From Robots to Social Robots. Trends, Representation and Facebook Engagement of Robot-Related News Stories

In recent years technological beings have been entering our individual and social lives in ever increasing numbers. From virtual personal assistants like Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Home to robots working with us and for us, artificial creatures are leaving both the fictional world they inhabited for centuries and the industrial and aeronautical fields in which they used to be applied, to increasingly share our living space.

To accommodate these artificial creatures in social life, a space in the symbolic order of society needs to be created. Since media communication is a significative means for creating such a cultural space and there is a lack of research in the field, we decided to conduct an empirical analysis on the Italian online media coverage of robot-related news stories and their Facebook engagement.

Robot-related news items published between 2014 and 2018 and their Facebook engagement

The study has analyzed how, and how much, robot-related topics have been covered and represented in the headlines of Italian online newspapers throughout recent years, relying on text mining techniques for unsupervised text classification developed in R. The news stories were collected through Media Cloud and their Facebook engagement retrieved through the Facebook Graph API, using an approach directly inspired by the Mapping Italian News project.

Topics in robot-related news stories

Results support the idea that online media have been increasingly covering robot-related news stories, and online public has been increasingly affected by this. The text analysis has revealed that the most relevant topic in online news media has concerned the work-skills of robots, which partly arouses astonishment, and partly concern about job losses.

Specificity table. The most characteristic lemmas in each topic (English translation).
The 10 most engaging Italian robot-related news stories on Facebook (English translation)

The news with the highest engagement concerns the experiment of two robots that started “talking to each other” in an unknown language (Facebook engagement: 67,819). Then, there is news on issues such as the future, human-robot relationship, and work-related controversies and policies.

Although fears that robots might steal human jobs and become autonomous and uncontrollable seem to persist, news representing robots as a threat is less than expected. This might support the idea that threatening representations of robots (Mori, 1970) are not so widespread or engaging.

This was not a specific area of inquiry of the current study and further research is needed to assess the attitude toward robots, and how and why it has changed through the years. However, some observations are possible. For example, there might be a lack of awareness regarding risks associated with the use of robots – for example war robots – due to a scarce media coverage of the topic. However, a stronger explanation has to do with socialization practices promoting human-robots coexistence: a lot of news revolves around the use of robots in teaching activities, entertainment industry, festivals, exhibits and in the personal and familial sphere. These activities promote a gradual, positive integration of robots in everyday life. Considering that many people still have limited direct experience with robots, media play a central role in promoting a positive representation of robots. Finally, a significant role is played, and will be played in the future, by marketing activities aimed at promoting positive attitudes toward consumer robotics products.

From a general perspective, the results have shown that online news stories on robots have increased over time, doubling in the five years considered in the study. The Facebook engagement follows the same path, so validating the idea of an increasing interest towards robots among the Italian online public and suggesting they no longer appear a topic people perceive far from their lives. In turn, familiarity with robots is reinforced by their increasing presence in online news stories.

The complete paper can be accessed here: From Robots to Social Robots. Trends, Representation and Facebook Engagement of Robot-Related News Stories Published by Italian Online News Media.

First AoIR Flashpoint Symposium

On June 24, 2019 the University of Urbino hosted the first AoIR Flashpoint Symposium. I am really happy to have contributed to the success of the event with the other members of the organizing committee.

The Flashpoint Symposium is a new format of academic meeting that, as the president of the Association of Internet Researchers Axel Bruns said, aims at responding  “more rapidly to the key issues of the day than conventional conferences, journals, and books are able to do”.

Title of the Flashpoint Symposium was “Below the Radar: Private Groups, Locked Platforms and Ephemeral Contents”. The focus of the event was on the problems researchers face in accessing social media data and on the issues of studying social media contents in an environment marked by an increasing number of ephemeral user generated contents.

The AoIR Flashpoint Symposium was kicked off with the keynote speech of the digital anthropologist Crystal Abidin, and closed by Rebekah Tromble.

Crystal Abidin presented a lot of engaging research materials and an interesting perspective on how the danah boyd’s concept of networked publics could be revisited in the light of the recent transformations of the Internet.

The closing keynote speech was delivered by Rebekah Tromble that addressed the issue of research ethics in a scenario where social media data are increasingly difficult for researchers to access, soliciting scholars to thinking critically on the social importance of research questions and on the ethics of data treatment and conservation.

The AoIR Flashpoint Symposium was transmitted via live streaming and the video registration is available on the YouTube channel of the University of Urbino.

Axel Bruns wrote a live blog during the conference that can be read on his website. The website with the program of the conference can be accessed at the following link.

Diverging Patterns of Interaction Around News on Social Media: Insularity and Partisanship During the 2018 Italian Election Campaign

It has just been published on Information, Communication & Society “Diverging patterns of interaction around news on social media: insularity and partisanship during the 2018 Italian election campaign”.

I co-authored this paper with Fabio Giglietto, Augusto Valeriani and Giada Marino, devoting most of my attention to the methodological and statistical analyses sections.

The study – an outcome of the Mapping Italian News project – sheds light on the Italian online news media ecosystem and digital behaviour of partisan communities using methods we described in a recently published paper that usefully exploit and mix Twitter with Facebook data.

We found that:

  1. On Twitter, sources mainly shared by supporters of populist parties (the Five Star Movement and the League) are characterized by higher levels of insularity compared to those shared by supporters of other parties.
  2. On Facebook, news items published by highly insular sources receive a higher number of shares per comment.
  3. News stories presenting a positive framing of the ‘cyber party’ Five Star Movement received a higher number of shares per comment compared to items presenting the Movement in a negative light, while the opposite is true for stories on all other political parties (see the figure below).

You can read the full paper here.

Using Twitter Data to Estimate Partisan Attention in a Multi-Party Media System

It has just been published “Multi-Party Media Partisanship Attention Score. Estimating Partisan Attention of News Media Sources Using Twitter Data in the Lead-up to 2018 Italian Election”.

Extending the computational method first introduced by Benkler, Faris, Roberts and others (see here and here), the paper makes use of Twitter data to measure partisan attention to news media sources in a multi-party political system.

To validate the method we compared our results with those obtained through a survey (ITANES), finding remarkable similarity (see figure below).

Furthermore, we analyzed the degree of polarization of the Italian online news media system we observed in the lead-up to the 2018 Italian election, finding a moderate level of polarization.

We also find that populist partiesonline communities relied on news sources characterized by an higher level of insularity (i.e. mainly shared on Twitter by their partisan community only) than non-populist ones.

Replication data and R code used in the study can be found here, while the paper can be read here.