back to article Social media data is riddled with 'human behaviour errors'

Researchers who heavily rely on social media data when studying human behaviour have been warned that such information can be very easily skewed. Computer scientists at McGill University in Montreal and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh said in a paper published yesterday in the Science magazine that academics were …

  1. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    No shit, Sherlock...

    ...in recent years, there has been an explosion of studies on human behaviour using social media as a barometer for all kinds of predictions about the world we live in now.

    "Many of these papers are used to inform and justify decisions and investments among the public and in industry and government,"...

    It's not only social media. There has been an explosion in fake science everywhere. It turns out to be easy to feed data from any source into a spreadsheet, and then fiddle with the statistical tools until you get a nice full-colour chart showing you what you want to see.

    Activists everywhere are doing this, and then claiming that: "Science says that..." you should do what I say.

    If only the educational system had taught people:

    1 - to understand maths

    2 - to be properly skeptical

    But, alas, it's too late now. We have bred a generation of gullible morons and put them in charge of us. Our foreign policy and energy infrastructure are two illustrations of the result. Look for many more appalling similar messes in the future...

    1. zamkam

      Re: No shit, Sherlock...

      My thoughts, exactly. Nice to read a comment from the dwindling population of thinking Internet users.

    2. zen1

      Re: No shit, Sherlock...

      Positively brilliant analysis

    3. veti Silver badge
      Holmes

      Re: No shit, Sherlock...

      I was with you up until the last paragraph.

      "We have bred a generation of gullible morons and put them in charge of us" - but the most powerful people in the world are still overwhelmingly in their 40s, 50s, even 60s. So this "generation of gullible morons" is - well, I don't know how old you are, but I for one disclaim any responsibility for "breeding" them.

      I think what we've done is, through the internet, we've democratised both news and science. Now, anyone can put out a press release saying they've done $STUDY and found $RESULT, and get exactly the same coverage and attention as someone who, y'know, actually takes the trouble to learn about statistics and populations and controls. And "journalists" - they can learn this stuff themselves and spend time investigating the stories that are flung at them from all directions, or they can just publish what they're given and let the readers sort it out.

      As Dogbert puts it: "You can work or you can get drunk, but the pay is exactly the same."

      So we have junk studies reported by junk journalists, and - and this is the key thing that we've thrown away, with the internet - no "trusted authority" who'll make at least some effort, no matter how corruptible or misguided it may have been, to differentiate between meaningful and meaningless "news".

      (The closest thing we have now is sites like El Reg, which make a name for themselves by putting a strong editorial spin on the news. That's great as far as it goes, but it's not inherently any more reliable than just republishing the press releases without comment. It sells better, partly because it requires more work, but it's no closer to "truth".)

      Are people less critical now than they were at some hypothetical point in the past? I see no evidence for that. I see lots of people on the Internet being openly sceptical, and congratulating themselves on standing out from the sheeple. What I don't see is any evidence that these "sheeple" actually exist, or are anything like as stupid as they're widely assumed to be.

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: No shit, Sherlock...

        Are people less critical now than they were at some hypothetical point in the past? I see no evidence for that. I see lots of people on the Internet being openly sceptical, and congratulating themselves on standing out from the sheeple. What I don't see is any evidence that these "sheeple" actually exist, or are anything like as stupid as they're widely assumed to be.

        I also see lots of people who, if they spent 2 minutes maybe using Snopes, wouldn't be screaming about something they read. They see fake news and articles and assume it's real.

      2. Cipher
        Big Brother

        Re: No shit, Sherlock...

        @veti:

        You covered most of the talking points - "junk journalists" "democratization" "republishing" "no 'trusted authority'"...

        This sounds amazingly similar to the spin that those of a certain political persuasion use when they ask for more internet control over opinion pieces. They suggest that only credentialed journalists be afforded protection of law, a call for any op ed piece to be published only if a "proper" journalist writes the piece.

        Reminds me of the type of control CBS used to quiet a reporter recently when her stories ran afoul of the agenda of CBS management. Of Hilary Clinton's remarks years ago about the the need to "rethink this internet thing" and provide a proper "gateway" for information on the net. (she was very upset at the way her huband was being treated by one aggregator, the rest of the press was killing the blue dress story at the time)

        Citizen journalists, whistle blowers and even morons have the right to opinions, and the right to publish. Democracy and liberty are messy things sometimes, but they beat the shit out of totalitarian control...

        1. veti Silver badge

          Re: No shit, Sherlock...

          @Cipher,

          When I start suggesting that anyone be given control of the internet, go ahead and call me whatever kind of authoritarian seems appropriate to you. But I made no such suggestion in the above comment, and it seems a bit previous to take that shot on that basis.

