We find Brexit-related Tweets from Twitter’s list of suspected Russian troll accounts

We have been collecting Twitter data on the UK-EU Brexit referendum since August 2015 and we currently have over 62 million Tweets. We collect data in several ways but the data set we discuss here is gathered using a variety of brexit related hashtags.

Twitter released a list of user names and id numbers of 2,752 Twitter accounts that the company identified as being related to Russian troll activity relating the US 2016 election.

We searched within our data set for signs of activity from these accounts. We found 3468 tweets from 419 users on this list. 400 of these tweets were on the date of the EU-referendum, 23rd June 2016 and were from 38 users. 432 were in the week of the referendum from 58 users.

We also took a look at the user defined location field in these tweets. Some have no location specified (127) but of those that do most (370) say they are from the USA (America, USA, US, state names, cities, towns). Only three of the users we find say they are from the UK.

Many of the tweets actually came after the EU-referendum polls closed — 78%. Only 776 tweets were before 23rd June 2016 10pm BST.

We found that 59% of the tweet text started with ‘rt’ and are therefore likely to be retweets. This leaves 41% that is not a direct retweet and may be original content.

We are confident that our findings are a conservative estimate of the activity of the 2752 accounts identified by Twitter as problematic. We have an automated process in place for deleting archived tweets when Twitter send out a request to do so. Typically when they suspend or delete accounts (as they have with this list) this is what Twitter do. We may, therefore, already have deleted relevant data from our archive. Also we only collect the allowed sample of free data from Twitter for our research. So although we have over 62 million tweets collected, we will not have captured all of the activity by these users.

Caution, however, needs to be exerted when trying to assess the influence of these users in relation to Brexit. First, the numbers, even if conservative, are relatively small. 3468 tweets out of 62 million in our data set came from 419 users on Twitter’s list of 2752 suspect accounts. Second most (78%) of the tweeting using Brexit-related hashtags that we find, took place after the date of the referendum.

On the other, hand, we should not assume that there was no influence either. We know, for example,  that some of these users had high numbers of followers. More nuanced data is needed on what happened to these 3468 tweets. How often were they retweeted for example?

It is important to remember that when searching for the users on the Twitter list, we are examining the behaviour of users identified as having attempted to disrupt the US election. It is perhaps, unsurprising that those tweets that appear in our Brexit-related data set post-date the referendum. Although these users are using Brexit-related hashtags, we cannot say whether they were primarily trying to influence Brexit itself or whether Brexit was simply an issue recognised as disruptive, or as amplifying issues around immigration and free trade blocs that resonated in US election debate.

The significance of these findings is that they provide the first hard evidence that users identified by Twitter as having Russian links and as seeking to influence the US election, were also actively tweeting on Brexit-related issues. To establish the extent to which the Brexit debate, or indeed the UK general election, were influenced by such users we need an equivalent list of users seeking to target these specific events and a complete data set. This would allow more nuanced analysis of the level, type and significance of activity and influence to be assessed. This is an issue of vital public interest but the much needed detail is in danger of being lost in the hype surrounding this issue.

This blog is written by Clare Llewellyn and Laura Cram of the Neuropolitics Research Lab from the University of Edinburgh. The project is part of the UK in a Changing Europe programme and is funded by the ESRC.

General Election 2017: a Twitter Analysis

Introduction

This work is produced by researchers at the Neuropolitics Research Lab, School of Social and Political Science and the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. In this report we provide an analysis of the social media posts on the British general election 2017 over the month running up to the vote. We find that pro-Labour sentiment dominates the Twitter conversation around GE2017 and that there is also a disproportionate presence of the Scottish National Party (SNP), given the UK-wide nature of a Westminster election. Substantive issues have featured much less prominently and in a less sustained manner in the Twitter debate than pro and anti leader and political party posts. However, the issue of Brexit has provided a consistent backdrop to the GE2017 conversation and has rarely dropped out of the top three most popular hashtags in the last month. Brexit has been the issue of the GE2017 campaign, eclipsing even the NHS. We found the conversation in the GE2017 Twitter debate to be heavily influenced both by external events and by the top-down introduction of hashtags by broadcast media outlets, often associated with specific programmes and the mediatised political debates. Hashtags like these have a significant impact on the shape of the data collected from Twitter and might distort studies with short data-collection windows but are usually short-lived with little long term impact on the Twitter conversation. If the current polling is to be believed Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to do as badly as was anticipated when the election was first called. Traditional media sources were slow to pick up on this change in public opinion whereas this trend could be seen early on in social media and throughout the month of May.

Data Collection

A set of 56 keywords related to the British general election in 2017 (GE2017) was used to collect tweets on the topic. The Twitter streaming API was used to retrieve tweets containing any of these keywords between the April 29, 2017 and June 4, 2017. The keywords consists of hashtags, accounts, and terms representing phrases on the elections (e.g. #GE2017, general elections), politicians involved in the elections (Theresa May, Corbyn, #jc4pm), and related topics (e.g. Brexit, NHS).

During the period of study, over 34 million posts were collected, where 9.6 millions are tweets and 25 million are retweets. Figure 1 illustrates the volume of tweets/retweets collected daily during the period of study.

