A wooden sculpture of the three monkeys sitting on a bench, under a blue sky with a few wispy white clouds.

In defence of ignorance

Wish I may, wish I might
Have this wish, I wish tonight
I want that star, I want it now
I want it all and I don’t care how

Metallica, King Nothing

I’m a news editor who frequently uses Twitter to find new stories to work on or follow up. Since the lockdown began, however, I’ve been harbouring a fair amount of FOMO born, ironically, from the fact that the small pool of in-house reporters and the larger pool of freelancers I have access to are all confined to their homes, and there’s much less opportunity than usual to step out, track down leads and assimilate ground reports. And Twitter – the steady stream of new information from different sources – has simply accentuated this feeling, instead of ameliorating it by indicating that other publications are covering what I’m not. No, Twitter makes me feel like I want it all.

I’m sure this sensation is the non-straightforward product of human psychology and how social media companies have developed algorithms to take advantage of it, but I’m fairly certain (despite the absence of a personal memory to corroborate this opinion) that individual minds of the pre-social-media era weren’t marked by FOMO, and more certain that they were marked less so. I also believe one of the foremost offshoots of the prevalence of such FOMO is the idea that one can be expected to have an opinion on everything.

FOMO – the ‘fear of missing out’ – is essentially defined by a desire to participate in activities that, sometimes, we really needn’t participate in, but we think we need to simply by dint of knowing about those activities. Almost as if the brains of humans had become habituated to making decisions about social participation based solely on whether or not we knew of them, which if you ask me wouldn’t be such a bad hypothesis to apply to the pre-information era, when you found out about a party only if you were the intended recipient of the message that ‘there is a party’.

However, most of us today are not the intended recipients of lots of information. This seems especially great for news but it also continuously undermines our ability to stay in control of what we know or, more importantly, don’t know. And when you know, you need to participate. As a result, I sometimes devolve into a semi-nervous wreck reading about the many great things other people are doing, and sharing their experiences on Twitter, and almost involuntarily develop a desire to do the same things. Now and then, I even sense the seedling of regret when I look at a story that another news outlet has published, but which I thought I knew about before but simply couldn’t pursue, aided ably by the negative reinforcement of the demands on me as a news editor.

Recently, as an antidote to this tendency – and drawing upon my very successful, and quite popular, resistance to speaking Hindi simply because a misguided interlocutor presumes I know the language – I decided I would actively ignore something I’m expected to have an opinion on but there being otherwise no reason that I should. Such a public attitude exists, though it’s often unspoken, because FOMO has successfully replaced curiosity or even civic duty as the prime impetus to seek new information on the web. (Obviously, this has complicated implications, such as we see in the dichotomy of empowering more people to speak truth to power versus further tightening the definitions of ‘expert’ and ‘expertise’; I’m choosing to focus on the downsides here.)

As a result, the world seems to be filled with gas-bags, some so bloated I wonder why they don’t just float up and fuck off. And I’ve learnt that the hardest part of the antidote is to utter the words that FOMO has rendered most difficult to say: “I don’t know”.

A few days ago, I was chatting with The Soufflé when he invited me to participate in a discussion about The German Ideology that he was preparing for. You need to know that The Soufflé is a versatile being, a physicist as well as a pluripotent scholar, but more importantly The Soufflé knows what most pluripotent scholars don’t: that no matter how much one is naturally gifted to learn this or that, knowing something needs not just work but also proof of work. I refused The Soufflé’s invitation, of course; my words were almost reflexive, eager to set some distance between myself and the temptation to dabble in something just because it was there to dabble. The Soufflé replied,

I think it was in a story by Borges, one of the characters says “Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he will be.” 🙂

To which I said,

That was when the world was simpler. Now there’s a perverse expectation that everyone should have opinions on everything. I don’t like it, and sometimes I actively stay away from some things just to be able to say I don’t want to have an opinion on it. Historical materialism may or may not be one of those things, just saying.

Please bear with me, this is leading up to something I’d like to include here. The Soufflé then said,

I’m just in it for the sick burns. 😛 But OK, I get it. Why do you think that expectation exists, though? I mean, I see it too. Just curious.

Here I set out my FOMO hypothesis. Then he said,

I guess this is really a topic for a cultural critic, I’m just thinking out loud… but perhaps it is because ignorance no longer finds its antipode in understanding, but awareness? To be aware is to be engaged, to be ‘caught up’ is to be active. This kind of activity is low-investment, and its performance aided by social media?

