Category Archives: Social Media

Twitter in the Tower

My university’s PR department recently invited me to talk about the benefits and limitations of using Twitter in support of research and teaching. As a communications professor (trained as a sociologist), I spend a lot of time playing with digital media, experimenting with and thinking critically about how technology affects intellectual labour, the delivery of education, and social relations among faculty, administrative staff and students.

Universities are confronting the effects of social media, as are medicinepublic healthlawgovernmentpolicing and other major societal institutions. Incidentally, these institutions were also forced to confront and adapt to the introduction of myriad other kinds of technology, from presentation software like PowerPoint to the Internet, video recording, the microphone, the fax and photocopier, television, the telephone and…well you get the picture. One recent experimental study concluded that if used effectively and in support of sound pedagogy, Twitter has potential for enhancing student learning and increasing engagement. Another study  provides a compelling argument which challenges the transformative potential of social media in the classroom. Funding agencies, such as Canada’s Tri-Council (SSHRC, CIHR, NSERC), are more assertively encouraging grant recipients to promote ‘uptake’ of their research to a variety of end users (e.g. policy makers, community organizations, clients and consumers of social services, etc.), and have developed knowledge mobilization strategies to advance this agenda. Although tweeting about one’s research is not in itself a strategy for dissemination, if used effectively it can support a range of knowledge mobilization efforts, such as producing documentary filmsbrochurestheatre, and other media that advance the core findings of funded scholarship.

In my presentation I covered how I use Twitter in five different ways, and referenced a recent online conversation I had with other professors who use Twitter in their work (here’s the Storify version of that conversation).

Research: Twitter is both an object of analysis and the medium through which I do some of my research. Some of this work examines how social media is altering the ways institutions and actors within the arenas of politics, business, and civil society communicate. I’ve explored how Twitter and Facebook have affected local and national political campaigns, been used to promote NGO and nonprofit causes, as well as how corporations use digital media as a tool for managing crises and restoring reputational damage. I am also increasingly conducting “live research”, which involves monitoring social media for “hot” events in several areas of substantive interest (e.g. public health, environment, and homelessness). This blog post about the 2011 Ottawa endoscopy infection scare (which I’m presently developing into a journal article) was written over the course of several days after news of what occurred was first live-tweeted at an Ottawa Public Health news conference.

Building Profile: I described in my presentation how I use Twitter to supplement traditional knowledge dissemination and profile-building activities, such as writing for peer-review and attending scholarly conferences. In practice, this involves linking peer-reviewed research (my own or work by others) through my Twitter feed if the research addresses a contemporary issue or event that may be generating or attracting policy or media attention (see examples here and here). I will admit to having felt uncomfortable about “flogging” my own work in this way. Eventually I came to realize that I write not just for myself but in order to be read, not only by other academics but a variety of audiences: policymakers, journalists, community organizations, activists and people in business.

Professional Networking: if funded, my next project will apply ethnography to examine the occupational rhetoric and culture of public relations in an agency setting. Although I worked for a brief time in a PR firm years ago, my knowledge of the cultural milieu of PR agency life remains essentially impressionistic. Importantly, no serious qualitative research into PR agency life has ever been done before. Twitter has been a valuable tool for helping me to network and build rapport with public relations educators and practitioners, both of whom spend a lot of time using social media in their work.

Twitter has also been instrumental in helping me to meet and learn from other researchers in my field and other disciplines. In addition to using Twitter to search for and share research, I also use Academia.edu, a social network for academics, to assist with literature reviews and to ask questions of other scholars who post their work (published and unpublished) on their profile pages.

Teaching: I described how Twitter allows me to share links to news reports, clips from films and other pop cultural artefacts, as well as current or emergent research about course-relevant themes and topics. Sometimes this has taken the form of what I call a “trailer tweet” that provides a snapshot to help focus a broader discussion. To prime my second year communication studies class for a lecture about the Frankfurt School and its critique of the culture industries I tweeted (during the early days of the Occupy Movement in the fall of 2011) an interview with Theodor Adorno in which he talks about the relationship between popular music and protest.

I have also used Twitter to pose trivia questions that relate to course material and to solicit feedback from students following lectures or presentations. All of this activity is used to supplement other efforts of communicating with students in person, on the course website, and in the classroom. It’s unclear whether this activity has made a lick of difference in terms of enhancing student learning and increasing engagement. At this point I would conclude that while it may be helping to keep students aware of the course between classes, it hasn’t helped foster intellectual curiosity, analytical thinking, or debate. Yet I remain interested enough to continue experimenting and evaluating, and learning from others who are doing the same.

Personal: I also talked about my use of Twitter for things that have nothing to do with my work. Twitter is one media platform among several others I use to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues, and to share aspects of my personal life that are not directly related to my work: the funny things my kids say, promoting social causes I care about, and my love of music, sport (especially cycling and running), and even television (although, technically, as a communications professor I only watch and talk about Mad Men for the science). It’s also a great space for participating in crowd-sourced satire.

