Author: Davide

[blog] Why Psychologists need New Media Theory

by Salvatore Romano


I’m a graduate student at the University of Padova, Italy. I’m studying Social Psychology, and I spent four months doing an Erasmus Internship with the DATACTIVE team in Amsterdam.


It’s not so common to find a student of psychology in the department of Media Studies; some of my Italian colleagues asked me the reason for my choice. So I would like to explain four good reasons for a student of psychology to get interested in New Media Theory and Digital Humanities. In doing that, I will quote some articles to give a starting point to other colleagues who would like to study similar issues.

I participated in the “Digital Method Summer School,” which has been an excellent way to get a general overview of the different topics and methodologies in use in the department. In just two weeks, we discussed many things: from a sociological point of view on the Syrian war to an anthropological comprehension of alt-right memes, passing by semantic analysis, and data scraping tools. In the following months, I had the chance to deepen the critical approach and the activist’s point of view, collaborating with the Tracking Exposed project. The main question that drove my engagement for the whole period has been: “what reflections should we make before using the so-called ‘big data’ made available by digital media?”.

The first important point to note is: research through media should always be also research about media. It is possible to use this data to investigate the human mind and not just to make assumptions about the medium itself. However, it is still essential to have specific knowledge about the medium. New Media theory is interesting not only because it tells you what New Media are, but rather because it is crucial to understand how to use new media data to answer different questions coming from various fields of studies. That’s why, also as psychologists, we can benefit from the discussion.

The second compelling reason is that you need specific and in-deep knowledge to deal with technical problems related to digital media and its data. I experienced some of the difficulties that you can face while researching social media data: most of the time you need to build your research tools, because no one had your exact question before you or, at least, you need to be able to adapt someone else’s tool to your needs. And this is just the beginning; to keep your (or other’s) tool working, you need to update it really often, sometimes also fighting with a company that tries to obstruct independent research as much as possible. In general, the world of digital media is changing much faster than traditional media; you could have a new trendy platform each year; stay up to date is a real challenge, and we cannot turn a blind eye to all of this.

Precisely for that reason, the third reflection I made is about the reliability of the data we use for psychological research. Especially in social psychology, students are familiar with using questionnaires and experiments to validate their hypotheses. With those kinds of methodologies, the measurement error is mostly controlled by the investigator that creates the sample and assures that the experimental conditions are respected. But with big data social sciences experiment, the possibility to trace significant collective dynamics down to single interactions, as long as you can get those data and analyze them properly. To make use of this opportunity, we analyze databases that are not recorded by us, and that lack an experimental environment (for example, when using Facebook API). This lack of independence could introduce distortions imputable to the standardization operated by social media platforms and not monitorable by the researcher. Moreover, to use APIs without general knowledge about what kind of media recorded those data is really dangerous, as the chances to misunderstand the authentic meaning of the communication we analyze are high.

Also if we don’t administer a test directly to the subjects, or we don’t make assumptions just from experimental set-up, we still need to reproduce a scientific accuracy to analyze big data produced by digital media. It is essential to build our tools to create the database independently; it’s necessary to know the medium to reduce misunderstandings, and all this is something we can learn from a Media Studies approach, also as psychologists.

The fourth point is about how digital media implement psychological theory to shape at best their design. Those platforms use psychology to augment the engagement (and profits), while psychologists use very rarely the data stored by the same platforms to improve psychological knowledge. Most of the time, omnipotent multinational corporations play with targeted advertising, escalating to psychological manipulation, while a lot of psychologists struggle to understand the real potential of those data.

Concrete examples of what we could do are the analysis of the hidden effects of the Dark Patterns adopted by Facebook to glue you to the screen; the “Research Personas” method to uncover the affective charge created by apps like Tinder; the graphical representation of the personalization process involved in the Youtube algorithm.


In general, I think that it’s essential for us, as academic psychologists, to test all the possible effects of those new communication platforms, not relying just on the analysis made by the same company about itself, we need instead to produce independent and public research. The fundamental discussion about how to build the collective communications system should be driven by those types of investigations, and should not just follow uncritically what is “good” for those companies themselves.


YouTube Algorithm Exposed: DMI Summer School project week 1

DATACTIVE participated in the first week of the Digital Methods Initiative summer school 2019 with a data sprint related to the side project ALEX. DATACTIVE’s insiders Davide and Jeroen, together with research associate and ALEX’s software developer Claudio Agosti, pitched a project aimed at exploring the logic of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, using the ALEX-related browser extension ytTREX allows you to produce copies of the set of recommended videos, with the main purpose to investigate the logic of personalization and tracking behind the algorithm. During the week, together with a number of highly motivated students and researchers, we engaged in collective reflection, experiments and analysis, fueled by Brexit talks, Gangnam Style beats, and the secret life of octopuses. Our main findings (previewed below, and detailed later in a wiki report) pertain look into which factors (language settings, browsing behavior, previous views, domain of videos, etc.) help trigger the highest level of personalization in the recommended results.


Algorithm exposed_ investigasting Youtube – slides




fbTREX reaction to Facebook collaboration

Research associate Claudio Agosti argues the need for independent critical research in a reaction to the news that Facebook is opening its door to scholars for academic research. The statement on the EU19 tracking exposed project website portrays why academic research should not be delimited by corporate conditions for research only;  we should engage in independent critical research to platforms that important for our online public democratic spaces.

Claudio on Twitter: “Last week Facebook announced would share some data with some researchers: don’t be fooled, it is not a gift.”

Read the full statement here allows re-purposing social media data for critical research goals. It is currently employed in a use-case for analyzing the European Elections 2019. Claudio Agosti is DATACTIVE research associate, and fbTREX is hosted by DATACTIVE / ALEX as a form of data activism in-practice.

#JustPublished! “Accounting for power in transnational civic tech activism (…)” by Kersti Wissenbach

Fresh from the DATACTIVE press: Kersti Wissenbach introduces the concept of ‘acting within’ to contemporary media practice approaches on the intersection of communication and social movement studies. She argues for the need to take distance from pre-assigned indications of exclusion and builds on the de-westernisation discourse of communication scholarship in her strive to provide a framework that allows the surfacing of roots of power in diverse country and inner-country contexts. The article examines the need for an explicit conceptualisation of communication in the field of social movement research in order to grasp power dynamics within transnational civic tech activism communities. Civic tech activism is an instance of organised collective action that acts on institutionally regulated governance processes through the crafting of technologies and tactics supporting citizens’ direct political participation.

This theoretical discussion builds the foundation of Kersti’s research into transnational data activist collectives, nurtured by her background in critical development, post-colonialism, and communication for social change.

Read the article!

How to cite it:

Wissenbach, K. R. (2019). Accounting for power in transnational civic tech activism: A communication-based analytical framework for media practice. International Communication Gazette.

Becky responding to Jamie Susskind @SPUI25

On February 21, Becky Kazansky will be responding to Jamie Susskind during an event for the presentation of his book Future Politics. Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech. During the evening, the author will present his insights on how digital technology is and will further transform our society and political system. Becky will comment on Susskind’s book based on her experience as researcher on topics related to technology and social justice.


21 February 2019, 8pm @SPUI25


Davide at the Amsterdam Research Initiative seminar, November 29

On 29 November, Davide will present at the seminar organized for the Communication Science master students by the Amsterdam Research Initiative. The lecture is titled ‘Algorithms Exposed – Research Ethics and Data Activism’. Davide will present DATACTIVE’s spin-off project ALEX, and introduce the students to the debates around algorithmic accountability, data activism and ethics of social media research.

Read more here