As the 2016 presidential candidates kick off their campaigns, School of Information Studies (iSchool) professor Jenny Stromer-Galley is ready to follow their social media posts, tracking what the candidates say and how the public reacts. Stromer-Galley is working with an interdisciplinary team to collect tweets and hashtags on Twitter, as well as the posts, likes, and shares on Facebook, and conduct analysis. This work is part of the digital politics project of the Behavior, Information, Technology, and Society (BITS) Laboratory, which was established at the iSchool last October, providing a dedicated space and facilities for online network research. “Campaigns are now using social media as one of the many tools for persuading people to vote and for attacking opponents,” Stromer-Galley says. “Social media, more than TV advertising, also enable a campaign to encourage supporters to work for it.”

Stromer-Galley shares her interest in political science with her collaborators on the project, iSchool professors Jeff Hemsley, whose expertise is data collection and analysis; and Bryan Semaan, who specializes in human and computer interactions and social computing. During the gubernatorial races last year, they collected 1,147,257 tweets and more than 10,000 Facebook posts from candidate pages to analyze. “The knowledge that we create from this study adds another great sense to the collective knowledge of society about how humans interact and about politicians who are humans,” Hemsley says. “We get a deeper understanding about human experience.”

To collect social media data, Hemsley has developed a data-gathering tool named Social Media Tracker, Analyzer, and Collector Toolkit at Syracuse (STACKS), which he initially built as a doctoral student at the University of Washington and continues to refine. It provides researchers with a robust and easy-to-use platform for gathering and storing large amounts of data from social media sites. Available as an open source code on GitHub, STACKS allows researchers without programming backgrounds to manage social media data through its web interface.

A team of eight iSchool graduate and doctoral students is involved with the lab. Billy Ceskavich ’14, G’15, the faculty assistant at BITS Lab and the lead developer of STACKS, says he learns about technologies through practice and is fully involved in academic research. “It’s an eye-opening experience for me,” he says. “It’s one of the highlights of my graduate career so far.”

Apart from digital politics, BITS Lab has two other projects underway. One involves information visualization, in which Hemsley is teaching students and community members to work with data visually to make it more understandable. The other project, led by Semaan, focuses on the role social media play for people in a state of disruption—such as refugees from a natural disaster or a war—and how technologies can enable them to get back on track. Right now, Semaan is collaborating with Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, and Catholic Charities, a local nonprofit organization, to study the experiences of veterans and refugee groups in Syracuse. He hopes to understand how people and organizations use technologies to help veterans reintegrate into civilian life after returning from war, and how the technologies help refugees engage in a new society. He plans to share the study with the organizations and offer recommendations on how they can improve their services to these populations. “It starts small,” Semaan says. “But over time I hope what I’m learning can be applied to other places.” 

Learn more about the iSchool’s STACKS data-gathering tool in this video:

This article was originally published in the Summer issue of the Syracuse University Magazine.

Video courtesty of Ruobing Li.