About a year ago (9 & 10/09/2015), I went to a conference about the future of journalism in Cardiff, Wales. At the “Future Of Journalism: Risks, Threats & opportunities” conference, I presented a paper about how to map the news on social media with two case studies, and my reflexion regarding online news and the use of Actor-Network theory. I used case studies from my personal life in Brussels and furthered this work. The paper was never published (partly because I never put any time into publishing it). Anyways, here it is. You can also download the PDF version here.
Mapping the news on (social)-media: Methodological considerations for the analysis of local news networks.
Abstract: In recent years, prominent scholars in the field of journalism studies have analysed the production and circulation of local news adopting elements of network theory. These approaches could benefit from Actor-network theory (ANT), which considers social phenomena as network effects. Using (social-)media monitoring and scrapping techniques as well as tools for the visual representation of networks, this paper proposes to map, visualise, and systematically analyse actors involved in local news in Brussels on (social-)media through two controversies : the fate of a single picture depicting a university building’s blocked access during a strike in Belgium & and the evolution of an anti-TTIP motion in a municipality of Brussels. The case studies are the point of departure to discuss ANT’s methodological strengths and weaknesses. The use of ANT as a method has proven to be a fruitful contribution to identify a variety of actors producing content on online (social-)media.
Key words: online news, social media, controversy analysis, network theory, Actor-network theory, local news, circulation.
Word count: 5922.
Controversies, Actor-network theory & journalism studies
Diving into Actor-network theory and controversies means diving into a vast network of intertwined research projects, scientific disciplines and academic literature. To complicate the matter further, and even though one is always the result of the other, controversies (and controversy analysis) and networks (and graph theory) of actors are sometimes disconnected from one another. Nonetheless, one of Latour’s (2005) main proposal regarding ANT is to trace network-building associations through controversies. This paper proposes to use this postulate and to follow traces of associations during controversies to detect and map the actors involved in the production and circulation of local news on the Internet.
ANT can in an exceedingly rough manner be defined as an approach to sociology that treats social phenomenon as network effects (Domingo, Masip, & Costera Meijer 2015; Latour 1996, 1999; Law 1992; Law & Hassard 1999; Lee & Hassard 1999); granted these networks are created, stabilized and destroyed through associations during controversies. The actor-network ontology and other rhizomatic approaches (Santana & Carpentier 2010) try to consider the diversity of entities and linkages within an “actor-network”, may it be a human, an objet or an organization. To erase the distinction between what is human and what isn’t, actor-network theorists prefer the term of actant used in place of actors, endowing all entities of agency. Actor-networks can never be reduced to an actor – because composed of a series of heterogeneous elements –, nor to a network of stable elements – hence unable of changing or redefining its identity (Callon 1987).
In the field of journalism studies – and in an era where the various technological and social changes blur the picture we make of journalism and its future (Loosen 2015) –, rhizomatic approaches constitute an alternative framework relevant to approach media evolution, and the processes and actors that make the news… the news (Couldry 2008; Domingo, Masip & Costera Meijer 2015; Plesner 2009; Turner 2005). As stated by Santana & Carpentier, these approaches force media scholars to focus on the linkages between media actors, media organisations, the market, the state and civil society. They also allow us to reflect on the complexity of media organisation (Santana & Carpentier 2010). Networks have been described as “journalistic networks” (Anderson 2010), “news networks” (Hemmingway 2008; Domingo, Masip, & Costera Meijer 2015), or “issue networks” (De Maeyer & Malcorps, forthcoming). In this sense, ANT can help showing the relationships between a diversity of actors involved in the production of (local) news. Accounting for this diversity and empirically rendering it in a comprehensive and at the same time in-depth might become difficult, considering the wide array of actors involved: professional or amateur journalists, bloggers, citizens, activists, politicians or political parties, newsrooms and other organizations, texts and treaties, computers, websites, hyperlinks, etc. (De Maeyer & Malcorps, forthcoming, 8). Nonetheless, prominent scholars have applied ANT in innovative ways to analyse different aspect of news production, circulation and uses; from describing the introduction of technology in newsrooms (Hemmingway 2005), to tracing journalistic controversies (Anderson, 2013), to using controversies to detect a variety of actors and the plurality of journalistic identities involved in the production of news (Domingo & Le Cam 2014; Le Cam & Domingo 2015).
