From Karlsen et al. (2017)

Another paper which challenges some conventional views of online ‘echo chambers’, i.e. the idea that on the internet and on social media, people largely live in a bubble of like-minded people, leading to a mutual reinforcing of views. Based on survey data from Norway, the authors note that most people encounter people with opposing views at least ‘sometimes’, although

.. this does not mean that they change their opinions. Debaters who say they are often contradicted also claim to emerge from online debates stronger in their beliefs.

While their experimental data tells us that

Both confirming and contradicting arguments affect attitude reinforcement in similar ways. This is true for both the self-reported reinforcement and attitude change reinforcement measures that we used in the study. One-sided confirming and contradicting arguments had stronger effects on reinforcement than two-sided neutral arguments. It is important to note that attitude strength is important in this picture. Effects are stronger for individuals with strong attitudes than individuals with moderate attitudes. However, this interaction effect is most consistent in the analysis based on self-reported reinforcement.

A practical tentative takeaway might be that to influence opinions, use extreme rhetoric if you’re dealing with moderates, and balanced two-side arguments if you’re dealing with die-hard fundies.

Instead of echo chambers, the authors suggest another metaphor:

Together, our results indicate that if a single metaphor is to be applied to online debating, trench warfare is a more fitting description than echo chambers. People are frequently met with opposing arguments, but the result is reinforcement of their original opinions and beliefs. However, the logic of confirmation bias, which is central to the echo chamber thesis, is also central in the notion of trench warfare. The Internet provides the opportunity to interact with like-minded people and those with opposite views at the same time. Interaction with like-minded people enables debaters to stay strong in their encounter with opposing arguments.

I’ve been toying for some time with the idea that in the current media environment, our main problem is not that people do not encounter opposing opinions and outgroup members; it is that they encounter them *too often* and in questionable contexts. I’m hoping to write more on that later, but the results here fit that idea quite nicely.

Karlsen, R., Steen-Johnsen, K., Wollebæk, D., & Enjolras, B. (2017). Echo chamber and trench warfare dynamics in online debates. European Journal of Communication.

From Schmidt (2012)

Topic modeling and, specifically, Latent Dirichlet allocation, is a fancy machine learning method used in computational social science and digital humanities to explore large sets of documents. I’ve used it a bit myself.

Benjamin Schmidt, in an article that’s already five years old, has some great points about the caveats of using LDA:

The idea that topics are meaningful rests, in large part, on assumptions of their coherence derived from checking the list of the most frequent words. But the top few words in a topic only give a small sense of the thousands of the words that constitute the whole probability distribution.

He demonstrates this with a clever example, using LDA to cluster ship voyages by treating ship logs as documents and locations derived from them as a vocabulary. It would be interesting if similar problems could somehow be demonstrated with more conventional corpora as well.

Schmidt also has a few things to say about using machine learning in the humanities as well:

Perhaps humanists who only apply one algorithm to their texts should be using LDA. — But “one” is a funny number to choose. Most humanists are better off applying zero computer programs, and most of the remainder should not be limiting themselves to a single method.


Although quantification of textual data offers benefits to scholars, there is a great deal to be said for the sort of quantification humanists do being simple.

I think LDA is a promising method and hope to be able to explore what it’s actually useful for in the near future. But I also think Schmidt makes a good point that we should aim to work with simple methods whenever possible. That one should only turn to more complicated methods (which, by extension, tend to produce less interpretable results and be more prone to overfitting) once the possibilities of simpler methods have been exhausted seems to me to be an idea that comes rather naturally to computer scientists, but perhaps less so to those from other disciplines.

The article also accidentally invents a clever new term. Along with supervised and unsupervised machine learning, we know have ‘poorly supervised’ machine learning as well. Better be careful with that.

Schmidt, B. M. (2012). “Words Alone: Dismantling Topic Models in the Humanities”. Journal of Digital Humanities, 2(1). Retrieved from


From Flache & Macy (2011)

The conventional wisdom says that polarization can be effectively countered by increasing contact between people with different views. Here’s a very interesting paper that challenges this. The authors simulated ‘cavemen graphs’, i.e. graphs with a number of tight but disconnected clusters, and show that adding new ties leads to reduced polarization when it is assumed that the valence of interaction is positive, i.e. actors can only be more or less attracted to those who are similar. However, when valence can be negative, meaning that actors are averse to those with differing views, adding random ties increases polarization.

The authors state:

This implication of ‘‘small-world’’ theory depends on the micro-level behavioral assumption that interaction is exclusively positive in valence. This result should caution modelers of cultural dynamics against overestimating the integrative effects of greater cultural contact.

I’m not familiar with the practice or philosophy of simulation models and am quite unsure how seriously I should take it (the model naturally is highly simplified). But I am willing to, tentatively, consider the view that trying to reduce polarization by inconsiderately increasing connections may be a bad idea. Anyways, I found this paper really fascinating.