Figure 1. Distribution of the collected tweets/retweets over the period of study

Analysis

As shown in Figure 1, the number of posts collected per day, there is clear evidence of the event driven nature of the Twittersphere. As well as observing a rise in the overall number of posts related to GE2017 over the month, peaks in the data can readily be associated with events such as the 5 May local elections and the Manchester bombing (with an associated drop in GE2017 posting as the campaigns paused in its aftermath). Interestingly, the official release of the Labour manifesto did not produce a significant spike in overall Twitter posts, perhaps due its earlier leaking. However, as can be seen in Figure 4, it did enjoy two mini boosts (becoming one of the top three most used hashtags on the day of its leak and again on the day of its official launch). On 18 May the Conservative manifesto launch coincided with the ITV leaders’ debate, producing a significant Twitter boost. Analysis of hashtags used, in Figure 4, indicates that the Conservative manifesto launch was indeed the larger contributor to this boost. As we are approaching the June 8 election date, Twitter traffic is evidently increasing. However, the increasingly event driven, and often top-down, shaping of the conversation is striking. Spikes in the Twitter data are closely linked with major media events and TV debates and, as we can see in Figure 4, are strongly influenced by the official hashtags promoted by the media companies.

Figure 2. Relative rate of retweeting to tweeting each day. The red line indicates the linear regression or trend line (positive gradient).

Figure 2 shows the average daily retweet versus tweet rate of the election related Twitter traffic. There appears to be a steadily increasing tendency to resend and reuse existing information as the election draws closer rather than to generate novel content.

Most popular hashtags over the collection period

The dominant role played by broadcast-driven and promoted hashtags is clear in Table 1. Of the Top 20 categories of most employed hashtags, during the month preceding GE2017, the number two slot is occupied by those related to television and radio shows and the number five slot by the hashtags associated with the TV debates. In Figure 4, we see that these hashtags generated significant spikes, but prove ephemeral when contrasted with issues like Brexit which persisted throughout the campaign. There are very few substantive issues discussed in a sustained manner in relation to GE2017. Most of the Twitter traffic is pro or anti-leaders or political parties. However, of the issues discussed, Brexit dominates. It is the forth most common hashtag employed (935,456) in the discussion of GE2017 and is employed more than twice as often as the next issue of significance, the NHS (420,092). The only other issues to feature in the top twenty hashtags over the full collection period are the potential further Scottish referendum (176,382) and the so-called dementia tax (154,007). The appearance of the Scottish independence question as the thirteenth most common hashtag employed in the discussion of GE2017 is particularly striking, given the UK wide nature of our data collection and the likely more localised interest in this issue in Scotland. This provides an indicator of the salience of this issue to those mobilised to tweet from Scotland.

Most striking in this data set is the overwhelming dominance of Labour tweeting. Tweets using hashtags do not necessarily indicate support but do highlight areas of discussion. With over one million tweets using Labour hashtags in our data set, Labour party coverage out-performs Conservative coverage by almost three times. There are no tweets employing anti-Labour hashtags in our top twenty most used hashtags collection. There are twice as many Labour (1,062,908) as Corbyn hashtags in the tweets (503,307). However, Corbyn hashtags, in position number six, still significantly outperform May hashtags (302,494) in position number nine. The pro-Labour momentum is boosted by the widespread use of Labour-promoted hashtags such as #forthemany, #forthemanynotthefew. Despite May’s attempt to focus her campaign on her own leadership, rather than actively campaigning under the Conservative party banner, Conservative hashtags (381,647), at position number eight, marginally outrank May hashtags in the collection. Once again, however, the disproportionate presence of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in slot number eleven (244,481), given that only Scottish voters can elect this party, was striking. Interestingly it is the SNP, not the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, that appears in the most common hashtag list. The Liberal Democrats, and their leader Tim Farron, do not figure in the top twenty hashtags. UKIP occupies slot nineteen (141,011), although Paul Nuttall does not appear.

Table 1: Top 20 Hashtag Categories Used throughout the Election Debate (the top 100 hashtags were grouped by topic and the top 20 topics selected)

Top Hashtags Grouped as Number of Hashtags
#GE2017, #GE17, #GeneralElection, #GeneralElection2017, #Election2017 General Election 3,624,566
#BBCQT, #marr, #Peston, #r4today, #NewsNight, #BBCSP, #VictoriaLIVE, #BBCDP, #WomansHour, #TheOneShow TV/Radio 1,195,880
#VoteLabour, #Labour, #ImVotingLabour Labour 1,062,908
#Brexit Brexit 935,456
#BBCDebate, #BattleForNumber10, #ITVDebate, #LeadersDebate, #MayvCorbyn Hustings / Debates 844,514
#JC4PM, #Corbyn, #JeremyCorbyn Corbyn 503,307
#NHS, #VoteNHS, #SaveOurNHS NHS 420,092
#Tories, #Tory, #conservatives, #conservatives, #VoteConservative, #conservative Conservatives 381,647
#TheresaMay, #May May 302,494
#ForTheMany, #ForTheManyNotTheFew For the Many 271,251
#voteSNP, #SNP SNP 244,481
#ToryManifesto Tory Manifesto 214,973
#ScotRef, #indyref2, #Scotland Scottish referendum 176,382
#ToriesOut Tories Out 172,380
#RegistertoVote, #Vote, #WhyVote, #Register2Vote Register to vote 165,757
#Manchester, #Londonattacks, #LondonBridge, #London Terrorist Attacks 154,497
#DementiaTax, #Socialcare Social Care 154,007
#LabourManifesto Labour Manifesto 149,731
#UKIP UKIP 141,011
#BBCElection, #BBC BBC 124,755