If you walked up to people today and asked “What do you think about factory-farmed poultry?” I’m pretty sure they’d find it hard to not mention that it’s cruel and wrong, even if they know squat about it. So they’re aware, they have possibly a progressive view on the issue as well, but there’s no substance underneath it.

Bingo.

We’ve become surrounded by socio-cultural forces that require us to know, know, know, often sans purpose or context. But ignorance today is not such a terrible thing. There are so many people who set out to know, know, know so many of the wrong ideas and lessons that conspiracy theories that once languished on the fringes of society have moved to the centre, and for hundreds of millions of people around the world stupid ideas have become part of political ideology.

Then there are others who know but don’t understand – which is a vital difference, of the sort that The Soufflé pointed out, that noted scientist-philosophers have sensibly caricatured as the difference between the thing and the name of the thing. Knowing what the four laws of thermodynamics or the 100+ cognitive biases are called doesn’t mean you understand them – but it’s an extrapolation that social-media messaging’s mandated brevity often pushes us to make. Heck, I know of quite a few people who are entirely blind to this act of extrapolation, conflating the label with the thing itself and confidently penning articles for public consumption that betrays a deep ignorance (perhaps as a consequence of the Dunning-Kruger effect) of the subject matter – strong signals that they don’t know it in their bones but are simply bouncing off of it like light off the innards of a fractured crystal.

I even suspect the importance and value of good reporting is lost on too many people because those people don’t understand what it takes to really know something (pardon the polemic). These are the corners the push to know more, all the time, often even coupled to capitalist drives to produce and consume, has backed us to. And to break free, we really need to embrace that old virtue that has been painted a vice: ignorance. Not the ignorance of conflation nor the ignorance of the lazy but the cultivated ignorance of those who recognise where knowledge ends and faff begins. Ignorance that’s the anti-thing of faff.

Social media and science communication

The following article was originally intended for an Indian publication but I withdrew from the commission because I couldn’t rework the piece according to changes they required, mostly for lack of focus. I thank Karnika Kohli and Shruti Muralidhar for their inputs.

Since the mid-20th century, the news-publishing industry has wielded the most influence on people’s perception of what science is, what its responsibilities and goals are, and what scientists do. The internet changed this by disrupting how news-publishers made money.

In 2012, The Hindu used to sell a copy of its newspaper in Chennai for Rs 4.50 (or so) while it used to cost the publisher Rs 24 to print each copy. The publisher would make up the deficit by soliciting and printing ads from advertisers in different parts of the newspaper. The first major change in this regard was Google and the new centrality of its search engine to exploring the internet. Sites were keen to have their pages ‘rank’ better on search results and began to modify their content according to what Google wanted, giving rise to the industry of search-engine optimisation.

Second, Google AdSense allowed websites to run ads as well as advertisers to target specific users in line with which websites they visited and their content consumption patterns. Third, once Google News started becoming a major news aggregator, news sites re-tailored their content according to its specific needs, including reinterpreting the news in terms of the preferences of Google News and its users.

Fourth, bandwidth became cheaper around the world but especially in India, reducing the cost of accessing the internet and bringing more people online. In response, social media platforms — especially Facebook — began to set up walled gardens to keep these users from leaving the platform and consuming the news elsewhere. And when traffic to sites plummeted, their ads-based revenue came crashing down.

The effect of these ‘gardens’ has become so pronounced that recently, a paper in the journal Experimental Economics found that college students who went off Facebook consumed less news. This conclusion suffixes the belief that most people, especially in the 18-24 age group, consume the news on social media platforms with the notion that they don’t consume news anywhere else.

In another instance, Google at long last become a walled garden proper in August 2019: the fraction of its users who consumed the news on the site itself instead of following a link through to the publisher’s site had breached the 50% mark.

Finally, because the social media made it so easy to share information, citizen-journalism became more appealing, even lucrative. At the same time, social media platforms, which constantly evolve to accommodate their users’ aspirations, began to chip away at the need for public-spirited journalism. As a result, the amount of ‘bad information’ in the public domain exploded even as people become more unwilling to acknowledge that this was all the more reason society needed good journalists.

Obviously all of this is bound to have profound implications for how social media users perceive science. But while this isn’t easy to gauge without a dedicated, long-term study, it is possible to extrapolate based on what we know from anecdotal experiences. Through this exercise, let’s also move beyond the logistics of using the social media well and spotlight the virtues of getting on these platforms that so many people love to hate.

Broadly, social media allows users to organise information in a fixed number of ways but doesn’t give users control over how they are displayed. This limitation is good because the platform sidesteps the paradox of choice and forces users to focus only on what they are saying. But it is also bad because the limitation eliminates diversity of presentation, sometimes forcing users to shoehorn an idea into a note or image when a longer article or an interactive graphic would work better.

Second, social media platforms incentivise some user behaviours over others, which then constrains how users can present scientific results.

These two arcs are united by the fact that these platforms have socialised the consumption of news (and the production as well to some extent). That is, users discover a lot of news these days in social settings, such as in conversation with other users or in the timelines of accounts they follow. Such discovery happens after the news has been filtered through the lenses of others’ interests, encouraging users to follow users whose tastes they like and views they endorse, and stay away from others. This tendency is psychologically rewarding because it contributes to building the echo chamber, which is then economically rewarding for the platform’s owners.

All together, the social media — comprising platforms whose motive is profit and not social and psychological wellbeing — are populist by design. They privilege popularity over accuracy and logical value. In this regard, it would be hubristic to assume that the public perception of science has been separately or distinctly affected by general social-media use patterns.

Then again, these patterns have also helped mature the old idea that public debates aren’t won or lost on the back of strong scientific evidence or clever logical arguments. More generally, science communication in India is becoming more popular at the same time Indians are becoming more aware of the socio-political consequences of our digital lives and worlds. This simultaneity has the potential to birthe a generation of more conscientious and social-media-savvy science communicators that can devise clever ways to work around apparent barriers.

For example, scientists can adapt an app that has been designed to communicate speed, say by allowing users to rapidly compose and share text, pictures or videos, to meaningfully convey changes in that speed. They could highlight how different parts of a long experiment can proceed at different paces: sluggishly when growing a bacterial culture overnight and rapidly when some chemical reactions with it produce results in seconds.

Communicators can also ‘hack’ social-media echo chambers by setting up small, homogenous online communities. According to one 2018 study, such groups can “maximise the amount of information available to an individual” according to their preferences. The study argues that such “homophilic segregation can be efficient and even Pareto-optimal for society”.

Finally, the limits on how users can organise and present information has in fact incentivised those who had stayed away from communicating science for lack of time and/or resources to sign up. Maintaining a blog or writing articles for newspapers can be laborious. Additionally, writing for the press — the historically most common way to communicate scientific knowledge outside of journals — also means using at least a few hundred words to set readers up before the author can introduce her idea.

But if you discover that a paper has made a mistake or that you want to explain how something works, you post a few threaded tweets on Twitter in a matter of minutes and you are done. A Facebook note wouldn’t take much longer. Instagram even gives you the added benefit of using a large visual prompt to grab users’ attention. WhatsApp introduced the power to do all of this from your smartphone.

One remarkable subset of this group is traditionally underprivileged science workers (to use a broader term that encompasses scientists, postdoctoral scholars and lab assistants). While journalists are typically expected to be objective in their assessment, they — like almost everyone else — have been fattened on a diet of upper-caste men as scientists. So in the course of shortening the distance between a communicator and her audience, social media platforms empower less privileged groups otherwise trapped in a vicious media cycle, which renders them more obscure, to become visible.

Of course, some platforms exact a steep psychological price from users of currently or formerly marginalised groups (including women, transgender people, transsexual people, and pretty much everyone that doesn’t conform to heteronormativity) by forcing them to put up with trolls. So their continued presence on these platforms depends on the support of their institutions, other scientists and science communicators. And should they persist, the rewards range from opportunities to change users’ impression of who/what a scientist is to presenting themselves as a more socially just set of role models to aspiring scientists.

Obviously populism has downsides that are inimical to how science works and how it needs to be communicated, such as by falsely conflating brevity with conciseness and objectivity with neutrality. But it is always better to have a bunch of people using the social media to communicate science while being aware of its (arguably marginal) pitfalls than to have them avoid communicating altogether. This also seems to be the prevailing spirit among those scientists who recognise the importance of reaching the people, so to speak.

