In last week’s session, we looked at the various forms of web services and considered the roles they play in our lives. Increasingly, we rely on cloud computing to store and retrieve our documents, and manufacturers have increasingly done away with CD/DVD drives and instead only include USB ports on newer machines. Our data is held on remote servers and has the advantage of access from any device. We then went on to talk about social media platforms such as Twitter, one such web service, which generates huge amounts of data about its users. The practical exercise that followed involved us seeing what information could be gleamed from this data and the ethical questions that this may pose.
One important concept that was introduced was that of the API or Application Programming Interface. APIs allow third party applications to acquire data from these services for their own purposes. This may allow the makers of these programs to collect valuable information about the demographics of people using the platforms or their political preferences. Martin Hawksey has developed an app called TAGS which allows users to collect a whole series of tweets with the same hashtag on one Google Spreadsheet. This would allow us to see what type of people were talking about an issue and build up a picture of what they were saying about it. A controversial topic with a suitable hashtag could yield fascinating results, although Twitter users would probably be unaware they were contributing to this bit of research.
One potential case study here would a high-profile recent controversy in American Football (and one that is highly relevant with the presidential election in the background). San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest what he sees as ongoing oppression of African-Americans by kneeling during the playing of the U.S. national anthem that precedes NFL games caused a furore on Twitter and spawned numerous trending topics. While receiving death threats for his “unpatriotic” stance, he has also become a hero to many, having the highest-selling jersey on nflshop.com during the month of September. Although he was the starter during the 49ers’ run to Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, Kaepernick entered the 2016 season backing up the often-derided Blaine Gabbert on a team widely expected to struggle. He took a very real risk in my view by protesting because it was uncertain at that point whether he would be able to continue his professional career, at least in the NFL.
By putting the term #ColinKaepernick into an app like TAGS, we could see some of the responses to the protest on Twitter and who they emanated from. By looking at other hashtags they used, we could build up a fairly detailed picture of their cultural background and political beliefs. We would expect that many of those sympathetic would be other African-Americans, especially as they are both, according to recent research, more likely to use Twitter than other groups and to tweet frequently. We could see whether these people had used terms like #BlackLivesMatter or #Ferguson. We might also anticipate that those most hostile to Kaepernick might be political conservatives who used hashtags such as #MakeAmericaGreatAgain that are associated with support for Donald Trump. The point is none of these users has specifically given their consent to their data being used in this way (other than agreeing to Twitter’s Terms of Service) and they may not be comfortable with such assumptions being made about their beliefs. Making sure this data is used responsibly is something we information professionals can contribute to.