A Look Back at the Media Lab’s 2015

Happy New Year! As we welcome in 2016, here are a handful of Media Lab highlights from 2015.

We had our most diverse entering class of first-year master’s students in the Lab’s history. For the first time, the number of women who were accepted and enrolled (“yield”) was higher than our yield for men. The admission rate for underrepresented minorities (URMs) has been consistently lower than the 7 percent average for all other groups (women, men, and international applicants) — but this year, it increased to 13 percent. Of course, we still have a lot of work to do, and continue to strive to make the Lab a place where everyone feels they can be successful, but I’m really pleased to see such progress, and look forward to even greater improvements for the incoming class of 2016.

Left: LEGO model of the Media Lab. Right: “What a beautiful thing. What does it do?” Marvin Minksy was presented with an award for his long career of pioneering work in AI at Mind, Magic & Mischief. Photo credits: John Werner.

On October 30, we celebrated the Media Lab’s 30th anniversary with a day-long symposium, Mind, Magic & Mischief, followed by a party and alumni gathering. Highlights were tributes to Marvin Minsky and Lab co-founder Jerome Wiesner, and talks by Kofi Annan, Steve Pinker, George Church, Nolan Bushnell, Mary Lou Jepsen, and US CTO Megan Smith. The event also recognized the Lab’s 30-year collaboration with LEGO. To acknowledge this, LEGO gave us an incredible 30th birthday present: a scale model of the Media Lab complex—made out of LEGO, of course. If you’re in Cambridge, you can see it on display in our E14 lobby.

Our Knotty Objects summer symposium in July brought together a group of designers, inventors, and scholars who are merging design and technology in new and unexpected ways. Our antidisciplinary view of research made the Lab a great spot to explore the intersection of design and technology.

Ed Boyden received a Breakthrough Prize for his work in optogenetics, a technique in which scientists can control neurons by shining light on them. This past year, Ed and his students and colleagues in the Synthetic Neurobiology group and the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research continued pioneering work with “expansion microscopy,” a new technique that enables large, 3D objects to be imaged with nanoscale precision by physically expanding the tissue. This tool opens up possibilities for inserting barcodes or other tags to help identify exactly what’s happening within a particular area of the brain.

Joe Jacobson was selected as a 2016 inductee for the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on electronic ink.

Neri Oxman presents Mushtari at TED 2015.

Neri Oxman, head of the Mediated Matter group, broke new ground, exploring design in combination with synthetic biology. As part of the course “Designing Across Scales” (co-taught with Meejin Yoon and Lab alum David Sun Kong), 100+ MIT students got a chance to design and assemble DNA molecules to reprogram bacteria to glow in specific combinations of colors. Neri’s Mushtari project also challenged our imaginations by showing how synbio and design could come together with a prototype for a beautifully designed external digestive system.


Along with these exciting new areas, research in our more long-standing areas of inquiry continues to surprise and amaze. The Lab has a long history of achievement in areas such as advanced user interfaces, new opportunities for creative expression, and new ways to help kids learn. Examples of just a few great Lab achievements in 2015 include:

Valentin Heun, a PhD student in Pattie Maes’ Fluid Interfaces group, created the Reality Editor: a new kind of tool that allows users to connect and manipulate the functionality of physical objects.

Tod Machover talks to Detroit Achievement Academy third-graders after a rehearsal at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Photo credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio.

Professor Tod Machover, who has been pushing the boundaries of music performance for his entire career, was honored by Musical America as Composer of the Year. I was lucky to be present in November for the premiere of Tod’s Symphony in D, created with the people of Detroit and performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as the latest of his collaborative city symphonies. In addition to being a spectacular show, I expect that the process and the event will have a lasting impact on Detroit.

Ayush Bhandari, a graduate student in the Camera Culture group, working with Professor Ramesh Raskar and former research scientist Christopher Barsi, developed a biomedical imaging system that could ultimately replace a $100,000 piece of lab equipment with components that cost just a few hundred dollars. The system, which uses fluorescence lifetime imaging, could have implications for both biological research and clinical practices, including DNA sequencing and cancer diagnosis.