          "Democracy and liberty are messy things sometimes, but they beat the shit out of totalitarian control." - does that mean we shouldn't draw or pay attention to the messiness, and seek for ways to maybe tidy it up a bit? Is any - not even 'attempt', but mere 'wish' - to improve the status quo automatically, in your mind, tantamount to "totaliarian control"?

          The closest I've ever seen to "liberty" on the internet was Usenet in the 90s, and I loved it, but you know what? Here I am (and you, for that matter) posting on a proprietary, moderated site. I believe vestiges of Usenet still exist, but I don't even know how to use them any more.

          From your comment and examples I gather you're an American. If so, you can rest secure in the knowledge that the first amendment makes it illegal for Congress to attempt to define what a "journalist" is, or to restrict any moron from being a publisher. I don't know what, if anything, Hilary Clinton had in mind, but 'providing a proper "gateway" for information on the net' has been an avowed goal of dozens of internet companies for decades (in the 90s, it was AOL, Yahoo!, AltaVista and others; now it's mostly Google, but dozens of smaller companies - including most media companies - vie for their own market segments in just the same way).

          None of which helps in the slightest with the problem I'm talking about, because all these "gateways" have one thing in common - they're not paid (because nobody has come up with a business model for doing that), which means they have no incentive to exercise editorial judgement in the interests of their readers, rather than their advertisers or sponsors or the random personal biases of their editors. The closest is paywalled news sites, but in practice they're competing with 'free' news sites, with the inevitable result that they sink to, pretty much, the same level.

      3. Queasy Rider

        Re: No shit, Sherlock...

        The Register is not entirely innocent on this account. I am quite tired of their headlines proclaiming some disastrous plunge of some firms fortunes, then reading in the body of the article that Company X's high flying double digit year to year growth or sales are now down to only single digits. They seem to be particularly fond of doing this with Apple stories, not that I have any love for Apple or their fortunes.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No shit, Sherlock...

      Only idiots use sites such as facebook. They are the new AOL.

    5. 2+2=5 Silver badge

      Re: No shit, Sherlock...

      > We have bred a generation of gullible morons and put them in charge of us

      Oh, I don't know. Take, for example, the EU strategy on household cleanliness: first they introduce super-dim low-energy bulbs and then, when we can no longer see the dirt in our carpets, they mandate low-power vacuum cleaners that won't suck it up anyway!

      How could clever, joined-up thinking like that came from a "gullible moron"?

  2. Zog_but_not_the_first
    Facepalm

    Inevitable

    No shit, Sherlock indeed. Once education transformed into completing lists of tick boxes with "guidance" to the correct answers, and universities realised that rather than be humdrum places of learning they could be thrusting businesses by selling crap courses at ridiculous prices.

  3. DurasnoPeach

    DurasnoPeach

    A goodly percentage of Face Book content is by Conservatives making up stories to put their opponents in a bad light. If you don't believe me go to FB and Google almost any story that you see that is running someone down and you will see it contains many falsehoods and even outright lies. The problem is many people believe these spurious accounts because they are on Face Book (and therefore must be true). Come on, people; question what others say and have a mind of your own.

    1. h4rm0ny

      Re: DurasnoPeach

      I'm rather alarmed you think that is a Right-wing / Left-Wing thing. Do you by any chance have a political leaning of your own?

      1. Zog_but_not_the_first
        Big Brother

        Re: DurasnoPeach

        I dunno if there's a simple political bias of the type suggested, but given Farcebook's (sic) huge membership it must be the "channel of choice" for influencing people's views through nudge etc.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: DurasnoPeach

        > I'm rather alarmed you think that is a Right-wing / Left-Wing thing. Do you by any chance have a political leaning of your own?

        I'm rotary wing all the way! :-)

    2. Wzrd1

      Re: DurasnoPeach

      The only realistic research that can be learned from social media, especially Facebook and more anonymous social media sites is how many assholes there are on the site.

      It rather reminds me of "The Sixth Sense", with a more realistic twist. "I see assholes and they're everywhere and they don't know that they're assholes."

      Well, that and the abject failure of the US educational system in teaching the differences in alike sounding words, such as to, too, two, they're, their, etc. But those typically make the sites anti-social media.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    what do you expect

    News and information brought to you by think tank committee funded by billionaires who know which buttons to push that will produce income. Forget left or right, it's all encompassing. We seek what makes us comfortable in our ideals, that which will not disturb the comfort and solace of our precious paradigms. Proper motivation makes us buy, vote, travel, play, worry. It doesn't matter how we buy, vote, travel, play, worry, just that we do vote, buy, travel, worry...mostly worry. Worry is the most profitable activity. http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/information-liberation-your-guide-to-the-international-web/

  5. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

    For extroverts

    Facebook is for extroverts. So half of us will never want to be involved.

  6. Inventor of the Marmite Laser

    Faecebook results exclude people who dont give a shit about Faecebook

    Similarly Twatter, Lunkheadin, Gullible+ etcetera.

