What is the dominant opinion on social networks? Look at the herds, says researcher — ScienceDaily

A communication researcher from the University at Buffalo has developed a framework to measure the slippery concept of public opinion on social media.

These collective views on a topic or issue expressed on social media, distinct from conclusions drawn from poll-based public opinion polls, have never been easy to determine. But the “murmuring” framework developed and tested by Yini Zhang, PhD, assistant professor of communication at the UB College of Arts and Sciences, and his collaborators faces challenges, such as identifying online demographics and taking account of the manipulation of opinion, which are characteristic of these digital battlefields of public discourse.

Murmuration identifies meaningful groups of social media actors based on the “who follows who” relationship. Actors attract like-minded followers to form “herds”, which serve as units of analysis. As opinions form and change in response to external events, the opinions of the flocks evolve like the fluid murmur of airborne starlings.

The framework and results of an analysis of the social network structure and opinion expression of more than 193,000 Twitter accounts, which followed more than 1.3 million other accounts, suggest that membership to a herd can predict opinion and that the whisper frame reveals distinct patterns of opinion intensity. Researchers studied Twitter because of the ability to see who is following whom, information that is not publicly available on other platforms.

The results, published in the journal of computer mediated communicationfurther support the echo chamber trends prevalent on social media, while adding important nuance to existing knowledge.

“By identifying different groups and examining the intensity, temporal pattern and content of their expression, we can gain deeper insights far beyond where liberals and conservatives stand on a certain issue,” says Zhang, expert in social media and political communication. “These herds are segments of the population, defined not by demographic variables of dubious importance, such as white females aged 18 to 29, but by their online connections and reaction to events.

“As such, we may observe variations of opinion within an ideological camp and the opinions of people who are not generally assumed to have an opinion on certain issues. We consider herds to occur naturally , reacting to things as they happen, a conversation piece into consideration.”

Zhang says it’s important not to confuse public opinion, as measured by poll-based polling methods, with social media public opinion.

“You can say that public opinion on social media is twice as different from general public opinion as measured by polls,” Zhang said. “First, not everyone uses social media. Second, of those who do, only a subset of them actually express opinions on social media. They tend to be very opinionated and therefore more willing to express their opinions publicly.”

Murmuration offers information that can supplement information gathered through survey-based polls. It also moves away from crawling social media for the text of specific tweets. Murmuration takes full advantage of the dynamic aspect of social media. When text is taken out of context, it becomes difficult to pinpoint questions about what led to the discussion, when it started, and how it evolved over time.

“Murmuring can enable research that better uses social media data to study public opinion as a form of social interaction and reveal underlying social dynamics,” says Zhang.

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Material provided by University at Buffalo. Original written by Bert Gambini. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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