Flache, A., & Macy, M. W. (2011). Small Worlds and Cultural Polarization. Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 35(1), 146–176.

From Dibble, Drouin, Aune & Boller (2015)

This time, something very much unrelated to my own research. A topic that has I’ve been quite interested in as of late is the effect of e.g. Facebook’s chat, and the algorithm that chooses which users to display at the top of the list, on people’s social and possibly romantic relationships. When discussing this theme, a friend of mine suggested a paper called Simmering on the Back Burner: Communication with and Disclosure of Relationship Alternatives.

The paper in question defines back burners as

people we are romantically and/or sexually interested in, who we’re not currently involved with, and with whom we keep in contact in the possibility that we might someday connect romantically and/or sexually. People can have back burners even if they’re already in a romantic relationship with someone else. Also, a former romantic and=or sexual partner can still count as a back burner so long as we still desire a romantic and/or sexual connection with them.

and goes on to note that most people have a number of them on their Facebook friend list whether currently engaged in a romantic relationship or not, most people do not tell about them to their partners (if they have any), most people identify their “closest” back burner as a casual or close friend, et cetera. I think my back burner count is probably lower than that of the average subject in this study, but I haven’t actually gone through my list, and then again, this study was naturally performed on American college students, a group whose social life is probably somewhat different from mine.

Interesting stuff. In hindsight, it is quite obvious that this phenomenon exists, but I very much like the name chosen by the researchers for it. I’m a bit sceptical of the results, though; according to the study, there’s a significant difference (statistically and substantially) in the number of “sexually desirable alternatives” identified by subjects depending on whether they are asked about back burners specifically or about contacts that they would like to be romantically or sexually involved with in general, and I’m not sure this should be the case. Also, as said, the study was done on U.S. college students, of whom most were of Asian origin (although this is probably more likely to mean that the study underestimates the phenomenon, if Asian Americans are more conservative than the average American).

Dibble, J. L., Drouin, M., Aune, K. S., & Boller, R. R. (2015). “Simmering on the Back Burner: Communication with and Disclosure of Relationship Alternatives”. Communication Quarterly, 63(3), 329–344.

From Clark (2016)

I argue that a hashtag’s narrative logic – its ability to produce and connect individual stories – fuels its political growth. — My case study of #WhyIStayed suggests that in the initial stage, hashtags that express outrage about breaches of gender justice are likely to invite online participation, while the escalation into online collective protest depends on the nature of interaction among multiple actors and their sociopolitical contexts.

A tweet can be about something as mundane as a user’s morning cup of coffee, but when combined with the networked power of hashtags, the political fervor of digital activists, and the discursive influence of collective storytelling, online personal expressions can grow into online collective action.

One of the areas I’m working on – hashtag activism, hashtag campaigns, hashtag advocacy, or whatever you want to call it, depending on your point of view – curiously seems to have been primarily advanced by the field of feminist media studies, with a journal with the same name having published three special issues on the subject in the past few years. This is one of the Feminist Media Studies papers, and it seems to argue that hashtagged displays of activism are particularly well-suited for online feminist discursive action, with the paper in question detailing how one particular hashtag was used to subvert mainstream narratives on domestic violence.

I think this is interesting stuff, even while I remain somewhat unconvinced of the practical relevance of it.

Clark, Rosemary (2016). “Hope in a hashtag”: the discursive activism of #WhyIStayed. Feminist Media Studies, 16(5), 787–804.

From Bruns & Stieglitz (2013)

There are three key areas of metrics which we suggest are of general use in the study of hashtag data-sets: metrics which describe the contributions made by specific users and groups of users; metrics which describe overall patterns of activity over time; and metrics that combine these aspects to examine the contributions by specific users and groups over time. Further, more specific metrics may also be established, but these soon become substantially more case-specific, and are no longer useful for a comparison of patterns across different cases. We discuss these areas in turn, and provide examples of how these metrics may be utilised for the study of individual hashtags as well as for comparative work across hashtags.

One of these days, I should just read through everything Axel Bruns and Stefan Stieglitz have published. This one, already a few years old, outlines some fairly simple but useful metrics for comparing hashtagged Twitter conversations and presents a few examples of such comparisons. Nothing mind-blowing, but it’s good that somebody’s put this stuff on paper.

Bruns, Axel & Stieglitz, Stefan (2013). “Towards more systematic Twitter analysis: metrics for tweeting activities”. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 16:2, 91-108, DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2012.756095.

From Feinberg & Willer (2013)

Some supporting evidence for the argument that environmental issues are usually framed in ways that resonate with the moral values of progressives, but not so much with those of conservatives. Namely, the harm/care domain of moral foundations theory, which progressives care much more about than conservatives do, is heavily emphasized, while purity/sanctity, which is important to conservatives but not at all to liberals, is absent. Also, they argue that conservatives can be made to care about environmental issues if they’re framed in the right way.

