In a recent report, the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University's Stern School of Business examined the relationship between tech platforms and extreme polarization. The study used data from more than 17,000 Americans, and found that a content-ranking algorithm operated by Facebook may be the key to limiting exposure to news outlets.
One of the biggest challenges that tech platforms face is refining their content moderation policies. As new technologies proliferate, they are expanding the number of ways users can express their opinions. But in order to do so, these companies must periodically make adjustments to their algorithms. These adjustments are typically only temporary. However, a major modification a few years ago inadvertently stoked the flames of anger on Facebook.
For researchers interested in the impact of social media on the public, this could be a promising opportunity. However, social media can't replace traditional survey research methods. Instead, it can supplement them. While many studies have reported modest success in locating respondents using social media, other studies have suggested that the data they provide may not be of much use.
Researchers have also pointed out that the coverage rate from Facebook may not mean much in the context of some surveys. Nevertheless, it can be useful for longitudinal studies. It can help identify sample members, and in the case of focus groups, it can be used to highlight navigation issues.
There are numerous tools to conduct this type of research, but it's important to choose a method that makes the most sense for your purposes. For example, the cost efficiency of a given method is a critical consideration, but the speed of data collection is an equally important factor.
Another important consideration is whether or not the data are available for free or a fee. Generally, you can access data from social media sites through the platform itself, or through an application programming interface (API). This is the most efficient way to collect the public data. Other data may be available for a fee from authorized vendors.
A related question is the quality of the data. If Facebook's algorithms were made publicly available, we might have a better idea of how much data they are generating. Furthermore, the quality of the data will vary from one platform to the next. That's why it's important to evaluate the health of a given platform before deploying its resources.
Social media can also be used to test the validity of a survey. One study found that contacting non-respondents on Facebook shortened attrition. This is particularly true of surveys that target hard-to-reach populations. So how can we use social media to improve the effectiveness of our public opinion research?
One potential solution is to create a safe harbor for researchers. By changing their terms of service, Facebook executives would be less likely to obstruct the work of journalists who need to conduct digital journalism. Some platforms have already taken steps to do so. Others, such as Twitter, are a bit more evasive.