 

Figure 3: Percentage Share of Top 20 Hashtags Used in the Election Debate

Daily peaks in popular hashtag use

We also looked at frequency peaks of popular hashtags broken down by day over the collection period. This allows us to spot issues that may not have been tweeted about most overall but which also motivated people to comment in large numbers. The hashtags shown here appear in the top three on at least one of the days during the campaign. The event driven nature of Twitter is particularly obvious here. We can see that the largest peaks in the data come from debate-type events covered by traditional media, such as #BBCDebate, #BattleForNumber10 and #BBCQT. Similarly, other TV programmes also cause spikes in the data with #peston and #marr being particularly noticeable. We can also see that the Tory manifesto caused more of an impact that the Labour manifesto, possibly due to the leaking of the Labour manifesto, where we see two peaks of influence rather than one. We see the appearance of certain policy issues such as the so-called Dementia Tax and Fox hunting and in particular we see the sustained appearance of Brexit throughout the campaign. There are some issues which are notable by their absence as peak issues, for example the NHS and the economy. Also apparent are events that have taken place during the election campaign. Here we can see peaks of discussion of both the #NHSCyberAttack and the #LondonAttacks.

Figure 4. Hashtags that peaked on a given day on Twitter during the study period

Most mentioned and retweeted accounts over the collection period

The story of Labour dominance in the Twittersphere continues when we examine the most retweeted accounts and the accounts that get the most mentions by others. Jeremy Corbyn tops both of these lists and, though Theresa May (654,417) is the second most mentioned account, she is mentioned only half as often as Corbyn (1,367,392). The difference between the two main party accounts @uklabour (323,027) and @conservatives (307,550) is much less. Both leaders are mentioned much more often than their respective parties, perhaps confirming the presidential tenor of the campaign. Striking once again is the disproportionate presence of the SNP (145,937) and this time also their leader Nicola Sturgeon (116,360) at positions six and seven in this UK wide debate. The SNP outperforms the Liberal Democrats (93,473) and their leader Tim Farron (69,009). Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party leader, Ruth Davidson (69,334), is also mentioned marginally more often than Tim Farron. UKIP (80,855) is the tenth most mentioned account, but again Paul Nuttal does not feature. The presence of the official media accounts, and also of polling agencies like Yougov, is again a prominent feature of the most mentioned accounts in relation to the GE2017 Twitter conversation. The most retweeted accounts were again heavily pro-Labour. We also saw, as we might expect, a strong presence of the professional media and of campaign bodies here. The generation of popular memes by @laboureoin also proved to be a very effective strategy for encouraging retweets carrying a socialist message.

Table 2: Top Retweeted and Top Mentioned Twitter Accounts

Top retweeted accounts Top mentioned accounts
Account Count Account Count
@jeremycorbyn 821,499 @jeremycorbyn 1,367,392
@laboureoin 426,912 @theresa_may 654,417
@nhsmillion 342,440 @uklabour 323,027
@rachael_swindon 290,587 @conservatives 307,550
@owenjones84 224,605 @bbcnews 154,898
@socialistvoice 189,830 @thesnp 145,937
@jeremycorbyn4pm 186,269 @nicolasturgeon 116,360
@davidjo52951945 178,768 @skynews 97,287
@uklabour 171,577 @libdems 93,473
@davidschneider 164,457 @ukip 80,885
@jamesmelville 162,626 @thecanarysays 80,176
@chunkymark 161,681 @bbclaurak 77,324
@toryfibs 146,873 @ruthdavidsonmsp 69,334
@independent 139,540 @timfarron 69,009
@el4jc 119,623 @lbc 65,571
@britainelects 115,655 @yougov 62,741
@paulmasonnews 108,302 @borisjohnson 61,292
@imajsaclaimant 108,130 @guardian 58,880
@aaronbastani 101,101 @afneil 52,216
@peterstefanovi2 99,875 @johnmcdonnellmp 49,271

Daily peaks in most mentioned accounts

The top mentioned accounts were selected in the same way as the most frequent hashtags. All of these accounts appear in the top three most mentioned on at least one of the days during the campaign. Here we can see that @jeremycorbyn has been mentioned much more frequently than @theresamay throughout the campaign. We see three political parties mentioned; @conservatives, @uklabour and surprisingly again @theSNP. We can see how events shape peaks with the single peak in mentions for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party leader @ruthdavidsonmsp reflecting her announcement of a u-turn on prescription charges in Scotland. We can also see the influence of journalists here with @krishgm, @bbclaurak and @afneil.