To understand particular courses of actions, researchers have traced the relationships between actants evolving and creating networks. By tracing the evolving network of actants during a particular controversy, researchers writing accounts may study the positions and actions actants. A controversy can be defined as a complex collective situation in which a topic, a theme, does not reach a perfect agreement. Controversies have four main characteristics: they involve a variety of actors, they show social dynamics and change, they are debated because conflicting, and they are resistant to reduction. In ANT terms, a controversy describes everything that is not yet stabilised, black boxed, or closed (Venturini 2010, 260-262). Controversy analysis as gradually gained importance in S&T studies, before being translated within journalism studies, studies on local journalism (Anderson 2013) and even on Brussels (Domingo & Le Cam 2014; Le cam & Domingo 2015). Researchers have used ANT and/or controversy analysis to study news and its ties to public debates public debate (Anderson 2013; Anderson & Kreiss 2013; Benkler & al. 2015; Graeff, Stempeck & Zuckerman 2014; Hemmingway 2005; Le Cam & Domingo 2015; Neresini 2000; Plesner 2009).
In this regard, and focusing on a controversy regarding the arrest of a Muslim women wearing a veil and the following protests, Domingo and Le Cam explored the diversity of actors involved in the production of news in Brussels: mainstream media, community media, bloggers, politicians, citizens and activists as well as other actors recurrently constructing a variety of journalistic identities (2015). Interviewing the actors involved in the production of news regarding this controversy, the authors demonstrate that individuals create a discourse that gives them a central role in the controversy, develop strategies to hold this position and in the end construct and defend a specific role that they play in journalism. Understanding the fact that journalism is a social practice, they conclude that actors play with and inside journalism (Domingo & Le Cam, 2015).
Building on these observations, it is of importance to get a deeper understanding of who the actors of local news actually play with, what types of actors usually collaborate together, and what their interconnections are. To do so, we propose to take a step back to a more typical approach of mapping controversies and to use some elements of network analysis or graph theory (Canright & Engø-Monsen 2007) as well hyperlink network analysis or HNA (Park 2003). This paper proposes to trace the relationships between human actors (individuals and organizations) and with technical actants (such as websites, Facebook and Twitter) during two controversies as well as an inductive-style content and relationship analysis of social networks to approach some of the actors’ relationships, and the effects these relationships have on the individuals in contact with it.
Traces of controversies, local news & network analysis as a methodology
There are many reasons to the boom in controversy analysis and ANT studies within the humanities. Adding to the popularity of internationally recognized scholars and institutions pushing for the integration of controversy analysis as part of the toolbox of actor-network theorists, is the easiness of execution brought by digital analysis methods (Venturini 2012). Analysing a controversy can be done in many ways, ranging from simply following the actors around (Latour 2005), to using text and discourse analysis to find relevant actors (Domingo & Le Cam 2014), to network ethnography (Anderson 2013), to using a wide variety of online tools and link analysis to visualize controversies online (Benkler & al. 2015). These methods – the cartography of controversies – all fall under the umbrella of controversy analysis. Within controversy analysis, and to study the online component of controversies, we propose to use network analysis – also know as graph theory – to detect, visualise, analyse and discuss controversies online, through the material traces left on the Internet (texts, sounds and images) and what connects them (hyperlinks, mentions, comments, shares, etc.).
This research focuses on the following controversies: the circulation of a particular picture regarding strikes in Brussels online, and the motion of the local municipal government of Schaerbeek (Brussels) regarding the TTIP. The methodology used to gather data regarding the circulation of the controversies and the contents produced around it could be best described as online controversy analysis. Actants and their connexions are analysed through a series of qualitative research techniques (see Table 1).
