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Social Media and Human Rights


Paolo Gerbaudo

R(w)SM Reading Group, Mar 5, 2015, 2-4pm, Sociology Seminar Room

Presentation overview

Big Data and Fine Details: The Importance of Qualitative Approaches in the Study of Social Media and Political Phenomena

Big data is an emerging field of research for scholars in the social sciences and humanities, that opens great opportunities for capturing the dynamics of complex social phenomena, from protest movements, to emerging political parties, in profound ways. Yet, there are also serious risks involved in this development, as academics involved in the field, sometimes ignore the inherent bias of datasets, or do not dedicate sufficient attention to the social context of the data they analyse, and the cultural specificity of certain terms, hashtags, and contents conveyed via social media as Facebook and Twitter. This uncritical use of big data analysis has produced some serious scholarly blunders, at different levels, such as sampling (choosing the wrong hashtag!) and interpretation (filtering datasets in dubious ways). In this talk I will argue for the need to couple qualitative and quantitative methodologies in the study of social media and big data to avoid these mistakes being repeated in the future. Big data research calls for the formation of research teams with mixed expertise to couple the ability to crunch big data, with the capacity to take into account the "fine details" which are necessary to understand the semantic aspect of contemporary online communication.


Paolo joined the Department of CMCI at King’s College London in September 2012 taking a post of Lecturer in Digital Culture and Society. Previously he had been an Associate Lecturer in Journalism and Communication, at the Media Department at Middlesex University, and an Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Apart from his academic work Paolo has also acted as a journalist covering social movements, political affairs and an environmental issues, and as a new media artist exhibiting at art festivals and shows. He holds a PhD in Media and Communications from Goldsmiths College, where he worked under the supervision of Professor Nick Couldry.

Key reading

Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism (Introduction). London: Pluto Press.

Supplementary readings

Stephansen, H. C., & Couldry, N. (2014). Understanding micro-processes of community building and mutual learning on Twitter: a ‘small data’approachInformation, Communication & Society, (ahead-of-print), 1-16.
Crawford, K., Gray, M. L., & Miltner, K. (2014). Big Data| Critiquing Big Data: Politics, Ethics, Epistemology| Special Section IntroductionInternational Journal of Communication8, 10.
Miller, D., & Slater, D. (2000). The Internet: an ethnographic approach. Oxford: Berg.

About this website

This is the website for Ella McPherson's work related to her 2014-17 ESRC-funded research project, Social Media, Human Rights NGOs, and the Potential for Governmental Accountability.