Some might dismiss this activity as excessively mundane, but so what? University professors log on, goof off, and look things up too. My friend Richard Smith, who is the Director of the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST) at Simon Fraser University, writes that while tweeting about silly things “might not be the most edifying use of a communication medium…we can all afford a bit of drivel in our lives. At the very least, it shows others that we are human, too.”

Finally, I concluded by summarizing what I see as some of the main benefits and potential drawbacks of the time I spend playing around and working in the digital mediascape. While it has certainly contributed to and enhanced my research, profile building, networking and teaching, it is also a demanding activity that takes time away from other things I could be doing, like preparing for a class, finally finishing that journal article or enjoying an extra 30 minutes of sleep. There are also important ethical questions relating to privacy, power, and identity, among other issues, that I can’t possibly address here but which I think about often. Moreover, I remain unconvinced that social media is truly as ‘transformative’ as digital media enthusiasts would tend to argue . Finally, I also reflect a lot on the self-promotional nature of this activity and of the dilemmas this raises about the commercialization of academic work.

If you’re a university or college professor who embraces, is curious about, or refuses to use Twitter in your research, networking, or teaching, I’d love to hear from you. I’m also keen to hear from students about their experiences using social media in the classroom. And if you just want to tweet me what you thought of this week’s episode of Portlandia that would be cool too. You can find me on Twitter @josh_greenberg.

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Filed under Higher Education, Social Media, Technology

The Janus-Face of the Conservative Government and New Technology: Digital Democracy and the Information State

Two recent stories about the Conservative government’s approach to digital media are worthy of mention and reflection.

Story 1: The federal government wants to be your Facebook friend and connect with you on Twitter. As Treasury Board president and power Tweeter Tony Clement argues, “To use social media, to speak directly to people, to our constituents, to citizens, to communicate rapidly and directly with our employees and the Canadian public is a challenge, but it is big occasion to promote the conversation between citizens and the Canadian government.”

Canadians are spending more of their time online: here we swap recipes, upload pictures, plan parties, gossip, and, yes, even talk about politics and policy. The idea of the federal government connecting in the social mediascape with Canadians seems both legitimate and progressive because it potentially promotes greater transparency and accountability, and invites more Canadians to talk back to their government. As open government advocates argue, there’s no question social technologies can be used in democratically progressive ways, and may help enhance the quality of civic discourse and mitigate the governance gap between politicians and citizens.

Story 2: In a series of legislative moves relating to overhauling the Criminal Code (Bills C-50, C-51, C-52), the Conservative government will require Internet Service Providers to hand over personal information about Canadians to the police without warrant, to retool their networks in ways that enables live monitoring of consumer online activities, and to assist police in the testing of online surveillance capabilities. Despite protest from ordinary Canadians and advocacy groups, lawyers, provincial privacy watchdogs, as well as the federal government’s own appointed privacy and surveillance advocate, Jennifer Stoddart, the Conservatives refuse to even talk about (let alone consider) measures or modifications that would smooth out the most egregious aspects of the legislation.

[On the Conservative’s new copyright legislation (Bill C-11), see my colleague Dwayne Winseck’s recent column in the Globe & Mail. It raises numerous critical observations which point to interesting connections between these areas of legislation and their implications for digital media, surveillance and privacy.]

These stories are illuminating in their own right but far more interesting when taken together because they reveal the Janus-faced nature of digital media as well as government policy as it relates to new technology. Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. With two faces looking in opposite directions, he was at once peering into the past while gazing to the future.

So much public discourse about digital technology reflects the belief–widely shared by academics, journalists, open government advocates, and politicians like Minister Clement (at least publicly)–that given enough connectivity and devices, democracy is inevitable and will flourish. It’s hard not to be taken in by the seductive nature of this claim; indeed there is a case to be made for the relationship between access, information flow and democratization.

At the same time, we can’t consider the democratic potential of digital media without addressing questions of governance and regulation. If we assume that the Internet will only function in the service of democracy, we not only risk operating with what Evgeny Morozov calls a “voluntary intellectual handicap”, we also run the risk undermining our own attempts to create a more robust polity and democracy.

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Filed under Politics, Social Media, Surveillance, Technology

Ottawa Public Health, Risk Communication & the Endoscopy Infection Scare

In a hastily organized media conference on Saturday, October 15, 2011, the City of Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy, announced that a local, privately owned “non-hospital” medical clinic failed to follow proper infection control measures, resulting in the potential exposure of 6,800 patients to Hepatitis and HIV.

According to Dr. Levy, there was no evidence that a single patient had been infected as a result of treatment, and following consultation with infectious disease specialists he confirmed that the estimated rate of possible infection was “very low”:

  • 1 in 1 million for Hepatitis B
  • 1 in 50 million for Hepatitis C
  • 1 in 3 billion for HIV

On his Twitter feed Dan Gardner, author of the critically acclaimed book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, described the risks cited in this case as “indescribably tiny…dwarfed by the risk of driving to the corner store.”

