Scientists studying the social media activity in the immediate aftermath of Lee Rigby’s murder have found that messages loaded with racial tension and hate were far less likely to spread than those infused with love.
By collecting half a million tweets related to the attack via Twitter, academics from the University’s Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory ( COSMOS ) were able to statistically model how the public reacted and have published their findings in the international peer-reviewed journal Social Network Analysis and Mining. The authors were particularly interested in identifying the tweets that were most likely to spread following the event.
"The results were surprising, and did not support the common conception that social media platforms are havens for those spreading hateful and social disruptive online content," said Dr Matthew Williams, from the School of Social Sciences.
"To the contrary, we found that tweets that included high levels of racial tension, such as those spreading hateful content towards those of Muslim faith, were statistically less likely to be retweeted than messages containing positive sentiment, such as tweets of good-wishes to the family of Lee Rigby," he added.
Messages of love, the academics found, were statistically more likely to be frequently retweeted and form large and long lasting information flows. This was based on a methodology that focused on the emotive content of messages such as negative and positive sentiment, and racial tension, as well as content linking features within messages, such as hashtags and URLs.
Dr Pete Burnap from the School of Computer Science and Informatics said:
"Social media has often been associated with the spread of malicious and antagonistic content that could pose a potential risk to community relations. We frequently hear about trolling and social media being used to harass members of the public or certain groups in society. However, this research provides some evidence that suggests it is actually the more positive and supportive messages that spread to a significant extent following events of this nature."
The findings are the first to indicate that social media platforms, in particular Twitter, may self-regulate, stemming the flow of negative and hateful information following terrorist and similar events of national interest. The next phase of the research for the COSMOS team is to investigate if and how social media users engage in counter speech, to stem the spread of negativity online.
Dr Williams continued: "Social scientists at Cardiff University have been conducting research into how people behave online for over three decades. Some of this work on virtual communities has shown how self-regulation, or what criminologists have called responsibilization, is evident online. It seems plausible that this pattern of behaviour is present in social media networks."
Research Fellow, Dr Claire Wardle from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, said: "It’s tempting for judgments to be made about online conversations, which are based on little more than personal perception, hunches or well-publicised incidents of abuse. This research, based on a rigorous methodology, provides real insight into the conversations and content shared daily on social networks.
"I look forward to the same methodology being applied to other events so we can understand whether these results were a one-off caused by such a shocking incident, or in fact represent a pattern of behaviour around comments on social networks. It would be wonderful to know that, while hate speech and abuse does remain a problem, that actually the vast majority of people use social networks to support one another and their communities."
The terrorist attack on Lee Rigby was the first in the UK to foster a significant social media reaction. In less than 20 minutes of the incident being reported to the police, eye-witnesses were using Twitter to spread information about the event as it unfolded. Disturbing images and video clips emerged online shortly after. These snippets of information were rapidly diffused through the social media eco-system by the act of ’retweeting’. The COSMOS team also examined whether the speed at which tweets were re-tweeted affected the eventual number of retweets, and if Twitter users with more followers gained more influence in the spread of messages.
Researchers now plan to apply the same statistical model to several more events, including the Boston bombings, the coming out of Olympian Tom Daley on YouTube, the Paralympic opening ceremony, and the online harassment of Caroline Criado-Perez.
The research is being conducted as part of the COSMOS Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Google Data Analytics grant: ’Hate’ Speech and Social Media: Understanding Users, Networks and Information Flows’. Collaborators include academics from the Universities of Warwick and St Andrews.