Last Friday I had the opportunity to talk to Steve Goldstein at our local NPR station, KJZZ, about the role of social media in shaping public opinion and activism surrounding Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, SB1070. The segment was shorter than originally planned, due to breaking news about the boycotts organized against Arizona and Arizona-based businesses, but I had a good time.
(In case the embedded audio doesn’t work, here’s the link to the Here and Now show with Steve Goldstein.)
I used several different tools to research social media activity for the segment, although we didn’t get to discuss the results of most of them. The Twitter Positioning System (TPS), for example, showed me that discussion of the bill was taking place all over the country, although it was naturally much more concentrated in the southwest and Arizona in particular. SocialMention, which looks at a vast range of both textual and visual social media channels, showed me that there was a core group of passionate people discussing the bill by name, whereas the general topic of “Arizona immigration” was something far more people were interested in–although most only to the point of commenting on it in passing. Viral Heat, a (fairly inexpensive) paid service, breaks down online discussions by source: Twitter, not surprisingly, proved to be the liveliest font of conversation about the issue, followed by Facebook and YouTube. When the last caller asked about YouTube, I was disappointed that the lost Internet connection prevented me from clicking through on Viral Heat to identify the top users posting videos on the subject.
Technology is wonderful, but sometimes unreliable. And none of these tracking sources is infallible: the sentiment ratings on Social Mention, for example, need to be taken with a grain of salt, since no software can detect sarcasm. But we do have access now to vast stores of information about at least a segment of public discourse, as well as many tools that can give us a rapid general analysis. While they’re no substitute for more rigorous research, they’re fun to play with and can give us a useful starting point for discussion, in ways that would have been unimaginable even a few short years ago.