Despite the exceedingly low possibility of infection, the announcement by Ottawa’s health authority predictably generated outrage and intense public and media scrutiny.

Situation summary

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) first became aware of this clinic’s problems in July 2011, when the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care advised that an inspection by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario discovered infection prevention and sanitation protocols had not always been followed. It was then that OPH began its own investigation to assess the risk to public health and identify all patients who might be affected.

This involved a lengthy process of tracing several thousand patient records over a 10-year period. This volume of patient records, combined with restrictions on patient confidentiality set by Ontario privacy laws, made the task of informing those affected extremely difficult.

The final list of patients who may have been exposed to infection was not confirmed until Thursday, October 13th. On Friday, October 14th, OPH put its risk communication plan into effect. The first step involved finalizing the preparation of registered letters that would be immediately sent to all 6,800 patients. This included coordinating with the physician at the centre of the health scare, a professional obligation involving medical errors. Second, it involved notifying local physicians to ensure they would be able to address public demand for information and requests for blood testing. And it involved training as many as 50 public health nurses who would be redeployed from other units (e.g., sex education, home visits with new parents, etc.) to staff a call response hotline.

This plan was developed over the course of the health department’s three-month investigation. Given the possibility of an information leak, only a select number of key individuals were involved in the investigation and planning process.

A threatened media leak

Ottawa Public Health originally intended to hold its media conference on Tuesday, October 18th, at which time all information about the findings would have been disclosed. By this point, all affected patients would have been informed directly about what had occurred, physicians would have been prepared to respond to demands for information and testing, and the call response unit would have been up and running.

On the morning of Saturday, October 15th, Dr. Levy’s office was informed that a national news organization had become aware of the investigation and was preparing to break the story on the basis of inaccurate information.

This placed the public health authority in a difficult situation: the risk that a news report containing misinformation was real—certainly not unprecedented—and had the potential of creating vastly more harm than good.

OPH was faced with three options:

1.  Do nothing and respond to the report and the fallout that would ensue after the fact.
2.  Provide full disclosure of the situation, including identifying the name and address of the clinic and physician and the types of procedures which had placed patients at risk.
3.  Provide partial disclosure that would strike a balance between patient needs, the public interest and the capacity of the system to absorb increased demand for information, testing or treatment.

Communicating risk

The risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different.Sandman, 2007

The health department scrambled to organize a media conference for later that afternoon. At this time, Dr. Levy announced what had occurred, confirmed that there were no known cases of anyone becoming ill and reported the very low numerical probability of infection. He acknowledged that some people might feel anxious or nervous about the announcement, and offered an explanation about what actions his office had put into place and would be following in the coming days, including a promise for new information early in the week.

To this extent, he acted in a manner consistent with the basic tenets of risk communication. He did not over-reassure, acknowledged that people would feel anxious about the announcement and described the discovery and response processes.

However, when pressed by journalists for a fuller disclosure of information, Dr. Levy refused to identify the name or location of the medical facility, the physician who operated it, or details about the patient population affected (i.e., children, adults, seniors, etc.).

This was a risky move for two major reasons.

First, it guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values: whereas the health department values only pertinent information in the interest of protecting public health, journalists value full disclosure, immediacy and thrive on controversy and outrage. Second, the decision to provide only very general information risked intensifying ambiguity and uncertainty, where the objective of risk communication is to lessen it. People aspire for control over their lives, even if they cannot change what might happen.

Ottawa Public Health called a second media conference on Monday, October 17th, where Dr. Levy disclosed all of the known information about:

  • where the breach had occurred (a private health clinic operated by Dr. Christiane Farazli on Carling Avenue in the city’s west end)
  • what caused the lapse in infection control (improper sanitation of equipment associated with the performance of endoscopies)
  • what patients should do next (contact their physician or the public health department’s call response centre to discuss whether they should be tested)

Media response

The news media’s framing of risk has more to do with its reproduction of moral outrage than with “scientific” notions of calculable risk. —Brown, Chapman & Lupton, 1996

Ottawa Public Health and Dr. Levy in particular, came under fire for the decision to provide only partial disclosure in its first media conference.

In a post to his Greater Ottawa blog on October 17thOttawa Citizen reporter David Reevely initially described Dr. Levy’s shift from partial to full disclosure as a “volte-face” move, a “classic emergency communications error,” and mused about whether the public health unit might be “sitting on something more shocking.” (He later revised his position, explaining the full context of Dr. Levy’s shift in tactics, characterizing it as a “judgment call…that makes a whole lot of sense when viewed from inside.”)