Figure 5. Mentions that peaked on a given day on Twitter during the study period

Most mentioned topics by and linked to politicians

We checked the most frequent terms used by key politicians themselves and we compare these with the most frequent terms used by others when mentioning these politicians. We can consider the terms used by the politicians as their attempts to influence debate and to set the agenda. This cloud reflects what the politicians want to talk about. The terms in the tweets from others mentioning the politicians can be considered to be the topics that Twitter users are trying to direct towards the politicians, these clouds reflect the agenda that Twitter users are associating with that politician.

In the visualisations you can see the terms side by side for each politician. There are several things that can be observed:

  • Jeremy Corbyn is the only politician that directly challenges another politician – we can see this through the use of @theresamay. The other politicians do mention other leaders but they do not use specific @ mentions to interact with them;
  • Theresa May and Tim Farron do not mention their parties often;
  • Ruth Davidson who is often associated with distancing herself from the Scottish Tory brand actually tweets about her party quite often;
  • Whereas Theresa May often tweets about Brexit this is not echoed in the tweets of those that mention her;
  • Brexit does occur in the tweets mentioning Tim Farron, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson;
  • None of the Scottish leaders tweet heavily about independence but those tweeting about Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson associate both of them heavily with this debate;
  • Nicola Sturgeon, heavily associated in the traditional media with Scottish independence, is not associated with this by those mentioning her or seeking to interact with her on Twitter;
  • The debates feature heavily in the tweets mentioning politicians except for Kezia Dugdale;
  • Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon make most sophisticated use of Twitter devices such as hashtags and @ mentions.

 

Account own tweets Tweets mentioning the account
Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

Theresa May

Theresa May

Tim Farron

Tim Farron

Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon

Ruth Davidson

Ruth Davidson

Kezia Dugdale

Kezia Dugdale

Figure 6: Most frequent terms employed by key politicians v the most frequent terms used by others when mentioning these politicians.

Discussion and Conclusions

In this study, we applied a quantitative analysis to the Twitter posts on the British general elections 2017 during the month period preceding the election. Our analysis included a set of around 35 million tweets on the topic. Here we present a preliminary exploratory analysis of this data set. Twitter analysis has strengths and weaknesses. Twitter users are not representative of the wider public – they are self-selected users not those chosen on the basis of careful sampling by opinion pollsters. Twitter users tend to be highly motivated (with an axe to grind), younger than average (though not exclusively young) [1] and are likely more often men [2] when engaged in political debate. So any insights are partial. That said, Twitter can be a reflection of spontaneous, motivated behaviour. Analysing Twitter narratives helps us to see where those highly motivated individuals position themselves in relation to the debate, what appears to provoke peaks in motivated activity and also what the overall trends are in these vocal and active publics. It also helps us to explore who sets agendas and shapes conversations in the Twittersphere and how effective or ephemeral these narratives are.

Events played a key role is shaping the Twitter conversation. These events can take many forms, election-specific events such as the debates, media events such as television and radio programs and physical events such as the NHS cyber attack and terrorist attacks. Twitter does not exist in a vacuum and the conversation that occurs there is often prompted by external events.

Researchers at the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture (CRCC) at Loughborough University have studied media coverage of the election campaigns over two weeks, 18th – 31st May. They analysed discussion in television news and print media. They observed that in the first week, starting on the 18th May, the Conservatives and Theresa May receive more coverage than Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. In contrast, we find that the social media discussion during this time was focused on Labour and Corbyn. The second week saw a rise in the traditional media coverage of the Labour party which was slightly more than the Conservatives. This rise was for the most part driven by increased traditional media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn bringing this more in line with the social media data. The Loughborough data also shows a high prevalence of Scottish MSP’s with Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson both appearing in the top 10. This is mirrored in our social media data set.

In the last week of May the top five most prominent issues seen in television and print media were the electoral process, Brexit, health care, taxation and the economy/business. We can see this echoed to some extent in the social media data, with the manifestos, Brexit, and the NHS. We do not see the appearance of taxation, the economy or business issues.

Our data set shows an overwhelming dominance of pro-Labour tweeting. With over 1 million tweets using Labour hashtags, Labour party coverage out-performs pro-Conservative coverage by almost three times. There is a disproportionate presence of the SNP in this social media set and given that only Scottish voters can elect this party this was particularly striking. These three observations were also noted in a week long study (1-7th May) conducted by researchers at the Oxford University’s Internet Institute [4].

It is important not to exaggerate the novelty of new social media. New media to some extent appears to be simply an extension of old media and we see in our data set how broadcast media often generates additional coverage by effectively reporting on itself. Key bursts in Twitter throughout the GE2017 campaign came from people using hashtags associated with TV debates and programmes like Question Time. These hashtags are created by the programme makers and die off almost immediately. This is not surprising as they are instantaneous or throw-away hashtags associated with a specific programme. It would be difficult to claim that these had any significant role in setting a political agenda or in shaping debates, rather they act as a means of tracking who was watching and engaging with the particular media generated events.

