Second-hand opinions

Tracking the Twitter updates of a random sample of 300,000 active users over the course of a month reveals that this particular corner of social media and social networking is not quite as equitable and democratic as popular perception might have us believe. Indeed, the research published in the International Journal of Internet Marketing and Advertising reveals that there is a two-step flow of information through which a minority of users accounts for the majority of influence. Opinion leaders follow other opinion leaders and effectively form a community of influencers within the wider user base and the information they disseminate then follows a power-law distribution as everyday users share, retweet and reuse that information.

Harsha Gangadharbatla of the Department of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design, College of Media, Communication and Information, at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, and Masoud Valafar a software engineer at Twitter, in San Francisco, California, USA, explain that there are numerous theories about how information is disseminated and how “word-of-mouth” works to influence popular opinion and consumer decision making. There have also been many studies into how the media and social media influencing individuals and groups.

One such theory is known as two-step flow theory. This says that most people form an opinion about a given subject when they are exposed to the views of opinion leaders. Those opinion leaders themselves are influenced by the mass media. This is in contrast to the one-step flow theory, colloquially known as the hypodermic needle, or magic bullet theory, in which people are directly influenced by mass media. Obviously, people are constantly exposed to the mass media at the individual level whether that is television, radio, newspapers or the web. But, the researchers suggest that opinions are actually more likely to be formed second hand in a two-step process. This is especially true of opinions shared on social media but might also apply to the influencers in traditional media – TV pundits, newspaper and magazine columnists, and the like.

It has been claimed that with the wave of new media in the form of Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, and other so-called Web 2.0 sites democratization of information and influence occurred. Gangadharbatla and Valafar suggest that this may not be the case, at least in the Twitter context. Social media is changing radically the way users and consumers receive information, news, opinion, but as with the old vanguard, there still exists the big influencers. These people or organizations, which might include information hubs and news outlets, pressure groups, and even celebrities, act as the primary source of information and opinion.

“Our study suggests that the way information propagates on social media is not all that different from that of traditional media. In other words, even on supposedly democratic and gatekeeper-less environments like Twitter and Instagram, information propagates mostly through opinion leaders, and, more so, these opinion leaders are all connected to other opinion leaders on the medium resulting in a virtual community of opinion leaders that yield a strong influence on how and how fast information spreads on social media,” the team reports. In the business context, the team adds that their, “results suggest that targeting this virtual community of opinion leaders will be a more effective use of advertising dollars than reaching the masses on Twitter.”

Gangadharbatla, H. and Valafar, M. (2017) ‘Propagation of user-generated content online’, Int. J. Internet Marketing and Advertising, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp.218–232.

Research Picks – August 2017

Clearing the way

Wax deposited in well bores and pipelines is a major problem for the oil industry, resulting in waste material, blockages and overall loss of production. A team in India has now developed a novel solvent system that can quickly dissolve such wax deposits and get the oil moving freely again. Their final formulation was based on tests with 12 different solvents and three commercial dispersants. The optimal mixture could dissolve wax to between 72 and 83% of initial mass within three to six hours at ambient temperature, the team reports. This implies enormous potential for recovering solidified wax and opening up pipelines.

Banerjee, S., Kumar, S., Mandal, A. and Naiya, T.K. (2017) ‘Design of novel chemical solvent for treatment of waxy crude‘, Int. J. Oil, Gas and Coal Technology, Vol. 15, No. 4, pp.363-379.

Securing the IoT

The internet of things (IoT) is a far more complicated technological beast than the internet itself as it carries within it so many disparate devices, sensors and other technology that are not usually considered to exist within the world of computers. Environmental monitors, remote-controlled thermostats and windows, connected household goods such as refrigerators and washing machines and a whole range of industrial devices are but a fraction of the total IoT. As such there are many vulnerabilities in such an electronic ecosystem where malicious software might intrude and thence break through into other more critical systems higher up the system and compromise data and infrastructure. Researchers in China have now proposed a new trusted architecture that might preclude entry by many forms of malware attack and so make the IoT more secure at the fundamental level.

Cong, P., Ning, Z., Xue, F., Liu, H., Xu, K. and Li, H. (2017) ‘Trusted connection architecture of Internet of Things oriented to perception layer‘, Int. J. Wireless and Mobile Computing, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp.224-231.

Bioremediation of nitrate

The presence of nitrate in waste water and water resources is one of the most pressing pollution problems of the modern era. Much of the polluting nitrate is from agricultural fertilisers and can lead to toxic algal blooms as well as contaminating drinking water. Various techniques are available for removing nitrate from water including ion exchange, biological denitrification, chemical denitrification, catalytic denitrification, reverse osmosis and electrodialysis. Now, a team in India have demonstrated that bioremediation using a fluidised bed biofilm reactor (FBBR) could be the most effective method of denitrification and the technology should be adopted where severe nitrate ingress into waterways and aquifers is a significant problem because of intensive agricultural practices.

Burghate, S. and Ingole, N. (2017) ‘Bio-removal of nitrate from wastewater by FBBR‘, Int. J. Environment and Waste Management, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp.281-296.

Management agency and ventriloquism

Without communication there is no organization. However, our lives, both personal and in business are guided and nudged by dominant narratives that we do not necessarily see. Researchers in Denmark writing in the European Journal of Cross-Cultural Competence and Management hope to remedy that situation and render the invisible visible and to reveal the counter-narratives that exist in society.

Lundholt, M.W. (2017) ‘Fabric of counter-narratives: agency and ventriloquism‘, European J. CrossCultural Competence and Management, Vol. 4, Nos. 3/4, pp.316-325.

Anonymity, scoundrels, and free speech

Christoph Bezemek of the Institute of Public Law and Political Science, at the University of Graz, Austria, tells a tale of his school history teacher who purported that only “scoundrels” sent letters to a newspaper anonymously. His teacher’s argument being that public discourse as a democratic society’s bonding agent and so those who wish their voice to be heard should not hide behind a veil of anonymity. And yet, in a free society, surely one should have the right to a voice whether anonymous or not, after all throughout history often the messenger was at the lethal end of the phrase: the pen is mightier than the sword.

In the modern world, where everyone is a messenger thanks to online social networking and social media, there seems an even greater need to protect the right of an individual to remain anonymous in public discourse if they chose to do so and perhaps even to have the prerogative to encrypt their message and so limit its audience. This does not necessarily conflict with the notion of civic courage,

Being anonymous is often the only way to honourably, rather than perniciously, spread an opinion especially when faced with fraudulent scoundrels who hold power. There is a long tradition of anonymous pamphleteering that continues onto today’s digital age. At least in democratic nations, it is established sufficiently that the principle of anonymous free speech lies at the very core of that democracy. Everyone should have the right to free speech and to whether or not they make their name public in their declarations. Whether they are anonymous or not we all have the right to listen or to ignore them.

As governments start to ban encryption technology and virtual private networks (VPNs) or request technology companies to grant them “backdoor access” into computer systems, we must be vigilant that free speech may still be exercised, whether openly or anonymously; even if by scoundrels.

Bezemek, C. (2017) ‘Behind a veil of obscurity – anonymity, encryption, free speech and privacy‘, Int. J. Technology Policy and Law, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp.3-15.