Democratic Audit post on coronavirus ‘fake news’

I have written a post for Democratic Audit on the spread of coronavirus ‘fake news’ over the past few months. I discuss how false stories about COVID-19 ‘cures’ can have deadly consequences, as seen in Iran where hundreds of people died after drinking methanol in the mistaken belief it would protect them from the virus. While conspiracy theories about the virus being a ‘biological weapon’ have emerged online, their impact should not be exaggerated. Instead, we should focus on the misinformation spread by political leaders such as Donald Trump, which is more likely to have an impact on the behaviour of citizens.

Thanks to Alice Park and the fantastic DA team for their help in publishing this. The post can be found here

Quoted in Forge Press article on social media censorship and online harms

I was interviewed a few weeks ago by Stephanie Lam from Forge Press about the recent UK Government Online Harms White Paper, which proposed that OfCom be given powers to fine social media companies who fail to remove harmful content from their platforms. Thanks to Stephanie for the interview and for writing the piece. It can be accessed here


New article published on social media and sousveillance

I have a new article in the journal First Monday out today. Entitled ‘PSNIRA vs. peaceful protesters? YouTube, ‘sousveillance’ and the policing of the union flag protests,’ it explores how Youtubers responded to footage of alleged police brutality during the union flag protests in Northern Ireland between December 2012 and March 2013. 

Drawing on a qualitative analysis of 1,586 comments posted under 36 ‘sousveillance’ videos, I argue that responses to these videos were shaped by competing narratives on the legitimacy of police actions during the flag protests. This footage focussed attention on the anti-social behaviour of the protesters rather than the alleged police brutality referred to in the video descriptions. The paper concludes by considering the problematic nature of exploring imagined sousveillance, as was the case here, through the collection and analysis of ‘easy data’ scraped from online platforms such as YouTube. The paper can be accessed here

MeCCSA 2020 presentation

I attended the annual MeCCSA conference  at the University of Brighton last week, which brought together a very diverse group of Media, Communication and Cultural Studies researchers to discuss its core theme ‘Media Interactions and Environments.’

My paper, ‘Peace on Facebook? Problematising social media as spaces for intergroup contact in divided societies’, critically evaluated the cyber optimist notion that ICTs might facilitate more associative models of peacebuilding in contemporary societies. Using examples such as Peace on Facebook, I argued that the corporate logic of social media has significant implications for efforts to foster positive intergroup contact in deeply-divided societies. Online platforms are not benign actors and they turbocharge mis-and disinformation that contributes to sectarian violence in countries such as India and Northern Ireland.  The slides can be found below:


Article on Twitter and NI leaders’ debate published

I have an article, ‘Remain Alliance’ win BBC Northern Ireland Leaders’ Debate (online at least), in UK Election Analysis 2019: Media, Voters and the Campaign, out today. In the piece, I discuss some preliminary findings from a Twitter study of reactions to the BBC NI Leaders’ debate on 10 December 2019.

Many congratulations (and thanks) to the fantastic Bournemouth University editorial team of Dan Jackson, Einar Thorne, Darren Lilleker and Nathalie Weidhase. Looks like an excellent read!

#SocMedHE19 Virtual presentation on Twitter and Higher Education teaching

Unfortunately I am unable to attend today’s Social Media for Learning in Higher Education conference at Edge Hill University. Thanks to the conference organisers for allowing me to submit a virtual presentation.  The screencast can be found here and the abstract and slides for my talk are below:

‘Curation, Connectivity and Creativity: Reflections on using Twitter to teach Digital Activism

Dr. Paul Reilly, University of Sheffield


How can teachers leverage the connective affordances of Twitter to enhance student learning within Higher Education? How do students respond to content shared on module hashtags? In this virtual presentation, I will consider these questions by discussing my own experience of using Twitter in my Digital Activism modules over the past five years. During this period, I created hashtags such as #actandprotest and #digiadvocates in order to curate digital resources for my students at Leicester and Sheffield, as well as to encourage them to share relevant news items, blogs, and research papers at appropriate points during the course. I will reflect on what I refer to as the three ‘C’s of using Twitter in the context of Higher Education. First, the microblogging site provides unprecedented opportunities for the curation of resources. In the case of my Digital Activism teaching, real-time case studies such as Occupy Wall Street and the ‘Arab Spring’ were integrated into sessions through the use of Twitter to share links to blogs and news media coverage. Second, there is the connection with students who were using links shared on these hashtags to deepen their knowledge about theories such as connective action. Some even went as far as to use #actandprotest and #digiadvocates to share resources they had found with their classmates (and me). Finally, there is the ability to showcase the creativity of the students studying Digital Activism. For example, subvertisements (remixed logos of corporations that critique consumerism) were shared under #digiadvocates with the consent of the students who created them. This received very positive feedback from the class, as well as academics and students who were not enrolled in the module but were following the  hashtag. The presentation concludes by considering how Twitter may be used to support student learning in the future.

