Chapter 16: Computational approaches to online political expression: rediscovering a ‘science of the social’
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Conversation has long held a place at the center of sociological inquiry. Beginning with Gabriel Tarde’s The Laws of Imitation and extending to work on the two-step flow and opinion leadership, talk among citizens has been understood as a key consequence of news exposure and a critical antecedent of opinion formation and political action. Digital media now shifts political talk to online settings, with email, messaging services and social media increasingly central to communication among citizens. To study everyday political talk online, this chapter advances computational social science approaches that combine natural language processing with social network mapping. It illustrates this approach with two case studies of online political talk in response to current events: (1) the verbal attack on Sandra Fluke, a women’s rights activist, by Rush Limbaugh on his radio show; and (2) the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teen, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

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