Four things policy-makers need to know about social media data and real time analytics.

Ella McPherson at LSE’s Impact Blog: “I recently gave evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. This was based on written evidence co-authored with my colleague, Anne Alexander, and submitted to their ongoing inquiry into social media data and real time analytics. Both Anne and I research the use of social media during contested times; Anne looks at its use by political activists and labour movement organisers in the Arab world, and I look at its use in human rights reporting. In both cases, the need to establish facticity is high, as is the potential for the deliberate or inadvertent falsification of information. Similarly to the case that Carruthers makes about war reporting, we believe that the political-economic, methodological, and ethical issues raised by media dynamics in the context of crisis are bellwethers for the dynamics in more peaceful and mundane contexts.

From our work we have learned four crucial lessons that policy-makers considering this issue should understand:

1.  Social media information is vulnerable to a variety of distortions – some typical of all information, and others more specific to the characteristics of social media communications….

2.  If social media information is used to establish events, it must be verified; while technology can hasten this process, it is unlikely to ever occur real time due to the subjective, human element of judgment required….


3.  Verifying social media information may require identifying its source, which has ethical implications related to informed consent and anonymisation….

4.  Another way to think about social media information is as what Hermida calls an ‘awareness system,’ which reduces the need to collect source identities; under this approach, researchers look at volume rather than veracity to recognise information of interest… (More)