Research by Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, assistant professor of public policy, measuring the political opinions of Russian-speakers in Ukraine at the time of Moscow’s 2014 incursion into Crimea has been published online by the journal Post Soviet Affairs. The study, co-authored by Steinert-Threlkeld and Jesse Driscoll of UC San Diego, uses a vast collection of social media data to demonstrate that many self-identified Russians living in Ukraine would not have favored a continued campaign to expand Russia’s borders. “Our supposition is that if Russian strategists were considering expansion beyond Crimea, they would have been able to use social media information to assess, with a great deal of precision and in real time, the reception that they would likely receive,” the authors wrote. While there is no evidence that Russian leaders took advantage of this type of analysis, the authors conclude that tapping into social media traffic could provide a useful source of intelligence for those planning military campaigns. “Social media data are straightforward to analyze systematically and can be collected at a relatively low cost,” wrote the authors, whose team, including research assistants in Kiev, used a data set of 6.8 million tweets to gauge social attitudes shared by Russian-speakers. “The prevalence of overtly political behaviors on social media provides important clues about the political dispositions within communities,” they said.
Ian Holloway, associate professor of social welfare, has received an Avenir Award of more than $2 million from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to advance his research into health interventions for LGBTQ communities. Holloway leads a UCLA team that is developing a social media tool designed to offer highly personalized health information to prevent substance abuse and HIV infection among gay men. Under a previous grant, the researchers built a library of nearly 12,000 data points made up of text phrases and emojis that correlate with offline health behaviors. Holloway’s Avenir Award will be used to create a machine-learning system that will monitor social media interactions with participants’ consent, then send customized health reminders and other alerts via an app. The team’s goal is to develop a wide-reaching and cost-effective tool to promote public health, said Holloway, director of the Hub for Health Intervention, Policy and Practice at UCLA Luskin. The Avenir Awards, named for the French word for “future,” provide grants to early-stage researchers who propose highly innovative studies, particularly in the field of HIV and addiction.
The National Science Foundation has awarded a UCLA research team more than $944,000 to develop a framework for integrating massive amounts of data from several types of news sources. The cross-campus collaboration between the Department of Communication and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs will produce a database that analyzes text, images, video and audio from print, television and online media. “No one has attempted to merge different sources of social and mass media data into one database,” said Assistant Professor of Communication Jungseock Joo, the principal investigator. Using cutting-edge computational methods, the team will build a system to automatically evaluate the data to identify topics, actors, events, sentiments and other large-scale patterns. The team includes UCLA Luskin’s Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, an assistant professor of public policy who has studied vast troves of social media data in his research into subnational conflict. Steinert-Threlkeld said the new tool will enable researchers, students, policymakers, politicians and ordinary citizens to learn more about how information is disseminated. The team, which includes UCLA Communication faculty members Francis Steen and Tim Groeling, will collaborate with Stanford University’s Jennifer Pan, a specialist on social media data from China. — Mary Braswell
By Stan Paul
If your 2016 Thanksgiving dinner was shorter than usual, the turkey on your dining table may not have been to blame.
Who you had dinner with and their political affiliations following last year’s divisive election may have shortened the holiday get-together by about 25 minutes — or up to an hour depending on how many campaign/political messages saturated your market area. It’s all in the data.
“It’s not that conservatives and [liberals] don’t like eating Thanksgiving dinner with each other; they don’t like eating Thanksgiving dinner together after an incredibly polarizing period,” said Keith Chen, associate professor of economics at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Chen was among a group of scholars and data researchers who presented recent findings on Aug. 25, 2017, at a daylong conference about computational social science and digital technology hosted by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation.
Information gleaned from social media and from cellphone tracking data can reveal and confirm political polarization and other topics, such as poverty or protest, said researchers who gathered at the “The Future of Humans as Sensors” conference held at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
The event brought together social scientists and data researchers to look for “ways to either extend what we can do with existing data sets or explore new sources of ‘big data,’” said Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, assistant professor of public policy at UCLA Luskin and the leader of the program.
Steinert-Threlkeld presented his latest research, which was motivated by the Women’s March in the United States, as an example of measuring protest with new data sources that include geo-located Twitter accounts. While conducting research, Steinert-Threlkeld has observed that working with social media data has actually become more difficult of late.
“While Facebook lets you use data from profiles that are public, most people have private profiles,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. Seeing private data requires researchers to work directly with Facebook, which has become more cautious in the wake of a controversial 2014 paper, thus impacting what scholars can publish. In addition, Instagram previously provided much more data, but since 2016 it has followed the Facebook model and that data has been severely restricted despite Instagram’s norm of having public profiles, he said.
“This workshop will discuss how ‘humans as sensors’ can continue to yield productive research agendas,” Steinert-Threlkeld told conference attendees.
Talking about new and innovative ways to do this, Michael Macy, a sociologist and director of the Social Dynamics Laboratory at Cornell, began his presentation by pointing out the innate difficulties of observing human behavior and social interaction, as well as both the potential and the limitations of social media data.
“There are privacy concerns; the interactions are fleeting. You have to be right there at the time when it happens.” He added, “They’re usually behind closed doors, and the number of interactions increases exponentially with the size of the population.”
But, Macy said, new technologies in various scientific fields have opened up research opportunities that were previously inaccessible.
“We can see things that we could never see before. In fact, not only can we see things, the web sees everything and it forgets nothing.”
He tempered the potential of digital data with the fact that for the past several decades the main instrument of social science observation has been the survey, which comes with its own limitations, including unreliability when people recount their own behavior or rely on memories of past events. But, he said, “In some ways I see these social media data as being really nicely complementary with the survey. They have offsetting strengths and weaknesses.”
Macy provided examples of ways that tracking of political polarization can be done, not by looking at extreme positions on a single issue but by inferring positions on one issue by knowing the position that individuals hold on another. This can range from their choices of books on politics and science to their preferences for cars, fast food and music.
“The method seems to recover something real about political alignments … political alignment can be inferred from those purchases, and then we can look to see what else they’re purchasing,” Macy said.
“What I think we’re really looking at is not the era of explanation, at least for now … it’s the era of measurement, and what we are now able to do is to test theories that we could not test before because we can see things that we could not see before.”
The day’s presentations also included the ways in which data can be used to provide rapid policy evaluation with targeted crowds and how demographic sampling weights from Twitter data could be used to improve public opinion estimates. Data could also help fight poverty worldwide.
The world seems awash in information and data, but “most of world doesn’t live in a data-rich environment,” said presenter Joshua Blumemstock, an assistant professor at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Information and director of the school’s Data-Intensive Development Lab.
“You can use Twitter data to measure unemployment in Spain. The problem is that these methods don’t port very well in developing countries,” Blumenstock said. “There’s these big black holes in Africa for Twitter.”
Blumenstock discussed how data from billions of mobile phone calls in countries such as Rwanda could be used in conjunction with survey data to create a composite of where individuals fall on the socioeconomic spectrum. In turn, the information collected could be “aggregated up” to a much larger regional or national level.
“And when you aggregate up, you start to get things that might be conceivably useful to someone doing research or some policymaker,” such as being able to respond instantaneously to economic shocks, Blumenstock said. In addition, instead of costing millions of dollars and taking years, he said this methodology could potentially cost thousands of dollars and be conducted in weeks or months.
“For researchers like me who are interested in understanding the causes and consequences of poverty … just measuring the poverty is the first step. For people designing policy for these countries, their hands are tied if they don’t even know where poverty is,” Blumenstock explained. “It’s hard to think about how to fix it.”