Scratch, a programming language for kids created by Mitch Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, continues to grow and expand for a broader audience of kids. In December, a special PBS Kids ScratchJr app was released, created by PBS in collaboration with Lifelong Kindergarten. Scratch is now used in more than 150 different countries and is available in more than 40 languages. Over 12 million projects have been shared on the Scratch website, created by over nine million users.

The Lab had some 20 submissions accepted at CHI 2015, including work from members of the Affective Computing, Camera Culture, Civic Media, Fluid Interfaces, Living Mobile, Object-Based Media, Responsive Environments, Tangible Media, and Viral Communications groups. There was a similarly strong showing of work at SIGGRAPH 2015, with 15 different talks, posters, and exhibits from students and researchers from across the Lab. I was also SIGGRAPH’s keynote speaker.

A Personal Food Computer from OpenAg.

This year we launched a Digital Currency Initiative to bring together global experts in areas encompassing cryptography, economics, privacy, and distributed systems, to explore this new and complex area. We also launched a second initiative, Open Agriculture (OpenAG), that focuses on the creation of an open-source ecosystem of food technologies that enable and promote transparency, networked experimentation, education, and hyper-local food production.

As I mentioned back in July at their official start, an amazing group of individuals joined the Director’s Fellows program this year. This third cohort of fellows includes deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim; creative Mexican bureaucrat Gabriella Gomez-Mont; game designer Rob Pardo; bionic multimedia performance artist Viktoria Modesta; and other advocates and tinkerers in wildly diverse spaces.

3D printed glass exhibit in the E14 lobby. Photo credit: Andy Ryan.

The Lab also mounted three lobby exhibits in 2015: Jerome B. Wiesner: Visionary, Statesman, Humanist, celebrating the life and work former MIT president, Media Lab co-founder, and science advisor to John F. Kennedy; and two exhibits highlighting current Lab research: G3DP: Glass 3D Printing, from the Mediated Matter group in collaboration with MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Wyss Institute, and MIT’s Glass Lab; and bioLogic, from Tangible Media, a project led by student Lining Yao that created a “bio-skin” fabric that contains live, moisture-sensitive bacteria. The fabric peels back in reaction to sweat and humidity—a preview of future responsive and transformable interfaces.


And looking forward, 2016 shows every sign of being another winner for the Lab. New faculty member Iyad Rahwan joined us this academic year and started the Scalable Cooperation group, exploring how technology is reshaping the nature of human cooperation. His work on the ethical questions of self-driving cars, conducted with Jean-Francois Bonnefon and Azim Shariff from France’s Toulouse School of Economics, was just named to Technology Review’s list of the Best of 2015.

And in January, Kevin Esvelt will be coming to us from Harvard to head the Sculpting Evolution group. The group will merge some of the newest techniques in molecular biology with ecological engineering to invent new ways to study and influence the evolution of ecosystems. Having Kevin join the Lab is a major coup for us — he is one of the key researchers working on the CRISPR gene drive, and an important voice in the very difficult conversation around the use of technologies that can permanently alter entire species.

There’s more, of course, but it’s impossible to mention everything. Every day I am impressed by something created, imagined, or built by one of the Lab’s researchers. I look forward to seeing what’s coming next in 2016!


Joi Ito (@Joi) is director of the MIT Media Lab.

Next Story — The Most Widely Shared Election News? Nasty, Brutish, and Short
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The Most Widely Shared Election News? Nasty, Brutish, and Short

… and about Donald Trump

by Sophie Chou

What makes some election news stories go viral online, and others fall flat? Is it simply due to which presidential candidate has a greater (and more vocal) following?

Here at the Electome, we analyzed the emotional vocabulary of 2,650 stories shared on Twitter over the first third of 2016 to help answer this question.

Turns out that the political conversation on Twitter is somewhat Hobbesian: Left to its own devices, it favors stories that are nasty, brutish, and short.

Regardless of whether you’re a Clinton follower, a Trump follower, or follow no candidates at all, stories that ranked high in negativity — i.e. contained more negative language than positive language — were more likely to become popular on Twitter.

This might not be surprising given that conversations surrounding the presidential candidates have not exactly been civil. However, there were variations among different groups of Tweeters: the correlation between the number of negative words in stories shared by followers of @realDonaldTrump was almost three times as strong as those shared by non-Trump followers.

In general, articles that were shorter in length and higher in emotional vocabulary were more likely to be tweeted.

Here are the top 5 most popular stories from our dataset:

  1. The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter
  2. Donald Trump Is Shocking, Vulgar and Right
  3. Biden praises Sanders on income inequality
  4. Why I’m voting for Trump
  5. Anne Frank’s stepsister compares Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler

Trump dominates the most-shared list, and he’s also the candidate whose name is mentioned the most in all the articles we examined. The result: Trump got nearly three times as much coverage as the runners-up, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton.

Top-mentioned candidates in articles shared on Twitter, 01/01/2016– 05/01/16

(Cruz’s popularity above and below is likely due to his association with Trump as a Republican runner-up; 96% of stories where Cruz is the most-mentioned candidate feature Trump as the second-most frequently mentioned.)

Recently, we saw that followers of Trump have out-tweeted followers of Clinton. In looking at media coverage shared online, we see that he has the loudest “media megaphone” across all candidate loyalties. This isn’t simply a case of candidate loyalty.

Trump dominates the stories shared by *all* followers.

Emotional hot-button language and negativity lead to more tweets. So do stories about Trump. Does the former drive the popularity of the latter? Unclear, but a good question for further research.

Sophie Chou is a writer and data scientist. She is currently a Google News Lab fellow and recently a student at the MIT Media Lab. The analysis for this article is based on work for her master’s thesis, “Reading Between the (Party) Lines: How Political News is Seen and Shared”. Tweets and articles were collected over a four-month time period (1/1/2016–5/1/2016) from 13 different national outlets. Classification of positive and negative language was based on the Harvard General Inquirer lexicons.

Next Story — Summer Research Interns Bring Diverse Experiences and Ideas to the Media Lab
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Summer Research Interns Bring Diverse Experiences and Ideas to the Media Lab

This year’s MSRP interns at the Media Lab. (Left to right) Reynis Vazquez-Guzman, José Alfredo Valles Salas, Sebastian Roubert-Martinez , Ranine Haidous, Daniel Diaz-Etchevehere, Jesse Smith, Luke Gockowski, Emmanuel Oquendo-Rosa, and Susan Seijo Méndez. Credit: Takahito Ito/NHK & MIT Media Lab

2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). In that time, MIT’s flagship undergraduate summer program has brought nearly 1000 interns to campus. MSRP has had a profound impact on the lives of these students, often changing their academic trajectories. The program seeks to promote the value of graduate education; to improve the research enterprise through increased diversity; and to prepare and recruit the best and brightest for graduate education at MIT.

Notably, MSRP has played a significant role in diversifying the student populations of departments across the Institute. Over the past two years, the Program in Media Arts and Sciences (MAS) at the MIT Media Lab has worked to leverage MSRP to secure talented interns we hope ultimately to recruit as graduate students. In the fall, we will welcome four MSRP alumni to the Lab as new master’s students.

This summer’s cohort included nine interns from various disciplines and regions. Here are their reflections on their summer at the Lab — what they’ve learned and how it has affected their perspectives about their future plans.


“Change the ways we experience stories”

Daniel Diaz-Etchevehere, University of Rochester, NY

Daniel Diaz-Etchevehere (right) with his research advisor, visiting scientist Takahito Ito (left) of NHK, debugging their virtual reality simulation in the Macro Connections group. Credit: Aamena Alshamsi/MIT Media Lab

The Macro Connections group transforms data into stories by building online visualization engines that allow people to delve into large datasets. During my internship with Macro Connections, we decided to take this idea further — into virtual reality (VR) — by creating an interactive tour of Washington, DC, which leveraged data made available by Macro Connections in the Data USA website.