Science communication is becoming increasingly popular as an interdisciplinary field of its own right, wherein scientists and sociologists team up to determine the general principles of good communication by examining why some stories work so well among certain audiences, how psychological and linguistic techniques could play a part in establishing authority, etc.

These efforts parallel many scientists taking to Facebook and Twitter, posting updates regularly including comments on the news of the day (at least from their points of view) and offering non-scientists a glimpse of what it is like to be a working scientist in India. Easier access to their views also allows science journalists to contact scientists to understand which developments are worth covering and to solicit comments on the merits of a study or an idea.

In effect, Snehal Kadam and Karishma Kaushik wrote in IndiaBioscience, “social media discussions and opinions are playing a key role in Indian science. This is evident on multiple fronts, from increasing accessibility to administrators and enforcing policy changes to determining the way the Indian science community wants to be represented and viewed, and even breaking down silos between scientists and citizens.”

There are many resources to help scientists understand the social media and use these platforms to their advantage — whether to popularise science, find other scientists to collaborate with or debate science-related issues. I don’t want to repeat their salient suggestions (but @IndScicomm is a good place to start), plus I am not a scientist and I will let scientists decide what works for them.

That said, it is useful to remember that the social media are here to stay. As Efraín Rivera-Serrano, a cell-biology and virology researcher, wrote on PLOS, “These platforms are shaping the future of science and it is imperative for us to exploit these avenues as outreach tools to introduce, showcase, and defend science to the world.”

Credit: Free-Photos/pixabay

The technically correct strapline

(Re)Stumbled upon this article, by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, July 2016, this morning. As usual, it is rivetingly packaged. The strapline in particular caught my eye:

Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.

Makes you go “Wow”, doesn’t it? But then you read the article and realise the strap is not entirely right. Lichens are still symbiotic unions of fungi and algae; the new finding is that there are two types of fungi involved, not one. You realise it’s the sort of blurb that only a pedantic biologist might be able to defend, or the sort of blurb most readers could be expected to gloss over because the article’s author is Ed Yong.

I would never have used this strapline to describe the story. Instead, here’s the one we did use for Nandita Jayaraj’s story on the same topic:

Lichens are the most famous and successful examples of symbiosis on Earth, but an unexpected discovery of a third player in this composite organism has given their study a much needed jolt.

As R. Prasad, the science editor of The Hindu, says,

… the strapline (or deck) together with the headline makes the sales pitch to the reader for her time. The headline is often the sole bit of metadata that will be most visible on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and is the one that’ll be most commonly shared (my guess). This way, the headline makes the all-important elevator pitch to bring the reader off of her platform and onto our site. Once she’s here, the strapline makes a more extended pitch to get her to start reading the body.

For curiosity gap headlines, the strapline often heightens the curiosity instead of fulfilling it. This is also true in the Ed Yong article: the headline makes you wonder what bit of biology was overturned; the strapline takes over from there, focuses your imagination into the niche, and still keeps you wondering (not necessarily about the same thing). The question here to me is whether it’s okay to be only technically right in the strapline because it’s still part of the inverted pyramid, where you can get away with making generalisations at the top as you funnel the reader’s curiosity into more specific niches below.

As a prolific consumer of science writing both fab and crap, The Atlantic‘s strap is not good enough for me; it’s a letdown. While Yong does a typically good job of dramatising the reveal, it pales in comparison to what the strap seemed to suggest. Such a description would be par for the course on, say, the Times of India, but I would expect much better from The Atlantic. It often feels like the smaller publishers are held to higher standards than the bigger ones, and in this sense The Atlantic certainly towers over The Wire.

Featured image credit: Free-Photos/pixabay.

How science is presented and consumed on Facebook

This post is a breakdown of the Pew study titled The Science People See on Social Media, published March 21, 2018. Without further ado…

In an effort to better understand the science information that social media users encounter on these platforms, Pew Research Center systematically analyzed six months’ worth of posts from 30 of the most followed science-related pages on Facebook. These science-related pages included 15 popular Facebook accounts from established “multiplatform” organizations … along with 15 popular “Facebook-primary” accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet.

