone could be transgender, and without wanting to discount their right to believe what they believe, or to be heard, they are such a small minority that expecting all feminists to respond and defend them is ridiculous. Yet, respond is what we have all done, although there’s not a lot of defense.

And this is my problem with the whole “debate” that is being discussed. This is not a debate, it’s a pile on a straw man (hah!) that we have no real basis for believing in. It is, as Lucy Mangan says (in paraphrase), another way in which feminism eats itself. We are all fired up about these TERFs, but nobody’s ever seen one, that I can see. Yes, there are academic discussions, yes Sheila Jeffreys is still writing, but for what audience? I’ve not seen a single positive review of her work. There are people who question the narrative of transgender, especially binary transgender. There are people who question the surgical/medical intervention for transgender people, especially in adolescence (not to mention Intersex Activists, many (most? all?) of whom also decry medical intervention – where are they in this “debate”?). There are people who dislike the word “cisgender”, and have been called TERF because of that. These are all valid points of view, and should be aired. We are still working on transgender issues, our understanding of gender is evolving daily, and public discourse about this evolution is essential. It is inevitable that there will be arguments, and disagreements, but name-calling and death threats are not inevitable.

We don’t have public discourse, we have another manufactured spat on our hands, like the Lavender Menace of the seventies, a genuine discussion about the goals and boundaries of feminism, turned into another justification why feminists are pointless and too busy getting caught up in internal squabbles to be taken seriously. Yet another catfight they say. See, women can’t even discuss politics correctly.

And this is where I stand on this issue. It’s not a real debate, it’s not a real division, it’s a sideshow, and one we are spending far too much energy on. It’s another example of the way in which hegemonic control is exerted. Any internal disagreement within the feminist movement is leapt on and dissected, held up as an example of the irrationality of the movement and its members, another reason to discount us all (to accuse us of behaving like “girls” as Mangan does). It’s divide and conquer. It’s belittling the goals of the movement. It’s a distraction, for both feminists and transgender activists. Jacques herself says that she should not have to take time out from important issues to refute this argument again, and she is right. I rather wish she hadn’t, but had simply dismissed the whole thing and written the article about the erosion of the NHS. The answer is not to engage with it. The answer is to say “there are disagreements, of course, any movement has disagreements, and old ideas which are no longer supported”, and then move on to the important issues. I’m not saying transgender issues are not important – they are very important. I am not saying that feminist issues are not important – they are very important. I am saying that the idea that the feminist movement is in conflict with transgender activists is a lie, and one that is damaging to both. We should refute the lie, and focus on the real fight.

Another day, another middle-aged straight man pretending to be a lesbian on the Internet

Another day, another middle-aged straight man pretending to be a lesbian on the Internet.

Anyone who has spent any time in an online community with a persistent membership, especially one with a substantial female cohort, has met a middle-aged man pretending to be a young lesbian. A very cute, out, sexually experimental, vociferous lesbian. Probably with a motorbike, a tormented relationship with her family and long, flowing hair. Looking back, I can remember about four of these guys over the years that I participated in discussion forums at university, usenet, listservs, Yahoo (then Google) groups, blogs, facebook, twitter. Wherever there is online community, there will be ‘pseuds’; and along with ‘dying of cancer‘, ‘tormented young lesbian’ seems to be a favourite story to adopt.

My most notable encounter of this ilk was with one Lisa Jain, on the late, great, estrolist mailing list. “Lisa” was, of course, young, rode a motorcycle, had long red hair and a tormented relationship with her family and an older girlfriend, and wrote (forgive me), convincly mediocre adolescent poetry under the name Starpoet. She also wrote for Scarleteen, whose editor, Heather Corinna, was likewise a member of estrolist. I am not sure of the details, but I believe it was Heather who discovered that “Lisa” was in fact a middle-aged man living in suburbia, with daughters the age “she” claimed to be. In fact, the pictures of herself that “Lisa” had shown the list were of a friend of “her” daughter’s, which, when coupled with the fairly explicit discussions of sex on the mailing list, made many of us shudder. “Lisa” was summarily removed from the mailing list, and, although the internal discussion continued for some time, the whole incident was chalked up as yet another relatively harmless case of “boys will be, well, something other than boys”.

Except that this behaviour is so common as to have become something of a trope, and that is a problem. It’s not simply pretending to be something you’re not – it’s pretending to take on cultural and personal experience and significance that you have not earned. No matter how much research you may have done, you cannot fairly represent someone else’s experience, and on the social internet, where personal experience is currency, you are stealing someone’s currency, their voice.

Feminism has always been about claiming one’s voice, the right to experience one’s life and express that experience to others. Women speaking out about rape, about sex, about love, about life are the cultural lifeblood of feminism, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Eve Ensler. Any man who takes on the cloak of femininity or feminism usurps that voice and distorts the message for everyone listening. 

