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 โ€“ for example war robots โ€“ 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.