Online media monitoring and social media monitoring were implemented to observe and gather data on mainstream and social media (Twitter and Facebook) with the help of crawling and scraping techniques; network tracing as well as online observation was used to see if and how these contents were linked together. The research methods, goals, and analysis aimed in the same direction for both controversies. However, the techniques to gather data slightly differed to enrich data collection. The picture at the centre of the first controversy was taken and posted on Facebook and Twitter by the researcher himself. If some could consider this a research bias, it was taken as an opportunity to access the profiles of the persons linking themselves to the pictures and producing content around it, and to follow the spread of the content live. Here, monitoring and observation accounted for most of the legwork. Crawling and scraping techniques were only used to detect the presence of the picture in mainstream media. For the second controversy, the process was different. After the controversy was inductively detected and chosen, crawling and scrapping techniques were used to find content from three sources: Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Google was crawled using Import.io and the Scraper Extension of Google Chrome. The same extension was used to gather data on Twitter based on inductively established relevant keywords. For access reasons, data on Facebook focuses on a Facebook page (“Schaerbeek hors TTIP”) were most of the discussion occurred. Content posted on the page, links amongst entities and links between the aforementioned page and other Facebook pages were established using the Facebook app Netvizz. Using the explicit links established on social media (mentions and tags) as well as the timestamps of contents production and the visualization software Gephi, it was possible to create visual representations of the circulation of news online helping to grasp the evolution of relationships between actors on the Internet.
Network analysis – or graph theory – allows for the study of abstract structures (we call networks) made up of nodes representing entities and interconnected by links (Figure 1). By visualising these networks (and sometimes coupling them with mathematical calculations), one becomes able to detect relationships, patterns, groupings (or clusters), isolated entities, nodes acting as gatekeepers, etc. and their evolution through time. It is in this way that network analysis can be considered an ally for those trying to cartography controversies online, in terms itself a useful instrument within the toolbox of actor-network theorists.
For this study, we decided to start with the largest number of entities and links possible, trying not to discriminate any content or individual. Any URL, Facebook post, page or profile, or tweet, retweet and profile on Twitter was considered an entity. When possible, entities were then grouped together in websites, and profiles then into individuals or organisations. Links include comments on a post and shares on Facebook, and mentions on Twitter, as well as Hyperlinks within websites, Facebook posts, and tweets. regarding the first controversy (the picture of the blocked building during the strike) was gathered online between December 2nd and 10th. Altogether, tracing the network allowed for the detection of quantity of actors who produced 337 pieces of content. The data analysed includes 6 articles produced on online media (including 2 showing the picture), 31 tweets, 88 posts and comments on Facebook and 212 comments on the 6 articles (including 177 comments on the last article produced and showing the picture. The second controversy (data gathered between May 1st and June 15th) moves one step further than a single picture and tries to include all content produced on a topic online on mainstream, alternative and social media. This part of the research detected 953 nodes, including more than a 100 texts produced, 226 posts on the Facebook page, 78 websites (consisting of multiple pages), numerous tweets, retweets, as well as a number of Facebook posts and comments on the key Facebook page regarding the issue.
Whose picture is it anyways? Using a controversy to approach local news circulation
To protest against measures of Belgium’s new federal government, trade unions decided to organize a series of strikes during the month of December 2014, including a general strike in Brussels on December 8th. Before the event started, there were talks about protests at the ULB (Université libre de Bruxelles) including the lockdown of some of the buildings. This news (the access to some of the buildings is blocked) was relayed by actors on mainstream media, as well as on digital communities on social media. However, the story of this controversy does not actually start on the 8th of December but a week earlier, when an email sent by the dean of the university to its employees was leaked. It announced that there would be no changes in salary whether workers of the university went on strike or not, thus giving them the opportunity to do so. The next day, two articles (Article 01 & 02 see Figure 2) were posted online. Article 03 and 04 were posted on the next day. Article 04 mentions explicitly article 01 as a source, providing an hyperlink connection to the article. Interestingly enough, articles 01 and 03 only generated one comment from one user each, whereas Article 02 generated 33 comments.