In a story published on October 18th, the Ottawa Sun did not report the low levels of infection risk but did note the “potentially fatal” nature of Hepatitis and HIV and cited demands from evidently uninformed patients for full disclosure: “You can’t keep the public in the dark…We have the right to know— it’s not fair…. Especially HIV, when there’s no treatment.”

On CTV National News, public relations consultant Barry McLoughlin characterized Dr. Levy’s decision to not release all of the information at once as “a mistake” that intensified public anxiety.

And in an October 18th editorial, the Ottawa Citizen blamed Dr. Levy for causing “undue public concern by mismanaging the release of the information.”

Risk communication: normative and situational perspectives

These criticisms and the demand they represent regarding full disclosure are consistent with normative recommendations for risk communication.

The World Health Organization defines risk communication as “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion” among authorities, citizens, news media and other stakeholders.

In the past authorities typically acted on the basis of what they believed was the best course of action. Oftentimes this meant shielding the organization itself from blame. Risk communication hinges on therecognition that citizens deserve to be treated honestly, respectfully and with a view to enhancing their autonomy. The objective is to reduce uncertainty so that people will be capable of making informed decisions that affect their lives. Organizations achieve this objective, in part, by communicating as openly as possible.

Notwithstanding the normative appeal of full disclosure, the ability to report all information needs to be considered against a variety of situational factors, including the seriousness of the threat (i.e., the scientifically measured level of hazard or harm), the organizational resources required to manage the response that full disclosure will produce, and the conflict between patient rights to privacy and the public and media’s right to know.

Focus assessment

The focus on whether the release of partial information was sufficient needs to be determined in light of the probability of harm and in relation to the ability of the health system to absorb the effects of full disclosure.Given the low hazard for harm and the state of system readiness, and the fact that this event was not caused by the public health department itself, it’s not unreasonable that OPH proceeded cautiously in its first communication with the media and public.

The problem, however, is that this limited the flow of information to journalists, whose occupational values—more information is always better—and “nose for outrage” positions them in opposition.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “scientists want data to be released when it’s ‘seasoned’—the media want fresh data now.” Consistent with previous cases of low hazard/high outrage events, the Ottawa health department and media differed not only in their treatment of information, but also their definitions of how to define what’s in the public interest. The health department’s partial disclosure not only strained its relationship with the media; it also kept the wider public under-informed and in a state of uncertainty.

Risk communication conclusion

The question of when to release risk information is a serious one, not to be taken lightly. It is vitally important to communicate openly and to communicate early. As the CDC advises, public health authorities need to “be first, be right, be credible.” And according to the World Health Organization, “the benefits of early warning outweigh the risks,” even when faced with uncertainty and the possibility of error.

Although prescriptive recommendations such as these are important in guiding decision-making about disclosure, such decisions cannot be made by virtue of normative standards alone.

Rather, as argued here, they must be made in relation to situational factors. They need to be made in a context that acknowledges:

  1. It guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values.
  2. The resources that will be required to manage the system impacts such announcements tend to produce.
  3. The legislative environment that balances patient privacy rights against the rights of the public to know

In this case, it’s possible that a full disclosure of all available information in its first media conference would have created undue pressure on local physicians, public health clinics and hospital emergency rooms. Keeping in mind that risk is about both uncertainty and possibility, the scenario of an overwhelmed healthcare system surely played out in the health department’s decision making.

It’s important to note that this risk event was not caused by the health department itself, but by a private clinic regulated by the province of Ontario. Ottawa Public Health responded to an investigation by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, and to an alert by the Ontario government. It proceeded with its own investigation and a strategy of public disclosure only when it became evident that the other agencies involved would not do so. The decision to provide only partial disclosure was made on the basis of the health department’s interpretation of the scientific evidence relating to infection risk. That this decision wasallegedly forced by a news organization threatening to break the story with erroneous information, is significant in terms of assessing the response.

Ottawa Public Health acted appropriately in balancing the needs of patients in relation with system capacity, but only to the extent that this event involved infinitesimally low levels of health risk. Had the probability of infection been higher, or had there been evidence of patients who had actually been infected, its response (and this assessment) would likely have been different.

Response problematic in one area: social media

The OPH response is problematic in one other way.

In the most recent edition of his book Ongoing Crisis CommunicationW. Timothy Coombs describes the “increasingly important” role of social media for issues management and as a channel for responding to public questions and sharing information. It’s unclear to what extent social media sites are used by Ottawa Public Health to scan or monitor media and public discourse; but for the dissemination of public information sites have been used only sparingly.

For example, (at the time of writing this post) the health department’s under-used Tumblr account does not contain a single update about the infection scare, although it’s been used for other health information purposes during this time. And while its Facebook page and Twitter account have posted synced updates to a low number of fans (363) and followers (5,000+), the fact that both were dormant in the 36-48 hours following the initial media conference suggests social media outreach represents a low priority within the health department’s communication plan.