In pretending to be a lesbian, a heterosexual man is belittling the experience of, and denying a voice to, women and gay people: he is taking on a double-layer of deception and usurping two peoples’ right to speak for themselves. Many straight men seem to think (as did Mr Lisa Jain), that by having sexual encounters with women (or watching a lot of girl-on-girl porn) they know what it is like to be a lesbian, as though sexual identity is limited to the expression of sexual behaviour, and as though female identity ends with the genitalia.

In pretending to be a Syrian (in this case), MacMaster has also taken on years of blackface, of offensive portrayals of “others” by white people, and of “orientalism“. He is supposedly a graduate student in Middle-Eastern studies – I can’t help but think he should fail his course on the grounds that he has failed to comprehend even three words of Edward Said’s writings.

One can’t help thinking, of course, that the fetishisation of lesbianism is the main reason for this kind of online deception, but I suspect that would be wrong. There are plenty of places online to play out one’s purely sexual fantasy of being a young hot college co-ed getting it on with your dormmates (to use the most obvious stereotype of a porn movie), in words, or images. Why go to the hassle of creating a whole identity, stealing other people’s pictures, writing backstory and engaging with other members of the community for a purely sexual fantasy? Estrolist was mostly populated by young-ish middle-aged educated feminists, talking about work, family, clothes, movies, children, politics, gender, books: that’s a lot of chit-chat and theory to wade through to get to the sexy stuff. Likewise, although much has been made of Tom McMaster signing up for a dating site and flirting online with other lesbians (at least one of whom turned out tobe another middle-aged straight man – the final straw that guarantees McMaster will forever be reduced to a punchline), it is apparent that he spent most of his time online constructing the other aspects of Amina’s life (and let’s be clear, despite the chorus of “I always knew there was something wrong with her”, he did a fair enough job of it to fool a number of people).

So why? Is the life of a middle-aged man so boring and desperate that it necessitates the construction of a whole new identity: one entirely different from the existing one, with one constant – sexual attraction to women? Is it for the same reasons that wealthy college kids in the eighties in the UK pretended to be poor, to take on some of the ‘cool’ aspects of working-class life as depicted in popular culture? There is no doubt that lesbianism (or the performance of lesbianism) is becoming more common in popular culture, from the L-Word to Katy Perry, but so is the depiction of crime in African-American communities, and you don’t see stories about middle-aged white women pretending to be hardened “gangstas” on line.

I tend to see this behaviour as a kind of jealous temper-tantrum:  “people are paying attention to someone else, and I am going to take that attention away from them by pretending to be something more interesting and unusual than they are”. It is juvenile and selfish, and, in that way, not dissimilar to people pretending to die of cancer online. In retrospect, looking at the listserv content, people could see that at a predictable interval of the discussion moving on to someone or something else, “Lisa” would suddenly pop up, in virtual tears, at some new torment in her life, and we would all gather round, patting her on the back and saying there-there.

However, I don’t really care why McMaster, or “Lisa” did it. The co-opting of another’s experience for personal gain, especially by a member of the dominant cultural or ethnic group is offensive, and disturbing. McMaster may be a joke, and that is all he deserves, the worry is that the next genuine person to tell their story on the Internet will also be dismissed as a joke, thanks to McMaster’s indulgent, selfish little role playing game. He has had his fun, and cried wolf on behalf of a village he doesn’t even live in, and now everyone else is less safe. 

From what I am writing now:

“This, of course, locates social media firmly within the realm of activism, as opposed to the simpler (or simplistic) idea of the news as ‘objectively’ reporting the facts. It is possibly this that creates the schism between some journalists and social media: fear of being coerced into taking sides, rather than simply being misled.”
After all, foreign correspondents have willingly and gratefully been misled by the authorities for as long as there have been foreign correspondents. Fear of being lied to by someone on Twitter is so much greater than fear of being lied to by some tinpot dictator’s flunkies. Why on earth is this the case?
This is, of course, just an aside in something much larger, but very interesting, no?


Academics hate Wikipedia, apparently. We tell our students not to touch it, to ignore its siren calls of easy, organised information. She’ll do you wrong, we claim. She’ll lead you astray and leave you floundering for verifiable facts and data, swimming in a sea of information, desperate for a peer-reviewed book or journal article to cling to.
This is about as effective as Just Say No and Abstinence-Only, as you can imagine. Our students continue to rely on it, and all that happens is that they don’t bother to cite the source, knowing they’ll be dinged for using Wikipedia. Not quite the desired or intended effect of a total ban on using the site.

And the thing is, we’re hypocrites.  Especially those of us who have worn the journalist’s hat. Wikipedia is great, I use it all the time, even/especially when writing lectures. Can’t remember the exact date the Guardian was founded? Look it up. Need to remind yourself what the title of that essay by Althusser is? Wikipedia knows.