Is popularity the best way to judge if a Facebook page counts as a page about science? Popularity is an easy measure but it often almost exclusively represents a section of the ‘market’ skewed towards popular science. Some such pages from the Pew dataset include facebook.com/healthdigest, /mindbodygreen, /DailyHealthTips, /DavidAvocadoWolfe and /droz – all “wellness” brands that may not represent the publication of scientific content as much as, more broadly, content that panders to a sense of societal insecurity that is not restricted to science. This doesn’t limit the Pew study insofar as the study aims to elucidate what passes off as ‘science’ on Facebook but it does limit Pew’s audience-specific insights.

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… just 29% of the [6,528] Facebook posts from these pages [published in the first half of 2017] had a focus or “frame” around information about new scientific discoveries.

Not sure why the authors, Paul Hitlin and Kenneth Olmstead, think this is “just” 29% – that’s quite high! Science is not just about new research and research results, and if these pages are consciously acknowledging that on average limiting their posts about such news to three of every 10 posts, that’s fantastic. (Of course, if the reason for not sharing research results is that they’re not very marketable, that’s too bad.)

I’m also curious about what counts as research on the “wellness” pages. If their posts share research to a) dismiss it because it doesn’t fit the page authors’ worldview or b) popularise studies that are, say, pursuing a causative link between coffee consumption and cancer, then such data is useless.

From 'The science people see on social media'. Credit: Pew Research Center
From ‘The science people see on social media’. Credit: Pew Research Center

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The volume of posts from these science-related pages has increased over the past few years, especially among multiplatform pages. On average, the 15 popular multiplatform Facebook pages have increased their production of posts by 115% since 2014, compared with a 66% increase among Facebook-primary pages over the same time period. (emphasis in the original)

The first line in italics is a self-fulfilling prophecy, not a discovery. This is because the “multiplatform organisations” chosen by Pew for analysis all need to make money, and all organisations that need to continue making money need to grow. Growth is not an option, it’s a necessity, and it often implies growth on all platforms of publication in quantity and (hopefully) quality. In fact, the “Facebook-primary” pages, by which Hitlin and Olmstead mean “accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet”, are also driven to grow for the same reason: commerce, both on Facebook and off. As the authors write,

Across the set of 30 pages, 16% of posts were promotional in nature. Several accounts aimed a majority of their posts at promoting other media and public appearances. The four prominent scientists among the Facebook-primary pages posted fewer than 200 times over the course of 2017, but when they did, a majority of their posts were promotions (79% of posts from Dr. Michio Kaku, 78% of posts from Neil deGrasse Tyson, 64% of posts from Bill Nye and 58% of posts from Stephen Hawking). Most of these were self-promotional posts related to television appearances, book signings or speeches.

A page with a few million followers is likelier than not to be a revenue-generating exercise. While this is by no means an indictment of the material shared by these pages, at least not automatically, IFL Science is my favourite example: its owner Elise Andrews was offered $30 million for the page in 2015. I suspect that might’ve been a really strong draw to continue growing, and unfortunately, many of the “Facebook-primary” pages like IFLS find this quite easy to do by sharing well-dressed click-bait.

Second, if Facebook is the primary content distribution channel, then the number of video posts will also have shown an increase in the Pew data – as it did – because publishers both small and large that’ve made this deal with the devil have to give the devil whatever it wants. If Facebook says videos are the future and that it’s going to tweak its newsfeed algorithms accordingly, publishers are going to follow suit.

Source: Pew Research Center
Source: Pew Research Center

So when Hitlin and Olmstead say, “Video was a common feature of these highly engaging posts whether they were aimed at explaining a scientific concept, highlighting new discoveries, or showcasing ways people can put science information to use in their lives”, they’re glossing over an important confounding factor: the platform itself. There’s a chance Facebook is soon going to say VR is the next big thing, and then there’s going to be a burst of posts with VR-mediated content. But that doesn’t mean the publishing houses themselves believe VR is good or bad for sharing science news.

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The average number of user interactions per post – a common indicator of audience engagement based on the total number of shares, comments, and likes or other reactions – tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts. From January 2014 to June 2017, Facebook-primary pages averaged 14,730 interactions per post, compared with 4,265 for posts on multiplatform pages. This relationship held up even when controlling for the frame of the post. (emphasis in the original)

Again, Hitlin and Olmstead refuse to distinguish between ‘legitimate’ posts and trash. This would involve a lot more work on their part, sure, but it would also make their insights into science consumption on the social media that much more useful. But until then, for all I know, “the average number of user interactions per post … tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts” simply because it’s Gwyneth Paltrow wondering about what stones to shove up which orifices.