We argue that these differences result from a tendency for harm- and care-based moral arguments, bases of moral reasoning that are more compelling to liberals than to conservatives, to dominate environmental rhetoric. — Thus, we hypothesized that exposing conservatives to proenvironmental appeals based on moral concerns that uniquely resonate with them will lead them to view the environment in moral terms and be more supportive of proen-vironmental efforts. — These results suggest that political polarization around environmental issues is not inevitable but can be reduced by crafting proenvironmental arguments that resonate with the values of American conservatives.

Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2013). The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes. Psychological Science, 24(1), 56–62.

From Poell, Abdulla, Rieder, Woltering and Zack (2016)

It has been argued that contemporary or recent protest movements taking place and being organized on social media, such as the Occupy movement, are characterized by a logic of ‘connective action’ in which the sharing of personalized ideas, images, memes by individual activists unaffiliated with established organizations is of importance, and in which formal leadership is absent or unimportant.

This paper critiques that view, by looking at the Facebook page Kullena Khaled Said (We are all Khaled Said) which played a role in bringing about the revolution in Egypt that toppled Mubarak’s regime, and showing that the page’s admins, in their own way, took a leadership role in the events. They then tie this to the idea of ‘connective leadership’, in contrast to more traditional social movement leadership, characterized by the use of social media instead of mass media, steering of discussion and participation instead of giving orders and proclaiming views, of coordinating streams of information and networks of people instead of a formal organization, and so on.

This ties well with my own emerging views on the topic. Social media and modern technologies have not made organizations and leaderships irrelevant or useless, but they have, in some cases, changed their dynamics.

Taken together, the examination, on the one hand, reaffirms Castells’ (2012), and Bennett and Segerberg’s (2012) observation that the 2011 protest wave was not initiated or coordinated by formal SMOs and prominent activist leaders. — On the other hand, our analysis compli-cates the idea that this was an uprising organized by the crowd through self-motivated online sharing. It suggests that the sharing of grievances, as well as more complex pro-cesses of protest mobilization and coordination, was facilitated and shaped by what has been labeled as connective leadership. — Whereas social movement leadership appears effective in motivating protest participation through mass media, connective leadership, in its focus on actively involving users in the articulation of protest, seems especially suitable for the social media age.

Poell, T., Abdulla, R., Rieder, B., Woltering, R., & Zack, L. (2015). “Protest leadership in the age of social media”. Information, Communication & Society, 4462(June), 1–21.

From Lamba, Malik and Pfeffer (2015)

This one looks at whether bursts of controversy on Twitter have an effect on the behaviour of firestorm participants, applying the idea of “biographical consequences of activism”.

On the other hand, if firestorms arise from existing social ties, it would point to firestorms being a consequence rather than a cause of other action, and if there is no relation to social ties, it would be inconclusive but, as social actions are embedded in networks of social ties, it would suggest firestorms are of little importance.

Going back to our theoretical motivations, it seems that at least among the firestorms we sample, we see no evidence of the type of social change associated with action that has biographical consequences on participants. This suggests that, at least along this dimension, firestorms should not be a source of anxiety for targets nor a source of satisfaction for opponents; firestorms in general do not create the conditions to lead to larger and more long-term actions, at least among the mass of participants.

The method (comparing mention networks before, during and after a firestorm, and with mention networks of non-participants) is a bit rudimentary, but I like the point of departure.

Lamba, H., Malik, M. M., & Pfeffer, J. (2015). “A Tempest in a Teacup? Analyzing Firestorms on Twitter“. In 2015 IEEE/ACM International Conference on Advances in Social Networks Analysis and Mining (pp. 17–24). Paris, France.

From Feinberg, Willer and Kovacheff (2017)

Studies 1-3 provide consistent evidence that the use of extreme protest tactics led observers to feel less social identification with the movement and, as a result, support the movement less. This effect was found for a variety of extreme protest tactics – including the use of inflammatory rhetoric, blocking traffic, and vandalism – and affected perceptions of diverse movements. Finally, we explored the motives underlying the potential use of extreme protest tactics, finding that strong advocates for a cause and social movement activists believed extreme protest tactics would be effective not only for raising awareness of, but also recruiting popular support for, their cause (Studies 4a & 4b).

This working paper argues that the use of ‘extreme protest tactics’, i.e. civil disobedience and the like, decreases (immediate) popular support of a movement or cause. It has a long list limitations, so I’m not entirely convinced yet, but I’ll have to keep an eye on this.

Feinberg, Matthew and Willer, Robb and Kovacheff, Chloe (2017). Extreme Protest Tactics Reduce Popular Support for Social Movements. Available at SSRN: