Building Social Media Observatories for Monitoring Online Opinion Dynamics

Tom Willaert, Paul Van Eecke, Katrien Beuls, Luc Steels

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Social media house a trove of relevant information for the study of online opinion dynamics. However, harvesting and analyzing the sheer overload of data that is produced by these media poses immense challenges to journalists, researchers, activists, policy makers, and concerned citizens. To mitigate this situation, this article discusses the creation of (social) media observatories: platforms that enable users to capture the complexities of social behavior, in particular the alignment and misalignment of opinions, through computational analyses of digital media data. The article positions the concept of “observatories” for social media monitoring among ongoing methodological developments in the computational social sciences and humanities and proceeds to discuss the technological innovations and design choices behind social media observatories currently under development for the study of opinions related to cultural and societal issues in European spaces. Notable attention is devoted to the construction of Penelope: an open, web-services-based infrastructure that allows different user groups to consult and contribute digital tools and observatories that suit their analytical needs. The potential and the limitations of this approach are discussed on the basis of a climate change opinion observatory that implements text analysis tools to study opinion dynamics concerning themes such as global warming. Throughout, the article explicitly acknowledges and addresses potential risks of the machine-guided and human-incentivized study of opinion dynamics. Concluding remarks are devoted to a synthesis of the ethical and epistemological implications of the exercise of positioning observatories in contemporary information spaces and to an examination of future pathways for the development of social media observatories.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2056305119898778
Number of pages1
JournalSocial Media and Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020


  • artificial intelligence
  • data mining
  • digital methods
  • media
  • opinion dynamics


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