On December 8th, the strike started in Brussels and at the ULB. Doors to buildings (including the library) and classrooms were blocked by strikers and some teachers who started their classes with a small amount of students were forced to stop. At 10:18 a picture showing the door of a building blocked by chairs, fences and various furniture was taken by the researcher. A couple minutes later, the picture was posted on Facebook and Twitter. After a couple hours, most posts and tweets including the picture had stopped mentioning the author making it hard to trace the network in a comprehensive manner. It was shared by private individuals and public or politically-involved figures (on Twitter) as well as by groups and pages (on Facebook) having various involvements to the ULB. The picture (without mention to the author) ended-up on a live feed of the news website LeVif, and on an article by LaLibre which had generated 177 comments (including 85 answers to comments) by December 10th. These elements lead to a first observation regarding this particular piece of information: news quickly stopped being shared and discussed online (after the 10th). The fact that the circulation of the picture stopped this quickly shows the ability of actors to create relatively (un-)stable (social-)networks through controversies.
Following an inductive approach to content analysis, it was possible to separate comments and contents produced in four main categories: supporting the blockade of some buildings, against the blockade, unrelated to it, and content with an unclear meaning. I seems that most actants involved in this controversy wanted to express themselves more than actually creating a debate or a dialog. The majority of the users who shared the picture used to it to express a political stance. After sharing the picture or commenting one of the contents, most people felt silent, meaning that the relationship amongst actors is more technical (based on the links between traces online) than actually emotional. Instead of interactions, results show expression. The only links found online that could be interpreted as an interaction or exchange amongst actors on Facebook and Twitter were likes on posts and “favorited” tweets. Even if an actant answered a critique to a particular content posted, it was to justify itself or to re-affirm a certain position. Analysing online productions related to the picture in an ANT perspective helped erase the normative idea that there should be consensus or polarization online (see Hannah & al. 2013). The data analysed within the transient network shows that the actants used to picture to reaffirm their position in the network rather than trying to changes others’ positions (or to realign them, in ANT terms).
Figure 2. Final representation of the circulation of the picture and what was produce before and around it.
No TTIP! Mapping the different actors involved in a controversy
The TTIP (transatlantic trade and investments partnership) and its consequence, the TAFTA (transatlantic free trade area) are hypothetic treaties discussed between European and American diplomats. To this day, only but partial information on the treaty is available. In recent years, concerned European citizens and local elected officials have voiced their apprehension. Within this context, a mainly grassroots citizen movement (though sometimes politically recuperated) started. Building upon the argument that citizens have “the right to know”, local activists groups participating in local communities have asked local politicians and municipalities to position themselves regarding this treaty and sometimes to take action. In February 2014, the first localities declared themselves either “vigilant” or openly “against” the TTIP in France, such as the region Ile-de-France (Paris and surroundings). After other regions followed, and between 2014 and 2015, the phenomenon spread to Belgium and Brussels, where local municipalities have taken position and discussed the issue. The result was different in every municipality; we propose to focus on the case of Schaerbeek, a municipality of about 127.000 inhabitants in the northeast of the city.
Formed in March 2015, the collective “Schaerbeek hors TTIP” advocated at the local level to get the municipality to take action. After having publicly inquired local officials to speak up on the matter, three “motions” were put to the front (mainly by socialist and ecologist officials), but where rejected. In may, another motion was written by a local far left politician (from the PTB party) but was modified before being voted on by officials of the majority. Instead of asking for a cancelation of the negotiations at the European level, the text solely (and symbolically) stated its worries to the federal government. As for September 2015, no further actions were taken by the collective or by public authorities. Many pieces of news and content were produced online around this event, on websites as well as social media. Using crawling techniques as well as social media monitoring helped gathering these news pieces and to approach the online presence of key actors of the controversy online. All together the process enabled to collect detect elements (individuals, organisations & news pieces, as well as tweets on Twitter and posts on Facebook). Preliminary results show a strong presence of local and national politicians on twitter, sharing information, news pieces and voicing concerns regarding the issues (see Figure 3). Here key actors are Benjamin D. (an activist and social militant tied with the PTB party) and Axel B., the official from the PTB party. The presence of official twitter accounts of political parties was also detected. Finally, the organisation D19-20 (an international organisation, trying to tie together local initiatives against the TTIP) was strongly publicising the controversy and the events in Schaerbeek.
Figure 3. Representation of individuals tweeting on the topic and their interconnections.