The conference programme can be found here and you can follow on Twitter using #SocMedHe19

Social Media & Society conference #SMSociety

Dr Suay Ozkula and I are at the 10th annual Social Media & Society conference in Toronto this weekend. We are presenting three papers today (20th July) which address issues pertinent to the conference’s theme ‘Rethinking Privacy & Trust in the Social Media Age’.

The first paper, entitled ‘Whose data is it anyway? Doing ethical social media research in the age of datafication ‘, examines the responsibilities of researchers to social media users who themselves are the subject of mass surveillance conducted by online platforms. We draw on the key guidelines for internet research since 2002 in order to critique the two most commonly proposed solutions to these issues, namely informed consent and de-identification. Data from Eurobarometer and the Pew Internet and American Life project is used to examine the growth in digital resignation amongst users, as well as their expectations in relation to academic use of their data. We conclude with a number of propositions for social media researchers, which include the principle that all research of online platforms be considered human participant research and that all ethical stances be produced on a case-by-case basis. We argue that researchers have an obligation to turn these data subjects into ‘knowing publics’ by making their methods for collecting and analysing data more transparency. They should also engage unaware participants, especially those from whom consent has not been obtained, throughout each stage of the project lifecycle.

The second paper is called ‘Strategic techniques for qualitative Sampling online- a review of social media monitoring tools’. It examines whether tools such as Google Trends and Hashtagify can be used to identify qualitative case studies that are meaningful and broadly representative of broader social phenomena. We discuss relevant issues such as digital bias in our review of how digital methods can be deployed in support of qualitative research. The paper argues that these tools have great potential in finding suitable entry points for researchers exploring societal issues on platforms such as Twitter. They can help identify key influencers and metadata that builds a more nuanced picture of how information flows on social media. However, the black box nature of these tools needs to be acknowledged as a limitation of digital methods. We propose that researchers should triangulate these results by using more than one monitoring tool in their construction of social media data samples.

We are also delivering a poster entitled ‘Easy data, usual suspects, same old places? A systematic review of digital activism research, 1995-2019′. This summarises our ongoing work examining the methods and case studies used in this emergent field. We find evidence to suggest that Twitter was by far the most researched platform during this period, with the Global South neglected in this work. We also explore the researchers and journals that are disproportionately represented in this body of research.

WSIS Policy Briefs published

During the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of working with several members of our GLOSS WSIS 2019 team on their blogs and policy briefs. These are detailed below:

Policy Briefs:

Baskaradas, E., and Reilly, P. (2019) In search of a gender-balanced approach towards Smart Cities 3.0, Policy Brief, Global Policy, 25 April.

Baskett, V. and Reilly, P. (2019) Educational Digital Divides: addressing English  monolingualism within academic research, Policy Brief, Global Policy, 23 April.

Kisbee-Batho, R. and Reilly, P. (2019) Legal identity as a barrier to digital connectivity for refugees, Global Policy Opinion, 22 April.

Pinney, M. and Reilly, P. (2019) e-Agriculture: coordinating fields to save the environment, Policy Brief, Global Policy, 16 April.


Reilly, P. (2019) WSIS 2019 Panel ‘ICTs in the University Environment (Part 2), Global Policy Opinion, 25 April.

Reilly, P. (2019) WSIS 2019 Panel ‘ICTs in the University Environment (Part 1), Global Policy Opinion, 24 April.

Reilly, P. (2019) Antidote or Placebo? Digital literacy and the global fight against ‘fake news,‘ Global Policy Opinion, 17 April.

Kirby, D., Pinney, M., & Reilly, P. (2019) VeganCoin: new kid on the block(chain),Global Policy Opinion, 11 April.

Baskett, V., Heminway, R., & Reilly, P. (2019) Making academia an open book? Bibliodiversity and open publishing, Global Policy Opinion, 10 April.

WSIS 2019 panel ‘ICTs in the university environment’ (Part 2)


Two weeks ago Suay Ozkula and I led a delegation of eight students from the Global Leadership Initiative in the Social Sciences  at the University of Sheffield to the 2019 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, Switzerland. The team developed and ran the ‘ICTs in the university environment’ session during the event.

The slides for the presentation can be found here and a link to a video recording of the session can be viewed on the WSIS site.

In this second blog about the event, I will go through some of the key points from each presentation.

The fifth speaker during the event was Myra Mufti (MSc. International Social Change & Policy), who examined how ICTs could help make university admissions processes more efficient in Pakistan (from 24.40 on the webcast).

The Online College Admissions System (OCAS) introduced in the Punjab province has handled in excess of 317,000 applications in the past few years (a huge rise since 2016). The cost of these applications has been greatly reduced, with a time saving also evident due to the fact that visits are no longer required. Myra reflected on how OCAS could help bridge geographical, gender-based and financial divides within Pakistan.