It was a phenomenal experience: everyone in the group was incredibly supportive and always down to chat or play ping pong. My advisor, Takahito Ito, a visiting scientist from Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) who is charting new territory in VR, was a perfect match for me, since I grew up on Japanese games and animation and I’m very interested in Japan. VR was new to me, but at my university I’ve done a lot of art — illustration, painting, and graphic design — as well as programming for my environmental science major, so I was able to adjust. Prior to this internship, my research was independent, but at the Media Lab we developed the VR experience together. That experience made me realize how crucial and efficient collaboration can be.

I’ve been searching for a way to combine my interests in art, storytelling, video games, animation, and scientific research, and my time at the Media Lab has allowed me to see the breadth of possible combinations. I want to keep exploring new media such as VR and Augmented Reality (AR) and their intersections with both scientific research and media. I am particularly interested in pursuing VR/AR storytelling and their other applications and seeing how they can change the ways we experience stories and understand scientific research and data.


How I want to innovate”

Luke Gockowski, Pennsylvania State University, PA

Luke Gockowski worked in the Lab’s Mediated Matter group on developing a Robotic Extruder for Multi-Property Biomaterial Fabrication. Credit: Justin Knight

This summer, I worked to develop a robotic extruder for multi-property biomaterial fabrication. The goal was to create a multifunctional and highly modifiable extruder that could be attached to any robot arm, enabling it to 3D-print a wide range of materials with high accuracy and high repeatability.

Working in the Mediated Matter group was tantamount to a “study abroad” experience. Initially, like any tourist, I was attracted by what I learned about the group online. But actually joining the group surpassed anything I could have imagined.

I’ve been exposed to a new culture of design, a new language for thought, and a new outlook on the world. My whole shift began during a conversation with a co-worker on the steps outside the Media Lab, when he said to me: “You’re focusing too much on creating a fixed product; try instead to focus on an open and modular design. That’s what we aim to do here — to build the tools that create the possibility to realize any product.”

I’ve always looked at design as an iterative cycle that continues until an optimal product is realized. However, looking towards technologies such as One Laptop per Child by Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte and Scratch programming by the Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group — these have far-reaching positive impacts because they are highly accessible and malleable in the hands of a wide variety of users. Regardless of the field I pursue, I realize that this is how I want to innovate — to create tools, technologies, and spaces that are multifunctional and modifiable by their users. That, to me, is the most empowering form of innovation.


“Experience this wonderment”

Ranine Haidous, Lipscomb University, TN

Ranine Haidous spent the summer in the Fluid Interfaces group, focused on electrically stimulated sensations in virtual reality. Credit: Justin Knight

At the Media Lab, I worked on electrically stimulated sensations in virtual reality, aiming to enhance the overall user experience by increasing realism and immersion. Previous research has targeted sensations that mimic real world haptics. However, I explored abstract sensations through electrical muscle stimulation (EMS). This system was accomplished by interfacing the EMS device with Unity3D and a Leap Motion controller which detects the associations with each object’s desired affordance.

My experiences in the Fluid Interfaces group (under the supervision of Pattie Maes and mentorship of Xin Liu) far exceeded my expectations. I didn’t expect such a level of ownership in the project. Xin guided me but ensured that I learned about the science and physiology involved and that I took the initiative in terms of the project’s direction and progress. Some of my favorite moments during the research process were in discussing all the possibilities behind the muscle-driven sensations, and getting to experience this wonderment alongside my mentor.

Working in Fluid Interfaces, especially on my project, has heavily influenced my perspectives on my future direction. I aspire to maximize human capabilities by combining human and computer abilities rather than by replacing human activities solely with artificially intelligent systems. In general, I’ve become more interested in developing devices that actuate the human body by incorporating biomedical signal processing techniques. This experience has reaffirmed my desire to attend graduate school to pursue designing these systems.


“Collaborative and creative environment”

Susan Seijo Méndez, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, PR

In the Lab’s Object-Based Media group, Susan Seijo Méndez collaborated on a project, called Radiant Garden: Visualizing Data in the Physical World. Credit: Justin Knight

My project, called Radiant Garden: Visualizing Data in the Physical World, consisted of creating a web application where users could visualize the color palette of an image in LED flowers. It uses an Arduino Uno microcontroller board and a serial port library to provide an abstract and novel way for users to interact with the data in a familiar image.