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… posts on Facebook-primary pages related to federal funding for agencies with a significant scientific research mission were particularly engaging, averaging more than 122,000 interactions per post in the first half of 2017.

Now that’s interesting and useful. Possible explanation: Trump must’ve been going nuts about something science-related. [Later in the report] Here it is: “Many of these highly engaging posts linked to stories suggesting Trump was considering a decrease in science-agency funding. For example, a Jan. 25, 2017, IFLScience post called Trump’s Freeze On EPA Grants Leaves Scientists Wondering What It Means was shared more than 22,000 times on Facebook and had 62,000 likes and other reactions.”

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Highly engaging posts among these pages did not always feature science-related information. Four of the top 15 most-engaging posts from Facebook-primary pages featured inspirational sayings or advice such as “look after your friends” or “believe in yourself.”

Does mental-health-related messaging on the back of new findings or realisations about the need for, say, speaking out on depression and anxiety count as science communication? It does to me; by all means, it’s “news I can use”.

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Three of the Facebook-primary pages belong to prominent astrophysicists. Not surprisingly, about half or more of the posts on these pages were related to astronomy or physics: Dr. Michio Kaku (58%), Stephen Hawking (58%) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (48%).

Ha! It would be interesting to find out why science’s most prominent public authority figures in the last few decades have all been physicists of some kind. I already have some ideas but that’ll be a different post.

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Useful takeaways for me as science editor, The Wire:

  1. Pages that stick to a narrower range of topics do better than those that cover all areas of science
  2. Controversial topics such as GMOs “didn’t appear often” on the 30 pages surveyed – this is surprising because you’d think divisive issues would attract more audience engagement. However, I also imagine the pages’ owners might not want to post on those issues to avoid flame wars (😐), stay away from inconclusive evidence (😄), not have to take a stand that might hurt them (🤔) or because issue-specific nuances make an issue a hard-sell (🙄).
  3. Most posts that shared discoveries were focused on “energy and environment, geology, and archeology”; half of all posts about physics and astronomy were about discoveries

Featured image credit: geralt/pixabay.

Hey, is anybody watching Facebook?

The Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 kicked off a flurry of social media activity that was equal parts well-meaning and counterproductive. Users on Facebook and Twitter shared reports, updates and photos of victims, spending little time on verifying them before sharing them with thousands of people.

Others on forums like Reddit and 4chan started to zero in on ‘suspects’ in photos of people seen with backpacks. Despite the amount of distress and disruption these activities, the social media broadly also served to channel grief and help, and became a notable part of the Boston Marathon bombings story.

In our daily lives, these platforms serve as news forums. With each person connected to hundreds of others, there is a strong magnification of information, especially once it crosses a threshold. They make it easier for everybody to be news-mongers (not journalists). Add this to the idea that using a social network can just as easily be a social performance, and you realize how the sharing of news can also be part of the performance.

Consider Facebook: Unlike Twitter, it enables users to share information in a variety of forms – status updates, questions, polls, videos, galleries, pages, groups, etc – allowing whatever news to retain its multifaceted attitude, and imposing no character limit on what you have to say about it.

Facebook v. Twitter

So you’d think people who want the best updates on breaking news would go to Facebook, and that’s where you might be wrong. ‘Might’ because, on the one hand, Twitter has a lower response time, keeps news very accessible, encourages a more non-personal social media performance, and has a high global reach. These reasons have also made Twitter a favorite among researchers who want to study how information behaves on a social network.

On the other hand, almost 30% of the American general population gets its news from Facebook, with Twitter and YouTube at par with a command of 10%, if a Pew Research Center technical report is to be believed. Other surveys have also shown that there are more people from India who are on Facebook than on Twitter. At this point, it’d just seem inconsiderate when you realize Facebook does have 1.28 billion monthly active users from around the world.

A screenshot of Facebook Graph Search.
A screenshot of Facebook Graph Search.

Since 2013, Facebook has made it easier for users to find news in its pages. In June that year, it introduced the #hashtagging facility to let users track news updates across various conversations. In September, it debuted Graph Search, making it easier for people to locate topics they wanted to know more about. Even though the platform’s allowance for privacy settings stunts the kind of free propagation of information that’s possible on Twitter (and only 28% of Facebook users made any of their content publicly available), Facebook’s volume of updates enables its fraction of public updates rise to levels comparable with those of Twitter.

