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Tactics of Issue Mapping Part 2

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On October 26 and 27 CSISP hosted a second event on Tactics of Issue Mapping, which David Moats discusses in his workshop report below. The first day featured a series of presentations on the role of creative practice in connecting research and intervention in issue mapping, and audio recordings of these talks can be downloaded here: Part 1 and Part 2. The second day was dedicated to groupwork on a selected tactic of issue mapping, namely bias detection, about which you can read more here.

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Issue Mapping combines social theory, computing, design and advocacy. If one of those elements isn’t there it doesn’t work” – Noortje Marres, workshop co-organiser

If the first Issue Mapping workshop, earlier this year, explored the arsenal of digital tools and tactics available to researchers, then this second instalment was concerned with how we might put them to good use in addressing specific problems. It was appropriate then that the Tactics for Issue Mapping event on Friday began with a presentation from Marek Tuszynski and Stephanie Hankey from Tactical Technology Collective, an organisation that works with activists on communications strategies. They took us through a taxonomy of communications practices from jarring images of sewn up roses meant to draw you into issues female mutilation, to evidence-heavy data visualisations of Iraq War casualties which communicated findings.

Hankey and Tuszynski also talked about the ambivalence of images and meanings. A good example being Chevron’s recent advertising campaign which gestured to the environmental movement by proclaiming “Oil companies should invest in alternative energy”, appropriating environmental language developed by NGOs (Greenwashing as an audience member called it). Culture jammers The Yes Men famously copied these adds and inserted bolder statements – “Oil companies should clean up the messes they create”.

Tactical Tech addressed the vexed issue of impact, questioning if such actions can actually force a corporation’s hand, or if rather these actions were more important for creating solidarity between activists on an issue. They were also critical of some activist groups using “emotional porn” to enlist support – perhaps going too far in appropriating the tactics of corporate advertisers.

Tommaso Venturini of the Media Lab at Sciences Po, Paris was equally concerned with communicating findings to a large audience and turned his attention to what sociologists can perhaps learn from the processes of designers. If the first presentation’s spectrum ran between the emotional and the evidential, then Venturini explored the fine balance between complexity and communication and the sequence of mediations between real world phenomena and representations.

Venturini also complicated the conceptual process he laid out some years ago in his programmatic introduction to controversy mapping: ‘Diving in Magma‘. His chain of representation, which moves from statements to actors all the way to cosmos and cosmopolitics in practice turns out to be more of an iterative process: looping from data analysis to “telling stories” and back again. In the interests of engagement this also becomes an ever enlarging spiral where drafts of the controversy maps are shown to the public, leading to both revisions and new questions. Designer and Sociologist Alex Wilkie noted that the word mapping tends to instrumentalise design, when designers often engage in very sociological processes as part of their daily work.

Noortje Marres and Carolin Gerlitz also tried to question the traditional means of controversy mapping. Did the internet finally make associations traceable? Did digitization engender new tools for discovering issues, and was there an affinity between STS methods and those of the web (eg between citation analysis and hyperlinking)? Marres and Gerlitz drew a distinction between the re-mediation and the re-distribution of methods, where the latter refers to a more uncomfortable process in which the uptake of social research metods in digital networked media does not necessarily serve the ends of social research as we understand it. While social science methods are sometimes “remediated” online, this does not mean that online methods are aligned with the goals and objects of social research. They asked how sociology could reclaim the online research apparatus: what is required, in their account, is tactical, modular and inherently flexible methods. They presented a case study on the liveliness of climate change issues on Twitter which develops such an approach.

On Saturday the workshop continued in a smaller group and this day was dedicated to the elusive issue of bias and partisanship in online issue spaces. Bias detection seems to be an increasingly important matter for web critics but it has not necessarily been adequately addressed in sociology. It was our challenge to ask how the concept of “leaning” and “bias” could be operationalised, visualised and communicated in sociologically relevant ways. Erik Borra presented the innovative Political Insights project on which he collaborated with others and which seeks to identifie the bias of search engine queries depending on whether users finally land on right or left leaning blogs. For instance, the query “Obamacare” tends to lead to right-wing blogs, while “health care reform” was preferred by readers of left leaning blogs. This approach opened up the idea that bias is not only an attribute of actors, but that terms or issues (or methods or media) can equally have a “bias”. Political Insights, admittedly relies on blogs self-identifying their partisanship, so a recurring question was how to identify bias without prior knowledge or a presumed “neutral” plane.

We split into groups focusing on Data Analysis, Research Methods, Visualisations and Engagement and focused on a data-set of tweets about the ACTA (anti-piracy) legislation for the months leading up to a vote in the European parliament in July 2012. Prior to the session the data set was tagged as “Pro”, “Neutral” and “Ambiguous” based on a polarisation of the websites they linked to, which was checked with an expert on the issue. There were some obvious limitations of the data set in that, being Twitter, most of the users were anti-ACTA. Also, spatialisation of the Twitter social graph (based on who re-tweeted who) revealed that the clustering between countries and languages was far stronger than for or against polarisation. There was also a collection of tweets related to “Acta” a spanish term for exam which reminded us of the pitfalls of simply conflating hashtags with issues. There were however some very strong central accounts (sometimes with ACTA in the name) which people organised around, even if they were not the most prolific tweeters.

The Research Methods group explored a taxonomy of different methodologies for studying bias. The different sides of a debate could be determined either by comparing actors or the terms they use but in either case the charges must ultimately start from either expert knowledge of actors, sites or terms, which may itself be biased, or clustering algorithms, which may seem especially effective in the more stereotypical left/right debates. They also explored referencing (mentions, hyperlinks) and how the positive or negative modularities of the surrounding text could be studied as “boundary-work”: intra-group “back slapping” or “infighting” or intra-group “acknowledgement” and “accusation” – though it was clear that this would be more of a manual task because a list of key words would be very difficult.

However, another group who performed a qualitative reading of tweets found that there was very little qualification or commentary about the hyperlinks or mentions, many of them came across as neutral in their language and only could be identified, contextually, as partisan with the attendant hyperlink, something which more than half of the tweets contained.

Another route was to study the dynamics of bias, how actors shift their use of terms or how terms shift their association with each other – this could reveal what we called “Framewashing” (strategically taking up the issue-framing of the other side), or equally the difusing of term polarisation – though the difference between the two movements was difficult to operationalise.

In terms of the public presentation of findings, one group explored some innovative visualisations to communicate findings including venn diagrams and tree maps and one group proposed a twitter controversy bot which could facilitate or maybe even stir up debates on twitter. Returning to where we started with cultural activism, David Garcia discussed the famous poster by ACT UP “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” suggesting that perhaps there was a political use in publics resisting labels like pro and con – strategic ambiguity. While bias as a concept in terms of right and left was subjected to much scruitiny, the general consensus was that it was a crucial goal of issue mapping to ask how issues become partisan and how such stalemates are maintained at the expense of actual dialogue or contestation.

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