The penultimate presentation from Romany Kisbee-Batho (Graduate Diploma in Law) focussed on her social media activism against immigration detention centres in counties such as Lincolnshire (beginning at 31.40 on webcast).

Romany showed several examples of the media coverage achieved by the Student Action for Refugees Society (STAR) at the University of Sheffield. Refugees detained in these centres are forbidden from using mobile phones, so a key focus of this student activism is to give them a voice through the use of social media to highlight their plight. STAR works with other NGOs/groups (e.g. Freed Voices) to empower people to speak out about how refugees are being treated within these institutions. However, this campaign is about evoking agency amongst refugees rather than just speaking for them. Their involvement in the anti-immigration detention movement is fundamental for ensuring its success. 

The final speaker was Rebecca Heminway (MA Digital Media & Society), who spoke about the role of ICTs in improving mental health amongst students at the University of Sheffield (beginning at 38.33 on the webcast).

Drawing on her work as a Mental Health Officer, Rebecca spoke about the rise in self-reported mental health problems by students in the UK over the past decade. At the same time, digital devices (e.g. smart phones, iPads, laptops) are ubiquitous amongst HE students, thus providing opportunities for the provision of additional support to those who need it. However, there are a number of barriers that must be overcome in order for this potential to be realised. These include the lack of data sharing between and within HEIs, and the absence of architectural approaches towards implementing interventions for student mental health within the sector.

The session was ably chaired by Hana Okasha, who facilitated a very interesting discussion about the future role of ICTs within Higher Education after the presentations had finished.


Well done to the team for all their hard work and delivering such an excellent session at WSIS 2019!

WSIS 2019 panel ‘ICTs in the university environment’ (Part 1)

Two weeks ago Suay Ozkula and I led a delegation of eight students from the Global Leadership Initiative in the Social Sciences  at the University of Sheffield to the 2019 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, Switzerland. The team developed and ran the ‘ICTs in the university environment’ session during the event.

The slides for the presentation can be found here and a link to a video recording of the session can be viewed on the WSIS site.

In this first of two blogs about the event, I will go through some of the key points from each presentation.

Our first speaker was Mike Pinney (M.Sc. Applied GIS, Urban Studies & Planning) who delivered a fascinating talk on his GIS project in the Gleadless area of Sheffield (starting at 00.43 in the webcast).

Mike showed us some great visualisations of his case study and argued that academics should develop assignments for their courses that had tangible impacts upon local communities. For example, students could use crime data to identify safe spaces, or remote sensing to help farmers analyse soil fertility within these areas.  He made a compelling case for more creative modes of assessment in Higher Education that went beyond essays and exams. In the Q&A he called for WSIS to focus more on the threat posted by climate change in future Summits.

The second speaker was Tor Baskett (MA Digital Media & Society), who discussed the educational divide between Global North and South (starting at 06:17 in the webcast). She presented a critique of the term digital divide and talked about how digital skills (or lack thereof) could have a significant impact on the career trajectory of citizens in the developing world.

Crucially, this divide is not just one between Global North and South. Tor highlighted recent reports suggesting that as many as one third of UK students were deficient in digital skills as evidence that it was ‘holding back’ people in developed countries too. She finished her presentation by calling for schools to invest more resources in equipping students to excel in the Information Society. One example given was the use of Artificial Intelligence within Romanian schools to increase digital literacy amongst pupils.

Danny Kirby was our third panelist, who spoke about his student project on how networked publics on Twitter responded to UK Prime Minster Teresa May’s Brexit plan (beginning at 12.17 in the webcast). He reflected on the limitations of using digital methods such as Sentiment Analysis to explore complex political phenomena on social media.

In his study of hashtags such as #brexitshambles, Danny found several limitations to using these methods, such as their inability to detect sarcasm.  He also found extensive evidence of bot activity in his research on how Brexit was being discursively framed on Twitter. He concluded by arguing in favour of greater ‘democratisation of social media research’ and warned that a new digital divide was emerging between those universities able to pay for social media data and those could not.

Our fourth speaker was Evelyn Baskaradas (MSc Data Science), who began by giving a personal account of her experiences using Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) at the University of Sheffield, both as an undergraduate and postgraduate student (beginning at 18.38 on the webcast).

While analytics from VLEs could help improve learning and teaching in Higher Education Institutions (eg. identifying students who might need specific help), students viewed this use of their personal data as a violation of their privacy. Within Evelyn’s cohort, there has been much discussion about the ethical challenges posed by these ‘data driven’ approaches towards e-supported learning, as well as their potential benefits for staff and students within these institutions. She recommended that there should be greater scrutiny of how these analytics were used to inform Higher Education policy and practice.

The other three presentations will be summarised in WSIS 2019 panel ‘ICTs in the university environment’ (Part 2).