Megan Metzger is a Research Scholar and Associate Director for Research at the Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPi) Program at Stanford University. Before coming to Stanford, she completed a PhD in Politics at NYU as a member of the Social Media and Political Participation Lab and was a Postdoctoral scholar in Russian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Megan’s research is focused on how changes in technology change how individuals and states use and have access to information, and how this affects political behavior. Her current research is primarily focused on the role of RT as a component of Russian state strategies online.
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Rosemary Pennington: Over the last several years, there's been an increased interest, both in the public and in the media, in the interconnections between information, media and politics. Understanding those interconnections only seems to be growing in importance, as a number of countries, including the US, prepare for a new round of national elections. The connections between politics, technology and information are the focus of this episode of Stats and Stories, where we explore the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. I’m Rosemary Pennington. Stats and Stories is a production of Miami University's departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film as well as the American Statistical Association. Joining me in the studio are regular panelist John Bailer, Chair of Miami Statistics Department and Richard Campbell of Media, Journalism and Film. Our guest today is Megan Metzger. She is a research scholar and associate director for research at Stanford University's Global Digital Policy Incubator program. Metzger's work focuses on how technological changes facilitate changes in the way political actors access and distribute information. Metzger joins us in the studio today after traveling to Miami on a visit sponsored by the Havighurst Center for Russian and post-Soviet studies as part of the colloquium series on Russian media strategies at home and abroad. Thank you so much for being here today, Megan.
Megan Metzger: Thanks for having me!
Pennington: You were here at Miami to give a talk specifically about the Russian news agency RT. Can you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in RT and how that sort of connects to your broader research interests?
Metzger: Sure! So I wrote my dissertation at N.Y.U. on social media and protest and I was originally interested in how social media could be used to help protest movements mobilize and also whether there were sort of negative externalities of that. We started out very optimistic, but one of the subsidiary findings I wrote about in my dissertation, about the Ukrainian protests, the Euromaidan protests that happened in Ukraine from 2013 to 2014 and as I was writing one of the projects for my dissertation, I found that RT was the most shared news source, the most retweeted news source during those protests, and the second most retweeted source in our dataset, the second most retweeted account in our dataset.
Metzger: And I thought that was sort of surprising, and I didn't know, I hadn't done a lot of work on RT before, I knew what it was. And so I got really interested in trying to figure out, was it also shared a lot in other situations? And what sort of drove its success and what was there to learn about it as a source of information.
Pennington: So were you looking at…were these people internationally who were using this information? Where they Ukrainians, Russians, Americans?
Metzger: So the project where I sort of found…had this finding, was a project where I was trying to look at the different ways the different types of information that local people in Ukraine, people in Ukraine domestically during the protests, and people outside of Ukraine during the protests: what were the differences in the information they were sharing and the types of information they were sharing. And I found that the non-local users, non-local here meaning not Ukrainian, not in Ukraine at the time of the protests, and this is all people we can identify who have turned on geo location, so it's not a representative sample and it's a small subset, but what we found was that for those non-local people, RT was one of the main sources that they were sharing and we don't see a lot of evidence in that data, that the people we can identify as being in Ukraine were sharing RT. And I'll caveat this by saying that a lot of the Twitter activity around Euromaidan tended to be more pro-Maidan. A lot of the anti-Maidan and also more pro-Russian politically activity was happening on a Russian social media site. So we probably do have a sample of the less pro-Russian more pro, sort of pro-EU integration people in our data set. But we don't find a lot of evidence of Ukrainians sharing the information, mostly people from other countries.
Richard Campbell: Can you talk a little bit about RT and a little bit about its history and whether or not it's fake news?