Firstly, a close look at the Facebook page “Schaerbeek hors TTIP”, the page of the collective, shows the presence of local activists and citizens showing interest on the issue. If many links and news stories were shared, most were not the result of institutional news media, but came from local and international alternative news websites, blogs and pages. Secondly, looking at the links of the page itself with other Facebook pages shows interesting results. Two clusters of pages can clearly be established. The first one brings together organisations and pages against the TTIP on an international level. The second shows a cluster of interconnected local pages, not specifically related to the TTIP. Thirdly, it was possible to discover a series websites who covered the controversy. Most websites are part of non-governmental organisations working against the TTIP and Belgian political parties.
Trying to put everything together might seem difficult when there is such profusion of data. However, the production of visualizations and spread sheets of actors and contents produced helps giving a wider pictures of the actors participating in news production, and on what they actually produce. With regards to this controversy, news was created by a variety of individuals, which sometimes regrouped amongst organisations, associations, but rarely related to institutional news media (though “traditional” news stories regarding the topic on a wider level were sometimes shared on social media). This might be partly due to the local and topical nature of the topic. News was produced and shared on Twitter, Facebook and websites, respecting the various codes used for technologies. Social media was used for its capacities of attracting attention and sharing information as well as for whistleblowing by local collectives and politicians. It is relevant to note that no matter where one looks, there is a diversity of actors involved, though the density of the types of actors encounter might vary from one environment to the other.
Starting from two particular controversies and tracing the networks of interconnected entities online is advisable in this case to find who and what participates in local controversies on (social-)media and to analyse how entities are intertwined. Approaching controversies using the Internet and using graph theory to build visualisations does offer opportunities to overcome two challenges: finding the traces to describe actions and representing heterogeneous entities and discourses (De Maeyer & Malcorps, forthcoming).
Through the first controversy, we have shown that the circulation of this particular piece of news online has lived a very short life, which confirms Anderson observation about the diffusion of local news online (Anderson 2010). This element also confirms ANT’s idea of the power of controversies to generate networks, or at least to activate them. We have argued that this controversy helped shaping a network of actants. The picture, as a particular actant, seems to have been translated (in ANT terms) in different points of view for individuals who whished to consolidate their position within the network rather than discussing the issue. It was then translated again by mainstream media to give a wider understanding of the situation to the general public. A deeper research coupling various ANT concepts to network analysis might help get a clearer knowledge on the weight of some actants (mainstream media, the picture, social networks) shaping the network. Nonetheless, the fact that a single article (Article 06) enabled the production of 177 comments appears to confirm the argument that mainstream media still very much acts as an hegemonic actor when it comes to news production. This hegemony of mainstream media can however be put into questions when looking at the second controversy. There, alternative news sources, and social media, where used to produce and circulate information on the controversy.
Using the cartography of controversies and Actor-Network Theory – as it has been proven before – is relevant to identify actants related to a controversy without prior knowledge on who they are, without foreseeing what they might do or who(m) they will create relationships with. This approach has proven itself useful as a research strategy to access uncharted territory. However, there is a need to go further than finding and describing heterogeneous networks in order to be able to describe what local news online is and what is important in the “online” and “local” component of news. Here, two moves can be made to further research on local news online: couple the study of controversies (used only as a research strategy) with other theories and ontologies such as actor-network theory, but also theories of power, practice, professionalization, etc., or stick with controversy analysis and graph theory as a methodological, terminological & theoretical toolbox. There lie at least two more possibilities including reflecting upon Latour’s new argumentation relating to what he calls “modes of existence”, or an inductive style, a-theoretical approach closer to grounded theory to describe the object of study.