Ponnurangam Kumaraguru and Prateek Dewan, from the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, New Delhi (IIIT-D), leveraged this to investigate how Facebook and Twitter compared when sharing information on real-world events. Kumaraguru explained his motivation: “Facebook is so famous, especially in India. It’s much bigger in terms of the number of users. Also, having seen so many studies on Twitter, we were curious to know if the same outcomes as from work done on Twitter would hold for Facebook.”

The duo used the social networks’ respective APIs to query for keywords related to 16 events that occurred during 2013. They explain, “Eight out of the 16 events we selected had more than 100,000 posts on both Facebook and Twitter; six of these eight events saw over 1 million tweets.” Their pre-print paper was submitted to arXiv on May 19.

An upper hand

In all, they found that an unprecedented event appeared on Facebook just after 11 minutes while on Twitter, according to a 2014 study from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), it took over ten times as longer. Specifically, after the Boston Marathon bombings, “the first [relevant] Facebook post occurred just 1 minute 13 seconds after the first blast, which was 2 minutes 44 seconds before the first tweet”.

However, this order-of-magnitude difference could be restricted to Kumaraguru’s choice of events because the AAAI study claims breaking news was broken fastest during 29 major events on Twitter, although it considered only updates on trending topics (and the first update on Twitter, according to them, appeared after two hours).

The data-mining technique could also have played a role in offsetting the time taken for an event to be detected because it requires the keywords being searched to be manually keyed. Finally, the Facebook API is known to be more rigorous than Twitter’s, whose ability to return older tweets is restricted. On the downside, the output from the Facebook API is restricted by users’ privacy settings.

Nevertheless, Kumaraguru’s conclusions paint a picture of Facebook being just as resourceful as Twitter when tracking real-world events – especially in India – leaving news discoverability to take the blame. Three of the 16 chosen events were completely local to India, and they were all accompanied by more activity on Facebook than on Twitter.

table1

Even after the duo corrected for URLs shared on both social networks simultaneously (through clients like Buffer and HootSuite) – 0.6% of the total – Facebook had the upper hand not just in primacy but also origin. According to Kumaraguru and Dewan, “2.5% of all URLs shared on Twitter belonged to the facebook.com domain, but only 0.8% of all URLs shared on Facebook belonged to the twitter.com domain.”

Facebook also seemed qualitatively better because spam was present in only five events. On Twitter, spam was found to be present in 13. This disparity can be factored in by programs built to filter spam from social media timelines in real-time, the sort of service that journalists will find very useful.

Kumaraguru and Dewan resorted to picking out spam based on differences in sentence styles. This way, they were able to avoid missing spam that was stylistically conventional but irrelevant in terms of content, too. A machine wouldn’t have been able to do this just as well and in real-time unless it was taught – in much the same way you teach your Google Mail inbox to automatically sort email.

Digital information forensics

A screenshot of TweetCred at work. Image: Screenshot of TweetCred Chrome Extension
A screenshot of TweetCred at work. Image: Screenshot of TweetCred Chrome Extension

Patrick Meier, a self-proclaimed – but reasonably so – pioneer in the emerging field of humanitarian technologies, wrote a blog post on April 28 describing a browser extension called TweetCred which is just this sort of learning machine. Install it and open Twitter in your browser. Above each tweet, you will now see a credibility rating bar that grades each tweet out of 7 points, with 7 describing the most credibility.

If you agree with each rating, you can bolster with a thumbs-up that appears on hover. If you disagree, you can give the shown TweetCred rating a thumbs down and mark what you think is correct. Meier makes it clear that, in its first avatar, the app is geared toward rating disaster/crisis tweets. A paper describing the app was submitted to arXiv on May 21, co-authored by Kumaraguru, Meier, Aditi Gupta (IIIT-D) and Carlos Castillo (Qatar Computing Research Institute).

Between the two papers, a common theme is the origin and development of situational awareness. We stick to Twitter for our breaking news because it’s conceptually similar to Facebook, fast and importantly cuts to the chase, so to speak. Parallely, we’re also aware that Facebook is similarly equipped to reconstruct details because of its multimedia options and timeline. Even if Facebook and Twitter the organizations believe that they are designed to accomplish different things, the distinction blurs in the event of a real-world crisis.