Metzger: Sure. So RT was started in 2005 and this was at a period, it was right after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Russia was sort of in a position of losing a lot of influence in the post-Soviet region and they didn't have a great kind of reputation abroad. And originally, the stated goal of RT was partially to…sort of give people more insight into Russia that went beyond the Communist history and to also provide a platform for a Russian perspective on the news. And then after about 2008, so after the Georgian war in 2008, there started to be a much more explicit statement that RT was going to be used as a weapon in the information war and you have quotations from the Editor-in-chief of RT saying things like this and from Vladimir Putin talking about using RT to undermine the “Anglo-Saxon domination” of the global media. And so it had sort of transitioned from a more traditional soft power type source to being a little bit more aimed at and a tool in Russian foreign policy and particularly a tool for when there were situations that were particularly important to the Russian state. Whether it's fake news...no. RT does real journalism and some of that journalism is very good. The journalism always has an agenda and I think that that's the key and a lot of times I get the question about well, why is it different from any other media source? And the answer to me is that it's a state-run news source, so every news organization has some bias and some agenda I would say but it's not…most of them, that agenda is not driven by the government of the state, and in RT's case it is. So I don't think it's fake and they’ve won awards for their journalism on Occupy Wall Street for example but I would say that they're producing the news that they produce with an agenda and sometimes what that means is that they are putting forward the Russian state position which may not be correct. So for example they maintained that Russian soldiers were not in Crimea much longer than other news sources.
John Bailer: I'm curious. Just how does someone become a scholar of protests and protest movements?
Metzger: That’s a good question and I was from a really young age, I was really…I was very interested in how states interacted with their citizens and how citizens had a voice in states. I'm not sure why really but I was and I was a high school exchange student in the Czech Republic and it got me really interested in the protest movement in 1989 and the transition from communism and I was, as like an 18 year old, I was really astounded by this idea that people could overthrow such a powerful force and I got really interested in studying protest for that reason and then. I mean that was the very beginning of it and then over time, in graduate school I had an opportunity to really do that more intensively and yeah that was how I got interested in it.
Bailer: You then took it to another level with sort of integrating this with social media, which I think, that’s really fascinating. So how do you…you talk about…how do you quantify the impact of social media on protest movements. That sounds really hard.
Metzger: It is really hard. I'm not sure that any of us have succeeded in doing it, to be honest, myself or anybody else. It was a really hard way to try…hard question to try to answer for your dissertation, but that's what you should do for your dissertation. And I'm not totally satisfied with the answers that we have right now. I think that it's really hard with social media because part of the reason I wind up talking a lot in my work about information environments is that what I think we can quantify is some of the information that people are receiving and some of how we…and we can sort of think about how that might differ from the information that we think they might have access to or be engaging with in the absence of social media. What's harder to do is to make causal claims about the fact that some X that happened online caused Y offline or that some protest would not have occurred if X online had not happened. We can see the way that movements use these tools and we can see how, what people do with them online and we can see correlations, but I think it's really hard to make causal claims about those things.
Pennington: There have been so many of these “revolutions” that people are talking about whether it's the Gezi protests that everyone thought was going to lead to revolution in Turkey, the April 25th movement in Egypt which was part of the Arab Spring, Maidan, all of these sort of movements and then they're sort of the Pegida and then the anti-Pegida movement sort of in Germany. Are there commonalities that you are seeing? I know that you have done some work on Turkey correct, and then you're moving into Maidan and then…I can’t remember what else you have worked on.