    1. depicus

      Re: Faecebook results exclude people who dont give a shit about Faecebook

      I never understand peoples need to denigrate others use of social media in such a manner, is there really any need to suggest somebody is a twat because you don't like Twitter ? Give me a reason why you dislike social media - a good valid cogent argument otherwise I just think you are a twat.

      1. Justthefacts Silver badge

        Re: Faecebook results exclude people who dont give a shit about Faecebook

        Yes, here is the cogent argument:

        Social media give the illusion of being engaged with other human beings, without the messy realities:

        While technologies are strictly morally neutral, the outcomes in human society are not.

        Social media have made our society worse, in that the people within them are becoming less happy, and have less valid lives.

        They do not believe this, in the same way that drug addicts do not. If you have met drug addicts, you will know that they are NOT an alien race, but neither do they start at social norms. They have a particular anxious streak & outlook, and they have been presented by society with an alternative path. They took it, as an escape, they have got to a very bad place, and the route back is not possible without some help. Crystal meth is a morally neutral technology too - it is just a chemical compound.

        The place that people have got to when addicted to social media, excludes live friendships forming.

        If you wish to claim that live friendships are not a good for people, then this can no longer be argued logically - it is simply an axiom. I claim they are the basis of living a good human life.

      2. 's water music

        Re: Faecebook results exclude people who dont give a shit about Faecebook

        To be fair, I for one, welcome any initiative to air fresh and enlighteningly satirical puns on the names of tech companies. It is also always instructive to know what services other commentards don't use. More of this sort of thing please.

        delenda est micro$oft

    2. Wzrd1

      Re: Faecebook results exclude people who dont give a shit about Faecebook

      Fair enough, to be honest, I frequently call Facebook Fleecebook, courtesy of their games that players can excel in if they pay for X.*

      *X being a variety of "items" used in the game.

      The only reason I have a Facebook account is, it was the only way I could see my grandchildren while I was deployed. My daughter wouldn't e-mail me the photographs.

      G+ was nice for a bit, but the quality of user declined and I'm rarely on that either. I mostly use that to keep track of some acquaintances.

      Twitter is something I rarely use, but was recommended to me for professional advancement. Too much work for too little return. Useful for the latest propaganda from various agencies though (such as NASA (OK, it's not really propaganda, but one can give a bit of a ribbing to a good agency)).

      One ponders one research topic that would be not skewed too horribly for Facebook as a data source. The incomprehensibility of things written there and the pain induced to a reader who comprehends the proper usage of they're, their, too, to, two and proper usage of the English language (both American and *real* English).*

      *Hey, a language originating in England has to, by definition, be real English. ;)

  7. ZSn

    poor research

    So poor research using poor analysis on incomplete datasets by incompetent researchers is flawed. Hardly surprising or new. All that happens is apart from a few news headlines in the more excitable publications (daily mail) the more sensational papers usually are poorly researched and swiftly forgotten

  8. zen1

    Unless they have the raw data gathered by google or FB, collected from mouse clicks or search criteria, researchers are simply taking people's word. One thing I constantly see is that people tend to warp the truth. Be it through embellishments or outright lies, there always a question of the actual integrity of the data.

    The other thing I find really disturbing about social media is how quick people are to react without knowing all of the facts. I was told there were three sides to a given event: one view, the contrary view and the truth. And given the bias of the individuals voicing their opinions or breaking the news, it can have an adverse impact on any legal cases or public perceptions of people, groups or products. Of course, the media is going to report those perceptions as gospel.

  9. Craig 2

    The posts of many social media users doesn't reflect their real lives?? NO SHIT!!

  10. Amorous Cowherder
    Facepalm

    What I see in internet forums are lots of snobs! "Ooh look I have an opinion. If you don't agree you must be stupid and if you don't have an opinion on this or my opinion, well you must one of the 'sheeple'!".

    Sorry if I don't always have an opinion on some things, that doesn't make me an idiot. Sadly what you fail to grasp in your tiny little world ( population 1 ) is that while you may think is hugely important to you, I may not give a monkey's toss about so I'm wasting any of my time on it.

  11. Crisp

    For completely accurate social media studies, use 4Chan.

    They seem pretty on the ball.

    1. Darryl

      Re: For completely accurate social media studies, use 4Chan.

      4Chan? Isn't that the guy who hacked into Apple and leaked those nudie pics of that girl from the Hunger Games?

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Holmes

    Ah, the old favourite get-out clause of psychologists and economists the world over:

    "...Ruths remained optimistic about researchers using social media in their studies, if they tackle the problems outlined..."

    Translated:

    "My findings [X] are entirely true for situations where [Y] is true."

    (knowing full well [Y] is never going to happen in a billion years).

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bad managers

    This is the type of thing bad managers love to hide behind when making decisions.

    Mostly worthless "research" based on bad data.

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