“Both these networks spread situational awareness, and both do it fairly quickly, as we found in our analysis,” Kumaraguru said. “We’d like to like to explore the credibility of content on Facebook next.” But as far as establishing a mechanism to study the impact of Facebook and Twitter on the flow of information is concerned, the authors have exposed a facet of Facebook that Facebook, Inc., could help leverage.

Go slow on the social media

In a matter of months, India will overtake the US as Facebook’s largest user-base. According to various sources, the social media site is currently adding about 40 million users from the country per year while the US adds some 5 million at the same rate. Such growth is not likely to leave Facebook much enthused as the Indian horde is worth only about $400 million in ads, but for the impending Lok Sabha polls, the Californian giant spells many possibilities of varying efficacy for propaganda.

Almost all our political parties, including the Congress, BJP and AAP, are active on Facebook and Twitter. Among them, the BJP and AAP are the most active, if only because their anti-incumbent and evangelical content, respectively, is highly viral, reaching millions within minutes and, unlike with TV, with a shelf life of forever. Although 5.5-11.2% of all Facebook accounts, and 32-64% of Twitter profiles of the followers of Indian political leaders (according to a rudimentary analysis by The Hindu), are fake, that still leaves space for tens of millions of users to be swayed by opinions disseminated on the web.

However, this is also why whether the social media will inspire direct mobilization is hard to say. Even though most of India’s 18-24 year-olds could be on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we know little about how articulation online translates to action offline quantitatively. This is why surveys showing how certain constituencies harbor more Facebook users than the margins of victory in previous Assembly elections are only engaging in empirical speculation. The 2014 Lok Sabha polls could be our first opportunity to understand this influential mechanism.

(These inputs were provided for a piece that appeared in The Hindu on March 17, 2014.)

Notes: News aggregation

Access to multiple sources of news over the internet increases aspirations corresponding to news consumption: readers don’t have to restrict themselves anymore to news that we or they think will be useful to them.

Consequently, news aggregators become more than that: they are now personalized news repositories from which news is consumed. With implementation of tags-based searching and use of metadata in posts, aggregators can be made to fetch information that they can algorithmically evaluate as being useful to us.

Last, aggregators are mostly automated, shrinking delivery time and removing it out of the equation.

Google News

RSS readers are largely meant to “keep up with” news as and when it happens. However, given the volume of information, which RSS readers were designed to handle in the first place, the lifetime of a news story is reduced to a few hours or even just a day. In other words, if articles in the aggregator are not consumed quickly, they will be replaced by more current ones.

Human-powered news aggregation has its most significant advantages with respect to the accumulation of digital property. Where a news aggregator would spit out numerically evaluated news, human curating serves to:

  1. Cut down a lot of the riff-raff that inevitably arises out of mass-aggregation and make news-reading easier, therefore more pleasurable, especially when readers are being exposed to a broad range of writers and other readers
  2. Maintain the value of “social currency” – especially when social media is shaping up to be the single-largest interface through which news is consumed, resulting in a large influx of data – in such an environment, being more accurate makes as much sense as clocking in first

There are some guidelines to keep in mind when working with aggregated news. The most important is that one must ensure citation leads to content, and the source of that content, without ambiguity.

The advent of social media has given rise to a “post-reporter” interface between the producer and the consumer, with “post-reporter” signifying a marked proclivity toward crowd-sourcing by producers. Instead of taking news to the people en masse, a social media interface works as an aggregator with in-built sharing (multi-dimension engagement) and cross-promotional (e.g., incorporate a button to Amazon when books are reviewed online; get a cut of the sale) capacities.

On a macroscopic level, social media renders news as a commodity: it can be engaged with in ways more than simply reading (liking, sharing, recommending, agreeing, dismissing, etc.), and this gives rise to the commoditization of information. Where a story was compressed into letters, the same story can now be conveyed without any such information-degeneracy.

For example, opinion pieces earlier marked a relationship between newspapers and their readers; now, they are springboards for public debate simply because social media platforms have enabled discussion around them. As mentioned, social media not only make crowd-sourcing easier but also more relevant.

Where a producer worked essentially as an employer/manager of reporters who in turn engaged with the news, we now have the option of producers moving ahead of reporters, getting news from the people, and working harder at the dissemination of localized stories. However, this results in a tendency to democratize news (giving people what they want), which could lead to populism.