Social Network Analysis in the field of Political Sociology Case: Brexit and Online Social Networks

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Sociology

Abstract

The aim of this study is:
1. investigating the effects of online social networks related to the EU Referendum in 2016 on political discussions and political polarisation;
2. to test whether social media encourage the formation of network homophily and echo chambers (Hypothesis 1) or provide an effective public sphere that supports democracy (Hypothesis 2).
The first task will be describing and analysing the online network structure of social media users who are active in Brexit discussions. Subsequently, I would like to investigate the influence and power social media have on political opinion creation. I will examine how such platforms (e.g. Twitter) influence public opinion formation and facilitate or constrain debates about political topics. Moreover, I would like to inspect whether online social network platforms facilitate political polarisation, echo chambers and in turn lead to a network structure characterised by highly segregated clusters with only limited connectivity, or whether such platforms facilitate political debate. In other words, the study will examine whether the Internet provides an adequate and effective online public sphere where individuals debate and exchange views. The alterative hypothesis would be that such platforms provide a context in which homophilous relations are formed, which in turn foster the development of extreme political views and polarisation. Moreover, the research aims to find empirical evidence to test whether concerns about filter bubbles influencing voting behaviour and the democratic society at large are justified. I will answer these questions by focusing on the UK EU Referendum of 2016 and the Brexit transition period. So far, the UK is the first country who withdraws from the European Union. This political event will have significant consequences on UK law, economics and most importantly it affects a lot of UK as well as EU citizens. Moreover, some fear that other EU member states will follow the UK and leave the European Union as well. Studying this particular event is not only important because of its effect on citizens, understanding the mechanisms behind Brexit might also help to forecast or deal with similar political events in the future.
Research Questions
In this section I list research questions I would like to test empirically:
Do social media platforms facilitate the formation of homophilous networks?
2) Do social media harm the public sphere or do social network services such as Twitter and YouTube provide an open and accessible platform for people to debate and exchange political opinions?
3) What are the underlying mechanisms and means of information diffusion in an online public sphere?
4) Does the consumption of news via social media or web search engines increase ideological segregation and lead to voters who are less exposed to a variety of political views and perspectives?
5) Is the broader UK Twitter community discussing Brexit-related issues differentiated into two distinct communities or does an integrated social sphere exist?
6) If segregated groups exist, how strong are these groups isolated and can echo chambers be observed?To test the above-mentioned research questions empirically, I intend to employ innovative research methods including Social Network Analysis (SNA) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques. I will use SNA to investigate and visualise networks of individuals active in Brexit discussions on social media platforms such as Twitter. Networks could be visualised with the open source software Gephi. NetworkX is a Python based package which I could use in order to analyse network structures. For instance, I will measure the potential impact of a given user on its community as well as the degree of network homophily.

Publications

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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/S50158X/1 01/10/2018 31/03/2022
2103467 Studentship ES/S50158X/1 01/10/2018 30/06/2022 Clemens Jarnach