Using controversies and ANT does not prevent you from naming, classifying and, in the end to focus on a certain actors; however, it displaces this moment from before to after the data collection. It allows the researcher to decide on which actors to focus based on activity within the network, actions and productions, not on presumptions. Because of its proposition of following the free associations between actors, ANT forces you to study de many facets of an actor-network, to be local and global, to approach the situation with many angles, and to pay attention to the many relationships amongst actors. Moreover, many of the entities that are the focus of recent studies shows new dimensions when considered as actor-networks. In the second controversy, one can observe the redistribution of actors’ presence, actions and productions in many forms (from tweets, to posts, to likes to public rallies, to picture taking); being at the same time an entity part of various networks (a twitter account within the Twittosphere, etc.) and itself a network of texts, hyperlinks, pictures and information, creating discourse a on human actors’ identity as news producers. The same remark can be made for a Facebook page, or a news article (considered as a whole) in controversy 1, being at the same time an actor informing a series a persons, and a network made of texts, URLs, comments and reactions (discourse and inter-discourse of many sorts). It is true that it becomes then easy to get lost in the infinity of actants that a topic can provide – or as stated before, to be “lost in translation” (Toennesen, Molloy & Jacobs 2006).
When analysing a news controversy, another difficulty arises: news controversies don’t exist by themselves, since news is what is produced around a particular topic. If it is possible to analyse meta-controversies and conversations regarding journalism (texts, discourses, or practices that directly question our assumptions about news and journalism), actual news controversies don’t exist by themselves, since news is produced around or regarding the controversy. Understanding the actants involved in news controversies also means learning about the topic itself, which can mean more work and leaves more space for biases. Yet, analysing it provides interesting data. There are information producers involved in the circulation of news; actors that are more than just discussing a topic and that aim at publicising it. When it comes to local news, very few of those actors are professional journalists. We have found in this article that the networks of actors producing and sharing news are not only made of newsmakers but encompass a wide variety of individuals: politicians, amateurs, bloggers, etc. as well as any controversy interested minds.
Methodologically, to overcome the difficulty of studying and representing news networks, it seems advisable to operate one of three moves. We argue that a first move could be to combine desk research on local news online with on the ground participatory observations and interviews. As one can easily see, there is a part of online news that is actually not made online. Gathering first hand data from actors identified online might help understanding what local news is to them and how it is made. A second possible move might be to move from the use of controversies as case studies to controversies as individuals within a sample, enabling for comparison and the detection of common pattern within news production and circulation. Finally, and it is the proposal of De Maeyer and Malcorps (forthcoming), one can move from journalistic controversies to meta-journalistic controversies. Focusing on the controversies regarding how news is made might just help us to understand how news is made.
To conclude, using controversy analysis as a research strategy and an inductive approach is in this case relevant because this research aims at identifying relevant participants involved in creating the news regarding a controversy without prior judgment on who they are, what their activities are, and what news is. Nonetheless, separating the use of ANT as a methodology from its epistemological and ontological implications proves to be more difficult than it sounds; tracing the evolving network of actors and contents produced online implies that any new production is a part and an effect of an evolving network. Separating ANT and controversy analysis might not be relevant or useful to the researcher as these are in practice very much porous. However, keeping in mind that the use of ANT to study controversies is an epistemological choice encompassing a certain way of looking at the world is of the upmost importance.
 “Actor-network theory” is also referred as ANT in this communication.
 For a more precise description of some of ANT’s concepts, and their ties with journalism studies, see Plesner (2009), An actor-network perspective on changing work practices: Communication technologies as actants in newswork; or Domingo, Masip & Costera Meijer (2015), An actor-network perspective on changing work practices: Communication technologies as actants in newswork.
 The acronym TTIP designates the “Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership”.
 For more key definitions and aspects of Graph theory, see Canright & Engø-Monsen (2007), some relevant aspects of network analysis and graph theory.
 Article 01: L’ULB rémunérera son personnel, qu’il fasse grève ou non. (2014, December 2). Le Soir. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.lesoir.be. Article 02: A l’ULB, même lorsqu’on fait grève… on est payé. (2014, December 2). La Libre. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.lalibre.be.
Article 04: Vous travaillez à l’ULB et vous faites grève? Vous toucherez votre rémunération! (2014, December 3). Actualités du Droit Belge. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.actualitesdroitbelge.be.
 A dynamic rendering of the representation (as well as other visualisations of the two controversies) is available at: http://homepages.ulb.ac.be/~vwiard/controversy1.html.
 Nodes in green are Twitter accounts; nodes in red are URLs. Size of the nodes indicates “Betweenness centrality”, showing that bigger nodes are central to the network.
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