Twitter is of course not representative of the voting public as a whole, and therefore not necessarily a clear reflection of “the many, not the few”. However, whilst Twitter cannot be used to predict elections and the overwhelming support we see for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn may not be fully reflected in the ballot boxes, it is a useful tool in giving us the mood of those who are motivated enough to comment in social media. Tweeters are typically highly motivated and perhaps those who initially see themselves as the underdogs in the debate, excluded from mainstream coverage. This has been apparent in a number of recent campaigns. The YES campaign, though ultimately unsuccessful, dominated social media in the Scottish independence referendum. Leave groups did the same in the 2016 Brexit campaign and Trump’s dominance in social media transformed US election coverage, with both these campaigns ultimately triumphing at the polls. As the Loughborough study shows, Corbyn’s campaign did not initially enjoy the access to the traditional media that May was afforded [3]. This may explain the surge in social media activity which subsequently developed a life of its own and has ultimately had to be acknowledged by the mainstream media. This also fits with the high presence of the SNP in our data set, with the Scottish debate marginalised at the UK level. If the current polling is to be believed Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to do as badly as was anticipated when the election was first called. Traditional media sources were slow to pick up on this change in public opinion whereas this trend could be seen early on in social media and throughout the month of May.

References

[1]http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0115545

[2]http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-32137886

[3]http://blog.lboro.ac.uk/crcc/general-election/media-coverage-of-the-2017-general-election-campaign-report-3/?utm_source=Twitter&utm_campaign=ge2017&utm_content=coverage#coverage

[4]http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-05-31-labour-dominating-twitter-conversation-uk-election-campaign-says-study

This work was produced by:

Laura Cram, Clare Llewellyn, Robin Hill Neuropolitics Research Lab
School of Political and Social Science University of Edinburgh {laura.cram, c.a.llewellyn, r.l.hill}@ed.ac.uk

Walid Magdy
Institute for Language, Cognition & Computation School of Informatics
University of Edinburgh wmagdy@inf.ed.ac.uk

1st psychology group meeting of SINAPSE was held

The first psychology group meeting of SINAPSE (Scottish Imaging Network: A Platform for Scientific Excellence) was held on 16th Jan 2017 at the University of St. Andrews. This informal friendly meeting was very successful to network senior researchers, early career researchers, and postgraduate students, who brought various promising research topics to the meeting, including Neuropolitics research.   Nice walking along the beach, the attendees introduced themselves to each other, exchanged ideas, and discussed the future direction of this group meeting. It is such an exciting time that neuroimagers in the research fields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience in Scotland would get together with strong motivations to promoting collaboration and sharing research experiences and opportunities.

http://www.sinapse.ac.uk/news/1st-meeting-of-the-sinapse-psychology-group

 

New techniques for new technologies

I want to believe (X-Files classic)Modern digital methods of communication have become highly diverse, paradoxically making the exchange of information both easier and more complex.  Critically, there is no longer a single canonical format for conveying written information or engaging in direct spoken communication.  Handwritten or standard typeface letters have been replaced by instant, informal streams of data; often broadcast not to a single recipient but to multiple family members simultaneously, groups of friends, or simply any of the billions of people out there.  Fonts, colours, layout and accompanying images can all carry meta-linguistic connotations, altering how words are perceived and understood.  Choice and style are much more pervasive.  Phones are no longer limited to simple speech and inhibited by physical wires; instead, they are mobile, multisensory devices with integrated cameras and a range of sensors generating constant data about the user, details of which can be automatically incorporated as an additional communication channel.  Semiotics has become much more explicit, exaggerated and directly visual in nature.  Accessible technology is now a global reality that transcends cultural boundaries.  Semantics and context have to be established in 140 characters or less.  All these fast-moving changes permit a rich and exponentially growing complexity in human interaction.  However, this rapid shift in communication behaviour, both in terms of production and comprehension, means there is still little understanding of how the different modalities interact to deliver an intended, or unintended, message.  This is particularly true when information has to be evaluated in terms of unknown or ambiguous provenance and authenticity.  In other words, do you believe it? Do you trust it? Do you agree with it?  What combination of factors will make you re-read, re-post, re-Tweet, or even just reply/comment rather than ignore?  The Art of Persuasion has become a highly scientific pursuit with significant social and political impact.  Why are we apparently living in a post-fact world?  Is this trend just a natural and inevitable consequence of current attitudes and beliefs?  Not only are some facts more equal than others, but some may not be facts at all. Robert Proctor (Stanford University) has spent many years investigating the spread of ignorance and created the wonderful word “agnotology”.  This is typically defined along the lines of “culturally constructed ignorance, purposefully created by special interest groups working hard to create confusion and suppress the truth”.  Of course this term in itself could be construed to have a certain negative sentiment and over-critical discourse bias.  Fortunately, the subtitle of his co-edited book on the matter does emphasis the unmaking as well as making of ignorance, but the technologies and tools to make or break agnotology have already changed dramatically in the few years since it was published.

Investigating the process of how trust is established, examining the reliability and uptake of information, and determining the level of data quality is (I considered “lies”) at the heart of our neuropolitics research.  This covers more implicit and subtle manipulations as well as direct, explicit presentation.  Faith in evidence is required, even if faith is not commonly associated with science.  Similarly, the change in the types of data being analysed means that new techniques have to be developed, applied and constantly reviewed, requiring a fully agile approach.  Testing and validating a methodology is more important than any single dataset.  Outside of academia, data journalism has emerged as a term associated with objective and unbiased data transparency.  This includes a global growth in fact-checking websites, with examples such as fullfact.org in the UK.  Whether this represents a return swing away from current anti-expert attitudes to a more evidence-based approach remains to be seen.