Given that the period immediately following a public announcement is a critical time when reporters and members of the public are discussing an event and forming their initial impressions, social media platforms present an important space not only for assessing the tone of the public conversation, but for also correcting misinformation if and when it occurs.

Risk events such as the Ottawa endoscopies infection scare can be disorienting because of the intense feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and fear they produce. But to the extent that these situations are potentially destabilizing, they also afford unique opportunities to think critically about how we discuss and practice risk communication.

** This post originally appeared as a guest column on PR Conversations. I thank Judy Gombita and Heather Yaxley for the invitation and their community of readers for the excellent comments and feedback.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Emergency Communication, Everyday Life, Health Issues, Health Promotion, Public Health, Public Relations, Risk, Social Media

Higher Education 2.0 (Take 2)

In May 2010, the Huffington Post reported the results of a survey which found that 80 percent of university and college professors were using social media in their research and teaching. I blogged my reaction to the story, expressing surprise, picking at the survey’s methodological problems, and identifying what I considered to be its weak contributions to our understanding of social media use in higher education.

The e-learning company Pearson, which partnered with Babson Survey Research Group to complete the original report, announced yesterday the results of a follow-up survey of 1,920 faculty. Exploring 9 different types of social media among professors, the study reports that professors consider YouTube to be the most useful social media tool by far — nearly 1/3 of respondents report instructing students to watch online videos as part of their outside class work, and 73 percent say they find YouTube videos valuable for classroom use.

As with the previous survey, the current study notes no statistically significant difference in social media use across generational lines. In other words, junior faculty are no more likely to be using social media for research or teaching than more experienced professors. Both studies report variation by discipline, with liberal arts and social science faculty reporting higher levels of interest and use.

When I was a student, which really wasn’t that long ago, my professors used to show videos on Betamax or VHS tapes (by grad school we were on to DVDs) when they wanted to illustrate an idea or theme in the curriculum. If we missed a class, or if there were additional audio-visual materials the professor deemed important, s/he would place them on reserve in the library and we’d watch them there.

I reflect on this not for nostalgic reasons, but because there is really nothing in the current survey to suggest that faculty use of a tool like YouTube is about anything other than convenience. Faculty appear to be utilizing video sharing tools for purely instrumental reasons — the content is more portable and its use in lecture scenarios more seamless in relation to other technologies (e.g. PowerPoint, Prezi, etc.).

But this doesn’t make faculty use of YouTube social. In fact, the faculty surveyed for this study report that they see very little value in using social media for collaborative learning, sharing, or content development and production. Notwithstanding the popularity of YouTube, other social media tools, notably Facebook and Twitter, were panned by almost half of the survey respondents for not only lacking pedagogical value but even harming classroom learning.

The study does not explore why faculty find some tools more useful than others, or under what circumstances they might consider social technologies to be more or less appropriate. This is a methodological blindspot which raises some important research questions that warrant further study.

Have faculty carefully considered the benefits and limitations of social technologies, only to conclude they don’t resolve a pedagogical problem?

Is the problem that faculty don’t understand or see the pedagogical benefits of social media for teaching, research and collaborative inquiry?

Do faculty not have the capacity or skill sets to keep abreast of a rapidly changing media landscape, choosing instead to stick with the instructional technologies tools they already know and trust?

Is the problem one of philosophy and not one of technique per se? Are faculty threatened by the loss of steering control that social media may introduce into a classroom situation?

Addressing these questions is important if we’re to fully appreciate and understand the relationship between social media and higher learning. If you know of any research that does so, please let me know. And please do use the comment field below to raise additional questions, or to share your observations or thoughts about those I’ve posed.

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Dirty Politics 2.0: Social Media and Election Black Ops

**This column was originally published online at The Mark News

From the telegraph to the Internet, new communication technologies have influenced the lives of citizens and the functioning of governments. With voters increasingly turning to the Web for information to guide decision-making, candidates and political parties are becoming more experimental and increasingly sophisticated in how they utilize social technologies, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, to promote policies, mobilize supporters, and attack opponents.

Yet we have little, if any, regulatory framework within which to navigate this changing mediascape, and that needs to change. The 2010 municipal election in Toronto, won by Rob Ford, provides a valuable case in point.

Shortly after the election, The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s published feature stories detailing how Ford’s team delivered its improbable candidate to victory as mayor of Canada’s largest city, handily defeating his main opponent, former provincial Liberal cabinet minister George Smitherman.

The coverage focused on how Ford’s campaign team, spearheaded by Nick Kouvalis, made “creative” use of social media. But this was not creativity of the typical social media variety. There was no evidence of engagement, authenticity, and two-way communication, terms normally reserved for talking about social media.

Instead, it documented how Team Ford set up the phony Twitter account, @QueensQuayKaren (“a downtown Toronto gal who likes politics, my cat Mittens, and a good book”), who was in fact a member of Ford’s PR team, posing as a Smitherman supporter.

