Wills, David and Stuart Reeves (2009). “Facebook as a Political Weapon: Information in Social Networks.” British Politics 4 (2): 265-281. DOI: 10.1057/bp.2009.3
(Also Available at Purdue)
Purpose of the Research
In today’s political environment in the US and UK, it seems as if every candidate has some semblance of a social media presence. This article primarily focuses on the UK and their politics with respect to data gathering and surveillance in Information Technology. With the rise of web 2.0 and government interest in endeavors using IT, it would be important to evaluate the political relevance and relative “strength” of an SNS as a tool.
The study is done as a case study of Facebook. It is evaluated on the basis of how it is implemented. Facebook was also selected due to the ease of data-mining. Users do not use pseudonyms, and the site uses specifics about political preferences about users that can be publicized. Social Network Analysis was also employed to look at the networks of the users. The data analysis is informed by the literature surrouding surveillance studies and human-computer interaction (HCI).
The paper finds that the information that can be gathered from Facebook and other SNS is likely valuable and relevant. Government IT projects, campaigns, and other political functions that are seeping into SNS may want to evaluate privacy and learn the SNS that they are looking to use, before implementing anything.
The study also identifies explicit and implicit information and how they can be extracted. Explicit information is information that users volunteer and publish on their profiles. Because SNS participation is not mandatory, it is important to note that not all users post information about their political views. Sometimes these views may not even be correct. Reasons for disclosure vary from user to user and sometimes SNS to SNS.
Implicit data can also be gleaned from SNS. The friends that users have can maybe give insight to the political views of certain users who do not disclose information. These analyses can be inaccurate due to the use of heuristics and inductive reasoning.
I think that Wills and Reeves have identified a lot of important points about SNS in politics. I think that they are absolutely right about the fact that there are two types of information that can be gleaned from Facebook and other SNS. I think a lot of what Wills and Reeves find is very important about the implementation of Government 2.0 and other SNS uses within politics.
I do think that Wills and Reeves are correct in maybe looking at the thought of implicit data mining from SNS. It has been found that spousal (Nickerson 2008) as well as social networks of friends (Parker, Parker, and McCann 2008) can be highly influential when it comes to political opinion. Although using Social Network Analysis to find this information is a heuristic (according to Wills and Reeves), it’s likely valuable regardless.
There was one aspect of the article I think that Wills and Reeves did not explore very well, and that is groups on Facebook. When voting (in the US), individuals with higher levels of group and community affiliation are also more likely to vote (Mutz 2006; Putnam 2000). Perhaps the evaluations of Facebook in academic research should also use Facebook Groups to analyze affiliations. This data is mostly available to data-mining and may also be helpful, especially if researchers are regarding SNS as a form of online community.
Additional Sources Cited
Nickerson, David W. 2008. “Is Voting Contagious? Evidence from Two Field Experiments.” American Political Science Review 102 (1): 49-57.
Mutz, Diane C. 2006. Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Parker, Suzanne L., Glenn R. Parker, and James A. McCann. 2008. “Opinion Taking Within Friendship Networks.” American Journal of Political Science 52 (2): 412-420.
Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Revival and Collapse of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.