[Proctor, R., & Schiebinger, L. L. (Eds.). (2008). Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignorance. Stanford University Press.]

Everything is Up for Grabs in Brexit Process

Just as with the other existing models – Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Greenland – the new British relationship with the EU will have to be purpose built. If Scotland is to maximise its advantage in that process, says Laura Cram, it will need to be out of the blocks before the Article 50 starting pistol is fired. 

No-one knows precisely when the Article 50 process, formally notifying the intention of the UK to leave the EU, will be triggered. But being prepared is essential not just to respond swiftly but to shape the direction the subsequent negotiations take. We know only that the clock is ticking but not when the alarm is set to go off. The challenge for Michael Russell, as the Scottish Government’s new Brexit Minister, will be to re-shape the boundaries of the possible in Scottish-UK-EU relations before the Article 50 process begins.

As every returning Olympian will testify, responding to the sound of the starter’s gun comes at the end of an intense and lengthy process of physical and psychological preparation, scenario planning, sizing up the opposition and understanding the nature of the terrain. Not everything is within an athlete’s control, but a successful Olympian will have prepared for what they can and will be aware of where the uncontrollable might surface. They will have thought through what action to take and how to both create and to seize opportunities. Carefully constructed teams of experts support their efforts. Control of the race is key and preparation is key to control. To fail to prepare, in high stake games, is to prepare to fail.

Writing in the 1970s Ernst Haas, one of the earliest scholars of European integration, described the scenario in which a very large number of organisational actors find themselves with confused and clashing perceptions of the optimal solutions to the problems they face as a “turbulent policy field”. Actors pursue mutually incompatible objectives and are unsure of the trade-offs between these objectives. At the same time these actors need to cooperate with each other as they are tied into a network of interdependencies. Haas describes this scenario as being like a “giant simultaneous chess match over which the judges have lost control”. Confusion and uncertainty are dominant in a turbulent decision field and this confusion can be sub-national, national, supra-national and global all at the same time.

The Brexit process is just such a turbulent field. Beyond the formalities of the legal process, laid out but as yet untested in Article 50, we have no precedent to draw on. It is even controversial at EU level which EU institution will lead the negotiations. Within the UK, different territorial perspectives prevail. Uncertainty creates a suboptimal decision environment. Uncertainty produces a tendency to cling to the status quo, and when there is no status quo to cling to – a tendency towards delay and indecision. This is a tendency to be resisted at all costs.

Talk of existing models – Norway, Swiss, Canadian, Greenland – as templates for Brexit are examples of such status quo bias. Until these models were developed none of them existed. There is no UK model or rUK model for non-member state relations with the EU only because it has not yet been imagined or constructed. None of the existing templates were created for departing member states or for non-departing territories within departing member states. The flip side of a turbulent policy field, according to Haas, is that “everything is up for grabs”. A turbulent field is also an optimal environment for creative thinking and bold policy entrepreneurship. The trick is to be the one shaping the options and framing the ensuing debate.

Policy studies consistently show that the most effective moment for agenda-setting is when an idea is not yet a spark in policy-makers’ eyes. The persuasive power of solid policy analysis and clear scenario planning has the potential to frame the debates that ensue. The earlier that clear alternative scenarios are developed, the more time there is to normalize these ideas with other decision-makers within the UK and across the EU. Softening up the decision environment by exposing new scenarios to decision partners, until they don’t seem so new, radical or threatening is key. Pro-actively framing the debate and shaping the negotiations, in a time-sensitive environment, is crucial. Clear scenarios for what Scotland wants in relation to EU and UK membership in the case of a hard or soft UK-wide Brexit, or in the case of an independent relationship with the EU, need to be developed, disseminated and normalized in the debate without delay.

It is the UK Government that will fire the starter’s gun at what is considered to be an optimal time for them. That may not coincide with Scotland’s preference or interests. Jumping the gun will be an Olympian effort but the Scottish Government is no stranger to this.

This article was written by Laura Cram of the Neuropolitics Research Lab from the University of Edinburgh. It is re-blogged from the the Centre for Constitutional Change’s blog. It was originally co-published with the Herald

Final Two Healthy Volunteers Needed!

Neuropolitics fMRI study (preferably on 12 & 14 Oct 2016)

Hello,

We are inviting healthy volunteers from Scotland who are interested in participating an exciting fMRI study from our newly launched NRLabs Neuropolitics Research (see also our websitehttp://www.pol.ed.ac.uk/neuropoliticsresearch), School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.

We are currently looking for people from Scotland to take part in the study, which involves having an MR scan. This will involve lying on your back in the scanner for up to one hour, watching videos and playing an interactive game. We will be looking at which parts of your brain are activated during this process. If you are new to MR scanning, experiencing an MR scan can be quite noisy for you at first. We will provide you with ear plugs and headphones to minimise MR noise. Usually participants relax fairly quickly and get used to hearing the MR noise during their scans.