Ford’s team used this account to befriend a man who Kouvalis learned had provided the Toronto Star with a recording of Ford allegedly offering to help him illegally acquire OxyContin. This allowed Ford’s team to secure a copy of the recording, to leak it to a sympathetic Toronto Sun columnist who broke the story, and, in doing so, to minimize the fallout. It was a brilliantly executed crisis communication strategy.

The Ford campaign’s use of Twitter in this case raises a number of questions about political campaigns and social media.

For some, it raises the question of ethics. If a candidate or their staff is willing to act deceitfully during an election, can they be trusted to govern with integrity once they are in office?

This question has normative appeal for those who believe that dirty tricks undermine politics and that we should do what we can to reduce their impact. Nevertheless, history is filled with examples of campaign black ops from candidates across the political spectrum because politics is a contact sport, as Bill Clinton famously said. Rob Ford is not the first politician whose campaign has done whatever it takes to win, and he surely won’t be the last.

Others might question the Ford team’s vision. In the short term, this was a cleverly conceived ploy that killed a potentially damaging story at a key moment of the campaign. However, it raises questions about longer-term implications. Boasting of the move may have scored points with hard-liners who already support the mayor, but would it turn off Toronto voters who did not back his campaign but who he must now lead? And would it serve as notice to the City Hall media gallery that the Ford team sees them as little more than a nuisance to be manipulated and managed at every turn?

Most importantly, the case alerts us to a gap in the regulatory framework governing municipal campaigns. The ethical and strategic dimensions of this case can be debated. However, Ford’s actions were clearly within the boundaries of the law.

The City of Toronto’s 2010 Municipal Election Candidate’s Guide says absolutely nothing about how social media can or can’t be used. And although the City Clerk can respond to complaints about alleged criminal activities, the Municipal Elections Act guides her decision-making. This is provincial legislation which provides equally unclear guidelines about the rules and regulations governing election-time social media use. And according to a Ministry spokesperson, “there are no immediate plans to revise it.”

Elections are not determined by the use of social media. Nevertheless, sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter now play prominently in the branding of political candidates, the promotion of their platforms, the mobilization of supporters, and as part of the repertoire of election campaign dirty tricks to undermine or attack opposition.

Dirty tricks are as old as politics itself but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about activities that discredit the political system, no matter how “creative” they may be. It’s high time the regulations governing election campaigns reflected the media technologies and practices of the day.

 

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Tweet, Click, Vote: Twitter and the 2010 Ottawa Election

It’s 1:30am on October 26, 2010. The Ottawa municipal election is over. I will spend the next week reviewing and analyzing almost 10,000 archived Tweets about the election, but wanted to share some of the preliminary findings now.

OVERALL TWEETING ACTIVITY (01 – 25 Oct)

Total tweets: 9409 (it’s noteworthy that 70 percent of all tweets during this period were generated during the final week of the campaign)

Total tweeters: 1344

URLs shared: 1125 (top URL goes to The Bulldog Ken Gray)

80% (7527) of all tweets generated by 22% (308) of all tweeters

Top 10 tweeters (0%) generated 22% (2094) of all tweets

45% of all tweeters posted only 1 tweet

#OTTvote Tweets (Oct 1-25, 2010)

In the last 4 days of the campaign, 809 new Twitter accounts contributed to the #ottvote feed. It’s difficult to verify the authenticity of these accounts since most of them used non-identifiers. Yet, since a vast majority of them were used to besmirch the online reputations of candidates and their supporters it’s likely illustrative of the role of astroturfing in local politics. Indeed, there were almost 300 more new accounts in the final 4 days of the campaign than the total number (535) that had contributed to the Twitter feed during the previous 20 days.

TOP 10 TWEETERS (volume of activity)

CliveForMayor (356)

willsamuel (322)

ottawasun (237)

OniJoseph (231)

MacDoaker (198)

davidreevely (180)

DenVan (155)

SunCityHall (149)

jchianello (147)

josh_greenberg (119)

TOP @ REPLY RECIPIENTS OR MENTIONS

CliveDoucet (286)

JimWatsonOttawa (266)

CliveForMayor (239)

LarryOBrien2010 (172)

denvan (153)

willsamuel (152)

OniJoseph (104)

Ottawateaparty (100)

josh_greenberg (93)

ctvottawa (92)

TWEET SOURCE

The vast majority of #ottvote tweets were posted from the main Twitter website or via one of the many popular applications (e.g. Tweetdeck). Although only 15% of the tweets were added from a mobile device, I expect to see more use of iPhones, Blackberries and other smartphones in future campaigns not only for contributing content but for following results as well.

Desktop/Laptop – 85%

iPhone/Blackberry/Android – 15%

TWITTER SENTIMENT: TOP 3 MAYORAL CANDIDATES (18-25 Oct)

In the final week of the campaign a significant amount of Tweeter energy was devoted to negatively framing the incumbent and perceived frontrunner. The sharp increase in new Twitter accounts contributing to the #ottvote thread helps explain the heavy negative sentiment scores reported below, particularly for mayor-elect Watson.