Metzger: Those were the two main protest movements that I worked on, although you know I have colleagues who have done work on other movements that I've been sort of familiar with. Commonalities, I mean…I think that Gezi and Maidan have a lot of commonalities, in some senses. They're very different in a lot of ways but the sort of impetus for the movements is similar in some sense, which is that they're sort of in these countries that are not...they're not fully authoritarian states but they're also not fully liberal full functioning democracies. They are in this sort of this interim space and what I think was similar in both cases was that things started to happen in the street and whether you think that that was caused by what happened online or not, you know there were certainly some organization that happened online. What social media allowed was for people to circumvent the traditional media sources as coverage for the protests and so very famously in Turkey while CNN International was showing videos of the protests CNN Turkey was showing wildlife documentaries about penguins. And that's why you see these penguins about Gezi Park protest but what social media I think did in the Gezi Park protests and I think also in Ukraine was to keep something that the state would like to sort of downplay and show as a small fringe group. People could see these things online and they had an opportunity to see coverage of it that wasn't…didn't have any sort of control outside from the state. So that to me was one of the things although that was similar and important. The caveat for that is that as States become more increasingly aware of what's going on online, states are just as empowered to use those tools as individuals and I think part of what happened in Gezi, to some extent in Egypt, was that these tools were relatively new and the states weren't particularly well prepared to respond effectively online and I'm not sure that's the case anymore in a lot of places.
Campbell: In your talk here in Miami with RT news, I was impressed by the size of the data collection you're working with and using Twitter. Could you talk a little bit about that, and the challenges of a dataset that I think we're talking about half a million Twitter users?
Metzger: Yeah. So depending on the data set we have you know millions sometimes even tens of millions of tweets and so I was part of the social media and political participation lab the SMAP lab at N.Y.U. and I was really lucky because that meant that I…the lab has the technical infrastructure to store massive quantities of data and to have collections running in a sort of solid way where you're pretty sure the computer is not going to like shutdown, the battery or whatever it is but so that infrastructure was in place and relatively early in the days of starting to do this research. And so there's an enormous number of challenges with working with data that's that large and it was a learning process in graduate school figuring out how to properly handle that much data. The big thing is making sure…I would say one of the big challenges is making sure you collect the data in the right way and also that you characterize where the problems with the data are, right? So for example in the Ukraine collection we collected on keywords but it's important to acknowledge that this is not every keyword and some of the…you want to think about whether there were issues around some of the words that you used and whether we had to do some things for some of the papers to see whether as we added words, it changed the dynamics of the collections and a lot of times this is a criticism of social media work but I think that it's just like any other data set. There's problems and biases in the data and you just need to acknowledge them and be aware of the limitations it creates.
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Pennington: You're listening to Stats and Stories and today we're with Megan Metzger who is at Miami University on a visit sponsored by the Havighurst Center for Russian and post-Soviet studies as part of the colloquium series on Russian media strategies at home and abroad.
Bailer: I'm curious to follow up on kind of the points you've made in certain papers that social media has differed from other new technologies. I remember reading in one of your papers that you said, well it's not…all new technology changes, the way these movements emerge, but can you talk a little bit about how this differs from some of those previous movements? Or previous technologies?
Metzger: Sure. Yeah I mean I always think it's important to remember that when you look back at the history of technologies, even things we don't think of as technologies, like the printing press, you very often see it had impacts on the way that people mobilized or coordinated around their governments and so this is another example in that line and each one is in some way unique. I think one thing that makes social media so unique is that it is…there's a few things. The speed is one of them. So I was talking today about how in the Cold War there were often sort of pamphlets that were printed and distributed to try to encourage people to support each other but getting a pamphlet in front of a bunch of people's eyes is a lot harder than finding ways to get tweets in front of people’s eyes. There's just a lot more capacity for things to spread more quickly. And I also think that there's a difference in the hierarchy of who is able to access the technology and to use it and that's got sort of both positive and negative externalities. But one of the things that when I first started studying this we were really excited about was that you didn't need a studio to be able to broadcast information, right? Now of course we've all sort of realized that there are also some downsides to that but I think that that's really different from previous generations of technology as well.
Campbell: Could you talk a little bit about the way you used retweets and this current work you're doing on RT and how you sort of focused on those and the enormous number of retweets that RT is getting compared to traditional media like The New York Times, The Washington Post?
