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Section 7: Topic 1

Social media analysis

The first approach is inexpensive and may not take too much time (depending on the sort of analysis you do), but has some important limitations. Social media analysis might sound like a daunting prospect if you have not done it before, but it can be surprisingly accessible:​

  • Quantitative content analysis can be used to count the frequency with which particular words or phrases appear in media (and trends can be tracked over time, looking for peaks that might correspond to public engagement activities). Similarly, this technique can be used to characterise a body of text that is known to relate to the public engagement that is being evaluated (e.g. newspaper cuttings or tweets on an event hashtag), based on the frequency of words within that body of text. 

  • Although more time consuming, qualitative analysis of text that has been aggregated using a hashtag or keyword search can offer more nuanced insights into the nature of debate stimulated by public engagement. Changes in the amount and nature of discourse may be tracked over time. 

  • Evidence of reach may be gathered for particular messages (e.g. number of retweets for particular tweets, and where possible the reach and impressions for that tweet), to evaluate which messages gained most traction. 

  • It may also be possible to study the diversity of people discussing (or liking or retweeting etc.) media stories linked to research, or discussing the research directly, where profile information is available e.g. based on gender and interests. Similar information may be sought from comments under mass media articles, but these are typically less frequent and less likely to be linked to profile information.

  • Alternatively, more nuanced findings can be gained from a qualitative analysis of social media comments, identifying key themes and using these to build rich descriptions of different responses to the research, illustrated by quotes.

  • Finally, it is possible to reach out directly to social media users who made comments to ask additional questions, collecting further qualitative data on the platform or inviting them to take an online survey or to a telephone interview.

​It is important to note that social media analysis comes with a number of limitations and ethical challenges. Social media users are unlikely to be representative of the overall audience engaging with the media, for example different platforms have distinct demographic or geographical biases. It is also important to get ethics permission for this sort of evaluation, and different universities often have quite different norms and rules around social media research. While some argue that those posting social media comments understand that the material is available for anyone to view publicly, it is very difficult to prove that you have obtained informed consent from those who posted the comments to analyse them. 

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