Larry O’Brien (1134 opinions)

12% [+]

62% [-]

26% [+/-]

Clive Doucet (318 opinions)

46% [+]

10% [-]

44% [+/-]

Jim Watson (1177 opinions)

20% [+]

50% [-]

30% [+/-]

TWEET THEMES (Sept 1 – Oct 25)

Using the Crimson Hexagon data mining program I developed a coding grid to map the frequency and distribution of primary themes in the #ottvote feed between September 1 and October 25. As can be seen, over this period tweets discussing various aspects of the transit issue (e.g. light rail, ring road, OC Transpo strike, cycling) were predominant, followed closely by tweets which focused on a personality characteristic of a candidate. With a few notable exceptions, these personality mentions were almost entirely negative and focused in almost every case on one of the mayoral candidates.

The next two most common themes mentioned in tweets relating to the election focused on some element of the media coverage (e.g. announcing or commenting on media endorsement of a candidate) or on some type of electioneering strategy (the latter came almost entirely from tweets by candidates, e.g. “I’ll be canvassing in the Byward Market, come say hi!”). Although mentions of development were consistent and modest, I was surprised that more tweets relating to intensification, infill, environmental impacts of new infrastructure, etc. did not garner more attention. Equally surprising was the significantly lower numbers of tweets mentioning taxes or finance compared to other issues. Tweets referring to a range of social issues (housing, parks/recreation, childcare, etc.) netted only 11% of the mentions and tended to cluster around particular dates in which there were higher than normal levels of tweeting about these topics (i.e. Social Issues Mayoral Debate on Oct 8). Finally, although I coded for mentions of crime these did not yield significantly high numbers of mentions.

SUMMARY

It’s important to put case study findings in the appropriate comparative context. Looking at the final week of Twitter activity alone, it is noteworthy that #ottvote contributors generated 6642 tweets about the municipal election. However, their counterparts in other closely watched Canadian municipal campaigns were far more active. Using the hashtag #yycvote, Calgary tweeters generated 18,692 tweets about that city’s election in its final week. Calgary is a reasonable point of comparison to Ottawa – based on 2006 census data, it is Canada’s third largest city (population 988,193) while Ottawa is the country’s fourth largest (population 812,129). In Toronto, where the most exciting and controversial race occurred, tweeters contributed an impressive 33,504 tweets to the #VoteTO hashtag in the final 7 days of the campaign.

I will spend the coming week trying to make sense of these findings. What do these data say to you? Please share your thoughts about the role Twitter played in the election. What did you think were the most and least interesting and effective uses of Twitter? What impact, if any, might it have had on the election process and outcome?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The findings reported above were generated with two very useful open source data mining programs (Twapper Keeper and The Archivist). The sentiment analysis was performed using an algorithm developed by Crimson Hexagon. I want to thank Melyssa Plunkett-Gomez, VP Sales & Business Development, Crimson Hexagon, for providing access to this excellent program. I also wish to recognize the outstanding research assistance provided by Vincent Raynauld, PhD candidate in Communication at Carleton University.

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Filed under Politics, Social Media, Technology

#highered 2.0? I don’t think so…

Social media has been the focus of a growing body of research in the past few years. In the social sciences and humanities, a corpus of critical work is building around themes as diverse as usage patterns, impacts on cultural production, ethics, privacy and surveillance (see here and here for examples). Outside the academy, research by consultants, PR and marketing firms, independent analysts and “embedded scholars” has explored how a range of individuals and groups (Canadian MPs; CEOs; celebrities; nonprofit organizations; etc.) are using social media, and the burning question of whether your organization—government, corporate, nonprofit—is ready to launch a YouTube campaign, set up a Facebook Fan Page or jump into the Twitterverse.

Largely ignored in this body of articles, white papers, briefs and reports, are examinations about the impacts of social media within higher education, especially with respect to how academics are using these technologies in their research and teaching. Academics are an important demographic for consideration because, arguably, we are the ones most directly in contact with the teens and twenty-somethings whose lives are increasingly shaped and defined by social media ubiquity. Not only do we have a privileged vantage point for observing and understanding how students use social media, but we are also positioned to teach them how best to utilize the means of information available so they may engage in reflective thought and discussion. This has always applied to Chaucer, Marx and Pasteur. It should apply to Twitter, Wikipedia and Facebook as well.

According to a report published in the Huffington Post, 80 percent of university and college professors, particularly those in the social sciences and humanities, are using social media in their research and teaching.

My immediate reaction was surprise. Drawing on my own experience as an active social media user and professor in a middle-range Canadian university, my observations of my colleagues’ social media practices falls well short of the impressive numbers in the Huff Post headline. Granted, several have a Facebook account, which they mostly use to keep in touch with family and friends, or to post photos and share links to news stories. Many of them also use YouTube videos for illustrative purposes (as my own profs did with film or television recorded on VHS tapes). But I can count on one hand the number who maintain or regularly visit a blog, who use Twitter for research or networking, or have even heard about Chatroulette or Foursquare.

