SMaPP-Global: An interview with Josh Tucker and Pablo Barbera

In April this year a special collection examining social media and politics was published in SAGE Open. Guest edited by Joshua A. Tucker and Pablo Barberá, the articles grew out of a series of conferences held by NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation lab (SMaPP) and the NYU Global Institute for Advanced Study (GIAS) known as SMaPP-Global. Upon publication Joshua Tucker said ‘the collection of articles also shows the value of exposing researchers from a variety of disciplines with similar substantive interests to each other's work at regular intervals’. Interdisciplinary collaborative research projects are a cornerstone of what makes computational social science such an interesting field. We were intrigued to know more so caught up with Josh and Pablo.

Map of Europe alongside SMaPP Global logo

How did the collaboration between the NYU Global Institute for Advanced Study (GIAS) and NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab come about?


The NYU Global Institute for Advanced Study (GIAS) invites faculty interested in establishing global networks of scholars to apply for funding to support meetings of these international networks at different locations throughout NYU’s Global Network. Following outreach from the Director of the GIAS, Professor Paul Boghossian, to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Dean of Social Science at the time, Michael Laver, suggested that the SMaPP lab consider putting in an application. Given the fact that the study of the intersection of social media and politics was still relatively new at this time, we thought this would be an excellent opportunity for us to learn what other top scholars in the field were doing while simultaneously getting feedback on our own expanding research portfolio. We decided to submit an application for funding and were thrilled when we were selected for a three year grant to establish SMaPP-Global.

Has the interdisciplinary nature and international collaborative approach of SMaPP-Global allowed you to explore areas of research you would not have previously been able to study?


To be clear, SMaPP-Global itself was not a research lab or a specific research project, but was a network of scholars who agreed to meet six times over the course of three years to discuss and present ongoing research. That being said, I find it hard to imagine that anyone who participated in the network did not benefit from being exposed to new ideas from participating in such an interdisciplinary—and international—collection of scholars. In addition to political scientists, SMaPP-Global included computer scientists, psychologists, economists, communications scholars, network scientists, and a biologist. I know that the work of the SMaPP lab—already an interdisciplinary lab—certainly benefited from the diversity of opinions we received when presenting our work.

What was the goal of the SMaPP-GLobal network?


The goal of SMaPP-Global was to facilitate high quality research at the intersection of social media and politics. Our “method”, so to speak, was to hold six conferences for the network over a three year period. The conferences—hosted at NYU’s New York, Florence, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai campuses—featured individual paper presentations, where authors could get feedback on research in progress, round-table discussions on more general issues in the development of the field (e.g., “working with Instagram data”), and “tools” presentations whereby members of the network could demo new software packages for the rest of the group.  In addition, we made sure there was enough free time where members of the network could informally share ideas about research and discuss possible future collaborations.

The group brings together researchers and industry professionals. How important is this collaboration in social science? Who else ought to be at the table?


Broad, interdisciplinary collaboration is becoming the norm for social science research that involves large-scale datasets. While extremely promising, this new type of data requires multiple types of expertise, and thus it is difficult to collect or analyze by a single researcher. In the case of SMaPP Global, we have been fortunate to bring together a group of researchers that is diverse not only in terms of their skills and methodological approaches but also in terms of their background, with researchers both in academia and industry. The exchange of ideas that took place was highly enriching for both and we hope to continue fostering this type of collaboration in the future.

Political polarization is not limited to the West and can be seen throughout the world. How crucial is it that academia reflects this trend in its global outreach?


When it comes to the subject of polarization, it is fundamental to look beyond the US in order to understand the full scope of the problem. While polarization in developed democracies is associated with political dysfunction, distrust, and lower societal cohesion, in many other countries polarization can have much more negative consequences, all the way up to ethnic violence or terrorism. And despite its importance, there is a clear lack of comparative research on polarization. As part of SMaPP-Global, we tried to address this gap through contributions on topics such as radicalization and online incivility from a comparative perspective, but there is still a lot that we don't know.

The initiative has also been able to produce a toolkit and a plethora of open-source code used in the research. How important is the publishing of these tools and code as opposed to the more traditional research paper and can publishers do more to help cite and promote open source code within computational social science?


Offering a space for the exchange of recent developments on open-source software was definitely a key priority for the consortium and, in addition to the special collection in SAGE Open, we also put together a list of relevant tools we have developed here. Building this software is not a task that is necessarily rewarded in academia, either during the processes of faculty promotion or as part of citation practices. However, I think it's fundamental to incentivize the development of these tools by social scientists. This would ensure that their design serves the needs of social science research. One possible solution that is increasingly being adopted by publishers is to ask authors to cite all relevant open-source software they use, which would increase the visibility of this work.

Going forward, will there be a new cohort of researchers facilitating international and interdisciplinary collaborative research?


While I think the rise of the internet and other technologies that reduce the cost of communication have already led to an increase in international collaboration, the emergence of digital trace data—such as social media—has led to an increasing need for interdisciplinary collaboration as well. As Pablo noted, larger, multidisciplinary research teams are becoming more common in many fields, although many challenges to interdisciplinary research still remain. One of these is the fact that people from different fields have different ways of thinking about the research process, to say nothing of different vocabularies to describe the research they conduct. This can be a barrier to interdisciplinary work, but one antidote is to simply give researchers from different disciplines time to discuss common research interests and get used to the way people from different disciplines think about similar problems. We are pleased that SMaPP-Global was able to play this kind of role, and I do believe we’ll see more of these kind of efforts in the coming years.

You’ve released open-source packages via GitHub as part of the project that are for people to use with limited coding experience as well as more advanced packages. How important is it to develop software that people can use if they are not yet proficient in python or other programming languages?


Developing good software tutorials that, while still being rigorous, can be followed by scholars with little or no past programming experience is key if we want to make our discipline welcoming to as many people as possible. This is quite personal to me—as a political scientist that ended up becoming a computational social scientist before such term even existed, a lot of what I learned is based on materials I found almost exclusively online. Developing similar tools and tutorials is an excellent way to contribute to the broader community and ensure the future generation of scholars doesn't have to reinvent the wheel.

What are the next steps for SMaPP-Global?


SMaPP-Global was a three year project that culminated in our special issue at SAGE Open; we also plan to gather these articles together in an edited volume in the coming year. In the future, though, we plan to build on the SMaPP-Global effort by hosting an annual social media and politics conference at different locations in NYU’s Global Network. We fully expect the academic partnerships formed by members of the SMaPP-Global network to continue in the future, but we hope this new conference will include the participation of many new scholars, including some who have started working since the time we started SMaPP-Global. Certainly, there are no shortages of topics at the intersection of social media and politics to study in the coming years!


Joshua A. Tucker is Professor of Politics, affiliated Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies, and affiliated Professor of Data Science at New York University. He is the Director of NYU’s Jordan Center for Advanced Study of Russia, a co-Director of the NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory, and a co-author/editor of the award-winning politics and policy blog The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post.  Follow him on Twitter @j_a_tucker.

Pablo Barberá is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. His research develops new computational methods to understand the impact of social media platforms on democratic politics. Follow him on Twitter @p_barbera