Metzger: Sure yeah so the reason that we use…the reason that I use retweets for the paper on RT, or for some of my other papers is because it's the only thing, it's the only way that we know for sure that somebody actually saw the information, right? So we can't really measure how many eyes hit a piece of content. But if you retweet it I'm sure that you looked at it long enough to decide to hit a button or you are a bot…but that's a whole separate issue here.
Metzger: And so when we want to think about the reach of a source of information on Twitter, the way that we've measured that…the way that I've measured that has been by looking at retweets, and yeah, it has been very surprising to see the reach of RT especially around sort of high salience events for the Russian state so the Ukraine example I gave, I'm working on a project with Alex Siegel who's a post-doc at Stanford's immigration policy lab and also went to N.Y.U. We are working on a project on RT in the information environment about the Syrian conflict and we again find that in our data set, RT is the most retweeted news source in English and if you eliminate, so I don't know a lot of…the Arab world is my co-authors specialty, but if you look at news sources that employ journalists which is a distinction, to sort of separate out a lot of Islamic sites that mostly do religious content but sometimes summarize the news, then RT is also the most retweeted source in Arabic.
Metzger: Yeah. So we really see this…it having an enormous reach that is really, I think surprising.
Pennington: What's the next steps? You're taking a look at all this data and looking at how people are retweeting it and how it spreads. So then what is the next step? Is there a step beyond this kind of analysis for you and the work you're doing to sort of get a better picture of this?
Metzger: Yeah. So there's a few things that we'd like to do. First of all I want to try to get a better sense. Right now most of…I have a little bit of work using a random sample but I'd like to…I'm trying to get a larger sample of data to try to look at how RT shared kind of day to day, not around high salience events, because I think those are both things we care about, but care about in slightly different ways. And I'm also really interested…what we haven't really been able to figure out, I don't think in a good way yet, in the RT project, is to get a better sense of who is sharing this information and how it becomes a source that they opt in to. And that's a much harder problem than just like, well is it popular? Is it shared a lot? When is it shared a lot? And that's sort of the problem that we're working on solving right now or one of the things we are working on now.
Bailer: I'm curious, what's the implication of your work for looking at news and movements in the United States?
Metzger: I mean I think there's a number of implications. I think one thing that's really interesting to me and something that I think we're trying to figure out right now, other scholars have been doing some experimental work on this, is how do people choose or evaluate sources of news? And I think increasingly, we're finding that at least some people some of the time are not that great at evaluating sources of news and maybe none of us are really that good at evaluating sources of information as we think that we are. One of the things that I think is happening in the RT stuff which I was talking to students today is, I do think there's a group of people who like the way that they cover certain issues and I think that if you know what the source is and that's the source you want to use, then that's fair enough, as long as you know what it is. But I think that a lot of people are also sort of incidentally encountering it online and then don't really know where their information is coming from and I think we're in a moment where we're all trying to figure out how can we make it so that people have a better sense of where their information is coming from and are better prepared to evaluate sources.
Campbell: A lot of academics are sometimes accused of doing research for each other and not reaching a general broader public and you seem to have a commitment, you're involved in the Monkey Cage blog at The Washington Post, you, I think you’ve written for Al-Jazeera and also for Huffington Post. Talk about that trajectory of your own, in your own writing and research.
Metzger: Yeah, so I was really lucky, honestly I almost lucked into that. I have to say I wish I could say that I just had a…I mean, I do think that it's really important that as academics we share our research in ways that are accessible to people who aren't academics, especially even when it doesn't seem like it's related to the events of the day, but especially when it is. And I…but I wish I could say that that was how I wound up with those opportunities. I was really lucky that my advisor in graduate school, Josh Tucker who I think you’ve had on the podcast, has a very strong commitment to that and is very involved in the Monkey Cage blog. And that gave me the opportunity, as a really early on in graduate school, both to see the value of that and how that really emphasizes an important part of being a scholar in the modern day, and also to have the opportunity to write for the Monkey Cage early on, which and that exposure I think the Al-Jazeera piece was something that was picked up from the Monkey Cage and things like that. So I think honestly I was really lucky to have good mentors helping me both have those opportunities and see the real value of those opportunities.