If you are interested in taking part, you can follow the link below and fill out a short survey to check your suitability for MR scanning. Even if you do this you are free to change your mind and withdraw at any time, without a problem. Any information we collect from this survey will be anonymised and will not be shared.

https://qtrial2015q4az1.az1.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_b9NDcURaMrwDQSp

If selected to participate in our MR study, you will be given £20 to cover out of pocket expenses. Please feel free to forward this link to anyone you know who might also be interested. For further questions or inquiries, please contact Sujin Hong (sujin.hong@ed.ac.uk). Thank you.

Understanding What the European Union Means to You: Neuropolitics, Behaviour and Identity

euro+jack_straightOn Europe Day, May 9th 2016, the Neuropolitics Research Lab is popping up at the National Library of Scotland. University of Edinburgh researchers introduce a unique approach to understanding what the European Union means to you. Join our interactive drop-in workshops and lightning talks, exploring what our brains, behaviour and even our activities on social media reveal about our attitudes to the EU. View the #myimageoftheEU gallery throughout the day and even add your own image. In the evening, sign up for the expert Q&A session on What the European Means in Different Parts of the UK.

The daytime event is unticketed so feel free to pop in throughout the day.

Timetable:

10.00 – 12.00 Brain, Behaviour and Attitudes to The European Union

A drop in session for demonstrations of what our brains, behaviour and social media activities tell us about our attitudes to the European Union this includes hands-on workshops. View our #myimageoftheEU gallery and watch or join in our interactive sessions to learn more about what eye-tracking, face-emotion coding, social media analysis and brain imaging can tell us about our attitudes to the EU.

12.00 – 14.00 What Does the EU Really Mean To You?

Catch one of our lightning talks on how the public imagines the European Union and what neuropolitics can tell us about this. A series of different talks, each lasting 10 minutes, will start every 20 minutes. You are welcome to drop in for a specific talk or stay for as many as you can. In addition view our #myimageoftheEU gallery, we asked the public to tweet how they see the EU see a gallery of the best and most though provoking images and add your own.

14.00 – 16.00 Closed session for schools visit and workshop

18.00 – 19.30 ‘What Does the EU Mean’ – Panel discussion and a Q&A

The discussion is to be chaired by Kenneth Macdonald, BBC Scotland Science Correspondent, the speakers include Professor Anand Menon, King College London, Director UK in a Changing EU programme; Professor Micheal Keating, University of Aberdeen, Director Centre for Constitutional Change and Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing EU programme; Dr Huw Pritchard member of the Wales Governance Centre and Professor Laura Cram, Director NRlabs Neuropolitics Research, University of Edinburgh, and Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing EU programme.

Tickets for the evening event can be obtained through eventbrite:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/what-does-the-eu-mean-tickets-24624986999

Your Image of the EU: Launch of #myimageoftheEU

The people of the UK are soon to vote in a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. What are your opinions on the EU? What does it make you think of? What do you see in your daily life that evokes thoughts of the EU?

We are inviting you to get involved and be part of the debate! Tweet your images, cartoons, videos and comments that capture your image of the EU. Examples might be EU funding signs, or flags in different spots, but the only limit is your imagination.

We will use your images to create a Twitter gallery that will be accessible to the public, academics, policymakers and political elites. We would particularly welcome images from those who don’t feel a part of the central debate. Get your voices heard. We will be using some of these images in an art installation on Europe Day, 9 May 2016. Prizes will be awarded for the best images.

To participate, tweet images stating where you spotted them, or where you are based, and how the image makes you feel about the EU to @myimageoftheEU, using the hashtag #myimageoftheEU, or email them to us. See the tweets featured here for examples of what to do or visit our Twitter wall.

Our #ImagineEurope project is part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s The UK in a Changing Europe programme. Look out for our regular updates as the project tracks developments in the debate on the UK’s membership of the EU and follow us on Twitter @myimageoftheEU for more information on this and other projects.

This article was originally published on the ImagineEurope Storify.

Exploring Bias: Comparing Approaches for Collecting Twitter Data

In our Imagine Europe project, we are tracking the UK’s EU referendum debate to explore the various ways in which the public imagines the European Union. We are using Twitter to map trends in response to emerging events. This analysis allows us to gain a more nuanced understanding of those who are motivated to comment on UK-EU-related topics. See our Twitter demo for interactive visualisations of the data.

We have collected Twitter data on the referendum debate for the past five months. We are using three methods for collecting data from Twitter: 1) Using hashtags chosen by an expert panel as search queries; 2) Collecting a random sample without specified search terms and extracting referendum-appropriate data automatically; 3) Collecting from the three official campaign groups @vote_leave, @LeaveEUOfficial and @StrongerIn.

Each method of collection influences what data will be collected and therefore each data set has certain biases. The hashtag and random stream sample sets are heavily influenced by the terms used for data collection. Those terms differ greatly when automatically extracted (the random stream set) or chosen by experts (the hashtag set).