This disconnect between my experiences, my intuition and what the news headline suggests motivated me to review the Pearson data more carefully. Here’s what I concluded:

1. Suspicion: the numbers may be inflated due to sampling error

a) Approximately 10,000 surveys were distributed to Pearson customers with fewer than 1,000 surveys completed. A 9.5% response rate does not in itself fall outside the norm for online surveys, yet the possibility of a selection bias remains because we unfortunately know nothing about the sampling strategy.

If, for example, the subject line of the recruitment letter said “Faculty Social Media Use Survey,” non-users would almost certainly opt out of participation. Active social media users, dabblers and the curious would be more likely to respond, thus explaining the finding that 80% of faculty are using social media. The Slideshare file (linked above) provides only the thinnest information about the study’s sampling strategy. Without knowing more about how the survey was distributed, or the efforts taken to ensure balance in the results, we are in a weak position to assess the quality of the research.

b) Similarly, the study reports that 38% of respondents teach online courses—these courses would almost certainly have a class blog for discussion, Slideshare presentations in lieu of lectures, or embedded video and podcasts to make course material more interesting (all of these are defined in the study as examples of “social media”). In any case, one can legitimately ask whether the results might have been influenced by an oversampling of faculty who may already use these technologies by virtue of the types of courses they teach.

2. Where the Personal isn’t Professional

The study reports that 71% of respondents have watched an online video or listened to a podcast (how frequently or in what context remains a complete mystery – does downloading the latest episode of The Age of Persuasion to my iPod count?). It also notes that barely 20% of survey respondents use YouTube in their teaching and hardly any actually communicate with their students via Facebook (12%) or Twitter (3%). Although a slightly larger number of respondents report using Skype to communicate with colleagues, it’s questionable whether their use of VoIP extends beyond its most basic phone-like functionalities.

A surprising finding from the study is that a professor’s age or years of experience did not appear to determine their social media use.

With the exception of “creating a video/podcast”, the survey respondents reported using social media applications overwhelmingly for personal rather than professional purposes. And while respondents report seeing some value in using video, podcast and blogs for classroom instruction, the vast majority of them judge social networking platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) to be an unworthy tool for research, for collaboration or for teaching and learning.

What to Conclude?

I encourage my students to assess research for the empirical and theoretical contributions they make. In other words, what is new about this study and why is it meaningful? The Pearson study is important because it attempts to fill a gap in knowledge about social media and the academy. I commend the authors for establishing a baseline upon which to build future research.

Ultimately, however, the study falls short on both empirical and theoretical fronts. Empirically, it doesn’t actually tell us anything groundbreaking. What value is there in knowing that 90% of academics are passive social media users? Is it to inform the development of how learning technologies are introduced on campus, or to inform research that might explore how changes in media technology is altering the research, teaching and learning environments? A cynic (not me) might even question whether an academic publisher is motivated here by ulterior  purposes. The important point is that the study doesn’t ask and it certainly doesn’t tell us why these data are interesting. It also does not explore what is arguably the more meaningful question: why are educators under-utilizing available technologies? Is it because they don’t understand what these platforms do? Is it because they are ambivalent about its use? Or, if a recent study by the Ontario Coalition of University Faculty Associations offers any insight to this question, is it because they are deeply suspicious about its value and threatened by what it does to their working environment?

Theoretically, the study makes a very weak contribution. Most strikingly, it does not tease out what is actually social about these technologies. In one sense, it fails to provide a conceptualization of each technology, so we are left to conclude that Twitter=Facebook=Slideshare=Flickr=Skype. Each platform not only has different functionalities but they also enable and demand different modalities of user participation. It isn’t surprising that professors will look to YouTube as a video archive to assist with lecture preparation; but that doesn’t make their use of YouTube “social”. Professors have used video to enhance their teaching for as long as portable video technology has been available.  All this study tells us is that academics are probably treating YouTube more as a content container than a content sharing platform. The fact that so few college and university faculty are using new technologies to communicate the results of their work (what we have now begun to call ‘knowledge transfer’), to network with other scholars, or to share and co-generate new ideas with their students, leads me to conclude that very little has actually changed with respect to why professors use media technology. Ultimately, it’s this pattern of under-utilization that for me is most theoretically interesting. The Pearson study, in placing its emphasis on the headline-grabbing 80% figure, misses this point entirely.

Pearson has offered scholars and practitioners an opportunity to begin an interesting discussion about how social media is transforming our institutions of research and higher learning. There are important research opportunities, policy questions and pedagogical discussions to be had. I propose that we explore these issues more fully and move away from chasing headlines.

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Filed under Higher Education, Research, Social Media