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Tapping Twitter to Understand Crowd Behavior and Protests UCLA Luskin Public Policy scholar Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld authors a how-to guide on cutting-edge research using social media data

By Stan Paul

Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld has long been fascinated by crowd dynamics, especially among those drawn to mass demonstrations. As a Ph.D. candidate in political science, Steinert-Threlkeld knew that social media generated at protests were a rich source of data — but he could find few tools to help him analyze it.

Now, in a world awash with popular uprisings and social movements — from Tahrir Square in 2011 to the Women’s March following the 2017 presidential inauguration — the assistant professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs has used data generated by millions of posts on Twitter to learn more about crowd behavior and mass motivation.

Steinert-Threlkeld created a guide for acquiring and working with data sets culled from Twitter, which has more than 320 million global accounts generating more than half a billion messages every day.

His efforts culminated this year with the publication of “Twitter as Data,” the first guide in Cambridge University Press’ new Elements series on Quantitative and Computational Methods for Social Science. The series provides short introductions and hands-on tutorials to new and innovative research methodologies that may not yet appear in textbooks.

“When I was learning this as a graduate student, there was a lot of piecing together this information,” said Steinert-Threlkeld, who said he relied on sources such as Twitter documentation and online Q&A forums such as Stack Overflow. “I was able to do it, but it would have been a lot nicer if I had a textbook to show me the lay of the land.”

Steinert-Threlkeld, whose work combines his interest in computational social science and social networks with his research on protest and subnational conflict, said the book includes an interactive online version that allows users to click on links to download information and even sample data.

“It is differently comprehensive than a book,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. He described it as a “more interactive book experience — the first in social science that does this.”

In the book, Steinert-Threlkeld writes: “The increasing prevalence of digital communications technology — the internet and mobile phones — provides the possibility of analyzing human behavior at a level of detail previously unimaginable.” He compares this to the development of the microscope, which “facilitated the development of the germ theory of disease.”

He adds: “These tools are no more difficult to learn and use than other qualitative and quantitative methods, but they are not commonly taught to social scientists.”

To remedy this, Steinert-Threlkeld provides a systematic introduction to data sources and tools needed to benefit from them.

For example, people always want to know who’s protesting and how that influences others who might protest, Steinert-Threlkeld said. Most information has been restricted to surveys, which have limitations. “And so the researcher either gets lucky and happens to have scheduled a survey that occurs during a protest, but usually it’s after the fact.”

That is what’s exciting about using big data to study crowd behavior. “It’s like people always answering surveys,” he said. “Basically, every second you’re giving me survey data. Now we can tell in real time who’s protesting.”

One application of Twitter data is estimating crowd size, Steinert-Threlkeld said. In the past, he has had to rely on reports from organizers, police and the media to gauge the size of protests. “But I’m collecting tweets with GPS coordinates so I can say, ‘Oh, there are these many tweets or these many users from L.A. at this time or Pershing Square at this time, and explain whether that’s a reliable estimate or not of actual protesters.”

Twitter information can also be used to create data based on images shared from protests, Steinert-Threlkeld said. “The work I did before was all text based: What are people saying? Who’s saying it? When are they saying it? That sort of thing. But people share a lot of images online. They share more than they did three or four years ago. It’s really where the space is moving.”

Steinert-Threlkeld said that getting data into a form that a researcher can use requires a different skill set than designing and administering a survey. “But it’s still in some ways survey-like at the end of the day,” he said.

And “it’s fun,” he said. “Now we can tell in real time who’s protesting. We don’t know where the person lives, or their income, or their name. It’s still anonymous. We don’t know if the person who shares the image was there so we’re not incriminating anyone, but we can get a lot of information about protesters that we couldn’t before.”

In the final section of his guide, Steinert-Threlkeld writes: “These data are not a ‘revolution.’ Instead, they represent the next stage in the constant increase in data available to researchers. To stay at the forefront of data analysis, one needs to know some programming in order to interface with websites and data services, download data automatically, algorithmically clean and analyze data, and present these data in low-dimension environments. The skills are modern; the change is eternal.”

Language, Power and What Resistance Looks Like Institute on Inequality and Democracy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs co-sponsors talk by UC Berkeley scholar Judith Butler

By Stan Paul

“We are the people. The mighty, mighty people. Fighting for justice and liberation …”

Signs and songs preceded the talk at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Photo by Aaron Julian

Signs and song — the trappings of traditional protest — served as prelude to a talk by UC Berkeley scholar Judith Butler at a gathering titled, “This is What Resistance Looks Like,” on Feb. 15, 2017, at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

For Butler, the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at Berkeley, contemporary resistance in a time of “shared uncertainty” may not look exactly like your parent’s or grandparent’s form of protest.

“The de-politicized public needs to be re-politicized,” she said, arguing that “the people have to consent … and have the power to withdraw consent.”

Citing the recent presidential election’s low overall voter turnout, Butler emphasized the importance of figuring out how to “bring the non-voter back into politics.” For her it raised further questions such as, “Who are the people and what is the popular will?”

Butler, who is active in human rights issues, as well as gender and sexual politics, also joined a panel of scholars to provide her “thoughts in progress” about the possible forms that resistance might take in a new political era.

In pondering this, Butler said traditional protests and the presence of large crowds in the streets — such as during the January Women’s March on Washington — may continue, but resistance may also come from unexpected places. “We will have to fight for a very strong freedom of the press,” she said, noting that news media have been under attack from the new president.

UC Berkeley scholar Judith Butler spoke about the resistance movement and recent political events. Photo by Les Dunseith

“Opposition is one term that suggests that our political structures are basically intact,” she said. “Now we’re in some different kind of trouble. The fear we have, I think, is that we’re actually fighting now for the conditions in which oppositional parties and movements still make sense. … That’s why the name of this fight has to be resistance.”

The other panelists who joined Butler after her talk are all members of a UCLA faculty group known as RAVE (Resistance Against Violence Through Education): Gil Hochberg, professor of comparative literature and gender studies at UCLA; Laure Murat, director of the Center for European and Russian Studies at UCLA and professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies; and Ananya Roy, professor of social welfare and urban planning and director of the Institute for Inequality and Democracy at the Luskin School.

“Authoritarianism finds its home in language but has not yet found itself in law and policy,” Roy said. “How should we think about the ways in which we have already, in these first few moments, come to rely on the law or come to rely on the lack of accomplishment of authoritarian power in law and policy? It’s a broad question.”