The expert method is designed to follow a wider variety of terms that the experts expect will become discussion topics over the longer-term referendum debate, whereas the automatic method extracts data using terms which are commonly associated with known referendum-specific terms. Examining the three different sets allows us to contrast what is being collected and gives us the ability to have a broader understanding of public and elite opinion. In particular, we are examining how topics differ between these data sets and how they influence each other.

The hashtag set is the largest by a considerable amount. During the five-month period, the set collected using hashtags contained 5,556,027 tweets. The set extracted from the random stream has 8,777 tweets and the official campaigns 2,606 tweets. To determine how relevant the data collection is to the debate, we extracted 100 tweets from each set and asked three annotators to consider the relevance of each tweet in two ways: 1) whether it is directly relevant to the UK-EU referendum debate, and 2) whether it is about a topic that would likely influence voter opinion.

We found that the data from the official campaign groups and data automatically extracted from the random stream are more relevant to the topic than the data gathered using hashtags. The hashtag set has a low relevance score for ‘directly relevant to the referendum debate’ but this rises significantly when the topics that will influence the debate are considered.

This was as we expected. The differences can be explained as follows. The official campaign set contains the information from the campaign groups which are publishing tweets in order to influence the debate. This gives us a small, very specific, very opinion-driven set. The random stream set gives a set of data from the wider public, but only tweets that contain terms that are closely related to the debate, therefore providing a very topic-specific set. The hashtag-gathered set is a much larger set, collected using a wider variety of terms. It contains more non-relevant information but also covers the topics likely to influence voters not identified in the other sets.

We did find that much more data was collected by the hashtag method in early September. On further inspection this data relates to refugees and migrants. This shows that the campaign groups are not talking about the refugee crisis or related migration issues. It is not being directly related to the UK-EU referendum debate, but instead it is being widely discussed.

Analysing the frequency of commonly used hashtags gives an indication of topics discussed in each of the datasets. Much of the discussion in the tweets from the official campaign and the random stream data are directly related to the UK-EU referendum. This is echoed by the hashtags #brexit, #leaveeu, #voteleave and #euref being the top four most frequent in both collections.

Hashtags with a pro-Leave sentiment appear more frequently in all three of our data sets. We do not see any pro-Remain hashtags appearing in the hashtag-gathered set, and only #strongerin and #remainineu in the random stream set. We have a very small number of pro-Remain hashtags in the official campaign data.

Since we are collecting from the three campaign groups and only one is pro-Remain, we would expect a lower level of pro-Remain hashtags in the official set – but not as low as we are seeing. This suggests that either pro-Remain supporters don’t use hashtags, use them in unexpected ways or there is a strong pro-Leave sentiment on Twitter.

We also see another phenomenon within the data – where hashtags are used to draw attention to specific themes. Within the official stream, certain hashtags have been heavily used by the two pro-Leave campaigns. For example, @LeaveEUOfficial launched #theknoweu, #justsaying, #fudgeoff and #twibbon and @vote_leave launched #wrongthenwrongnow and #theinvisableman. We can see that #twibbon also appears in the random stream data set and therefore has cross-pollinated and is being discussed by the wider public. The @StrongerIn campaign does not seem to be using hashtags to the same extent and rarely uses any beyond #strongerin. It is possible that the lack of use of hashtags by the @StrongerIn campaign means that their supporters are not using hashtags as well. This is something we will need to investigate further.

In the hashtag-gathered data, many of the top hashtags indicate a focus on the topic of refugees (#refugeeswelcome, #refugee, #refugeecrisis) and in discussing particular countries (#uk, #usa, #syria, #germany). In the random stream data, we also see a discussion of the referendum-specific terms #brexit and #leaveeu, but very little occurrence of the #strongerin hashtag.

Our #ImagineEurope project is part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s The UK in a Changing Europe programme. Look out for our regular updates as the project tracks developments in the debate on the UK’s membership of the EU and follow us on Twitter @myimageoftheEU for more information on this and other projects.

This article was originally published on the ImagineEurope Storify.

Volunteers needed! (Neuropolitics fMRI study)

Hello,

We are inviting healthy volunteers from Scotland who are interested in participating an exciting fMRI study from our newly launched NRLabs Neuropolitics Research (see also our website http://www.pol.ed.ac.uk/neuropoliticsresearch), School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.

We are currently looking for people from Scotland to take part in the study, which involves having an MR scan. This will involve lying on your back in the scanner for up to one hour, watching videos and playing an interactive game. We will be looking at which parts of your brain are activated during this process. If you are new to MR scanning, experiencing an MR scan can be quite noisy for you at first. We will provide you with ear plugs and headphones to minimise MR noise. Usually participants relax fairly quickly and get used to hearing the MR noise during their scans.

If you are interested in taking part, you can follow the link below and fill out a short survey to check your suitability for MR scanning. Even if you do this you are free to change your mind and withdraw at any time, without a problem. Any information we collect from this survey will be anonymised and will not be shared.

https://qtrial2015q4az1.az1.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_b9NDcURaMrwDQSp

If selected to participate in our MR study, you will be given £20 to cover out of pocket expenses. Please feel free to forward this link to anyone you know who might also be interested. For further questions or inquiries, please contact Sujin Hong (sujin.hong@ed.ac.uk). Thank you.