What can the Twitter storm over Benefits Street teach us?

A new research project will investigate how social media can play its part in both inciting discrimination against and building understanding of marginalised communities.

The CuRAtOR (Challenging online feaR And OtheRing) project, led by the University of Lincoln, UK, will explore where and how representations of certain minority groups by government and broadcast media can lead to discrimination driven by social media.

Cultures of fear can be spread, either deliberately or otherwise, by a wide range of agents including the media, government, science, the arts, industry and politics.

Examples of this include the recent portrayal of a (seemingly) whole community of benefit claimants in Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Observations of social media discussions about the documentary highlighted high levels of antipathy, anger and abuse directed at the community portrayed within the programme.

Funded by a £750,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Empathy and Trust In Communicating ONline (EMoTICON) call, the research will focus on understanding how empathy and trust are developed, maintained, transformed and lost in social media interactions.

Principal Investigator, Professor Shaun Lawson from the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, said: “One way of marginalising communities is by instilling fear in the general public. What is not understood at present is the interplay between traditional broadcast media, government messages and what’s happening online with social media, particularly on Twitter and Facebook.

“There are significant unanswered questions on what role online digital media can have in propagating cultures of fear and mistrust. The big question, however, is whether the outwardly vitriolic reaction to the people in programmes like Benefits Street is actually enforcing the negative perception, and if not what is really happening.”

The second aspect of the three-year project will investigate the possibility of creating alternative digital experiences that might counteract the negative effects of this kind of discrimination.

Professor Lawson said: “It’s about making people think more critically and challenge what they view as fact. We need to create the environment to foster that kind of thinking and make sure people are aware of the bigger picture. So, if a company makes a TV programme, how can social media be used to counteract certain negative kinds of messages and make people think more deeply about those issues? How we create those new experiences is what we hope to achieve through the research.”

The project will also look at how the media and emerging digital data contributes to the unfair portrayal of communities. For instance, the release of open crime data is intended to increase confidence in our law enforcement agencies, yet its effect is to increase fear of crime.

The project team, which also involves researchers from Bath, Newcastle, Nottingham and Aberdeen universities, will be investigating whether this type of data can be used in a more critical way.

Dr David Cobham, Head of the Lincoln School of Computer Science, added: “This is the latest in a series of extremely thought provoking projects undertaken by the Lincoln Social Computing (LiSC) Research Centre. LiSC is one of the UK’s leading technology research units investigating the way social media are being used and abused. The CuRAtOR project helps us understand how society can harness the power of social computing for the greater good. Given that our lives are increasingly affected and influenced by social media, this line of technology research is incredibly revealing and is absolutely essential.”

For more on the EMoTICON call, go to http://lncn.eu/uwy2

Fear definition

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