Social Media and Democracy

We humans generate massive amounts of text, in print and online. What computational social scientist Margaret “Molly” Roberts does is to look at this text through the lens of big data, giving us insights into ourselves as political animals. As a member of the political science department in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences, Roberts studies the politics of information and the politics of censorship. She has analyzed millions of blogs, social media posts and newspaper articles to understand the influence of censorship and propaganda in China.

To do what she does, Roberts innovates in methods of automated content analysis and combines these with political analysis.

When she reverse-engineered Chinese censorship, Roberts discovered that what gets taken down is not criticism of the government but talk of collective action and protests. She has also shown that the Chinese government fabricates social media posts for strategic distraction – seeking to divert its citizenry rather than engage them in argument.

In a forthcoming book about China’s “Great Firewall,” Roberts explains how censorship impacts citizens’ access to information and why authoritarian regimes decide to use different types of censorship in different circumstances to control information’s spread. Her research also looks at social media and democracy, and at what new kinds of data can reveal about autocrats.