Bailer: So you mentioned the challenge of choosing and evaluating sources of news. So I'm going to ask what kind of wisdom, what kind of guidance you might give us for trying to do that?
Metzger: Yeah. I think, I honestly think the best piece of advice what I always tell people is that before you share something take 5 deep breaths and decide whether you still want to share.
Metzger: I mean I guess that’s less about evaluating sources and more like you know if the only reason you're sharing it is because it makes you angry and it doesn't really add that much information to the world and to the people around you, do you need to share it? But I mean the other thing I would say is if you don't take a minute and look at what the source that you're sharing is right so if you…a lot of people just sort of see a headline, they agree with it, and they hit retweet or share on Facebook or whatever it is that they do and I would say just take 10 seconds and look at what's the source. Do you recognize it, do you know what it is and if you recognize it, you know, do you trust it and then if you don't recognize it, do a little bit of research and find out, is it a news source, is it some crazy person on the Internet, is it something in between? You know, and that’s easier said than done because we're often doing things quickly and reacting but I honestly think that the single best thing we can do as individuals is to just take a second to make sure that we know what our view of the source that we're sharing is and that we're not sharing something unintentionally.
Pennington: What advice do you have, to our journalists who are covering stories related to misinformation and the spread of things via social media?
Metzger: That's a hard question. I think journalists have a hard job.
Pennington: They do! Thank you very much.
Bailer: I hear about it all the time.
Metzger I think they always have had a hard job but I think these days part of the problem is that things move so fast that journalists are trying to respond often faster than you can do the level of vetting that I think sometimes journalist themselves would like to do. So I don't know, I'm not a journalist, I'm not sure I have great advice. I recognize how challenging it is. I think that one thing I would say is that to a large degree while it's important to cover what people are doing on social media, social media itself shouldn't be the whole story, unless you're writing a story about social media. But in general the social media activity isn't somebody’s…I say this as somebody who studies people's social media activity, but it's not their whole life even when they're a politician and things like that. Yeah that's terrible advice, you should edit that out!
Metzger: No, I mean it’s not terrible advice, but I don't think there's any easy answer for journalists and I think that journalists are under an enormous amount of fire right now, globally especially. But you know here and I just think that the only thing to do is just keep pushing…I don’t know, that's horrible advice!
Pennington: It’s not horrible advice!
Metzger: It’s just useless advice! What are you going to do with it!
Bailer: So what frustrates you in terms of how some of the news covers the work that you do, or what could be done better?
Metzger: I think that very often in the public there's a tendency to latch on to something that's sensational and get really stuck on it and kind of run with it, right? And I think that sometimes…and also to panic when bad things and scary things happen and the reason that I find that frustrating is not because I don't think people should be worried or because I don't think people should ever panic, but because sometimes what winds up happening is that we're not really talking about the right questions, right? So when we think about content online, I very often get asked like well, why won't these news organizations just take all this content down…these platforms just take all this content down, and the answer is we do still live in a country that has guarantees on free speech and a lot of this content, there's no legitimate reason to take down and we need to ask hard questions about how these new platforms structure information and all of the stuff that we shouldn't just be…the answer to that is not censorship, right? So we're confronting new challenges and I think a lot of times the public conversation can be kind of knee jerk. And I understand why, but as somebody who works on these issues a lot, I find myself very often thinking that around certain topics sometimes if the public wasn’t quite as panicked, we might actually have better solutions.
Pennington Well Megan that is all the time we have for this conversation today. Thank you so much for being here.
Metzger: Thank you for having me!
Pennington: Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University’s departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film and the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on Twitter, Apple podcast or other places where you find podcasts. If you’d like to share your thoughts on the program, send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org or check us out on StatsandStories.net and be sure to listen for future editions of Stats and Stories where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.