Working in the Object-Based Media group has been incredibly rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to experience research at a graduate level and it allowed me to design and work on my own project. I learned how to incorporate my knowledge from my major with other less familiar areas and I was able to pursue an interdisciplinary project idea.

However, while I expected to work on part of a bigger project, I’m extremely grateful that I got to personally create a project that interested me, and that I was able to brainstorm solutions. Because of that, I was better able to grasp the concept and process of graduate research. The experience has encouraged me to look for interdisciplinary programs where I can learn about different areas and combine them to find a way of impacting society and leaving my mark through the work I do. Also, spending my summer here has allowed me to personally experience the Media Lab’s collaborative and creative environment, and how this setting contributes to novel and innovative research. It has inspired me to cultivate that philosophy in all my future plans.


“Now try to build it”

Emmanuel Oquendo-Rosa, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, PR

In the Viral Communications group, Emmanuel Oquendo-Rosa collaborated on building a novel ranking algorithm for discussions on the new publishing platform, PubPub. Credit: Stephanie Ku/MIT Media Lab

As an MSRP intern, I worked in the Viral Communications group. My project involved researching and building a novel ranking algorithm for discussions on PubPub, a new platform for open scientific publishing. I chose to work on this project because I’m passionate about the mission of enabling meaningful scientific discussion and increasing the engagement of PubPub readers with science.

The Media Lab is one of the best places in the world. Working in Viral Communications was an incredible experience, especially because I had the opportunity to work on a great project with graduate students who are passionate about their work. Their willingness to include me in their conversations and listen to my ideas for the future of the platform allowed me to engage with the PubPub mission and actively propose elements that ended up being implemented in the live platform.

Furthermore, this experience has helped me to recognize the right mindset for developing innovative products. My mentors taught me the importance of experimenting and taking risks. For example, I will never forget how their feedback for many of my ideas was: “Nice! Now try to build it.” Then, they would send me useful resources and even collaborate on my proposals for many hours. Their help and mentorship were incredibly valuable during those periods of pure experimentation. I will always be grateful to the Viral Communications group and the PubPub team for a great experience that made me grow as software developer and as researcher.


“Interdependence permeates the Lab”

Sebastian Roubert-Martinez, Cornell University, NY

Sebastian Roubert-Martinez (right) at MIT, overlooking the Boston skyline, with his Biomechatronics group advisor, Cameron Taylor (left), a PhD student at the Media Lab. Credit: Cameron Taylor/MIT Media Lab

Before I joined the MSRP program, I’d imagined a summer of hard work and many obstacles. That was definitely the reality. What I hadn’t anticipated fully was that the Media Lab and my research group would be a space full of innovation, collaboration, resources, and people ready to take advantage of each of those factors. It was quite common there (and some might say necessary) for post-docs, graduate students, or undergrads to seek opinions or ideas on a problem. Interdependence permeates the Lab.

I spent my summer in the Biomechatronics group, working on a project called Energy Optimization of Transverse Flux Motor for Bionic Ankle. In particular, I focused on automation of the design of a novel transverse flux motor which would be most efficient for use inside a next-generation bionic ankle. This high-impact project has the potential to improve many lives.

My research advisor, Cameron Taylor, a PhD student, was an amazing mentor: a constant source of guidance, patience, and knowledge. I particularly enjoyed working alongside the undergrads in my lab, lovingly self-dubbed the “Biomecha-Chronies.” In our free time we also “collaborated” on food trucks and ping pong.

My summer gave me a snapshot of life in graduate school: focusing on research, living on my own, and tackling the obstacles while celebrating the successes. I’ve gained invaluable skills, technical and otherwise, that I would not have learned inside a classroom. I’ve also gained a new “startup” view of research: that application-driven innovation trumps work that is simply novel.


“Tinkering with other disciplines”

José Alfredo Valles Salas, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, PR

José Alfredo Valles Salas at work in the Personal Robots group at the Media Lab. Credit: Yasmin Chavez

This summer, I worked on the Social Robot Toolkit, which uses collaborative interaction with a social robot to provide socially immersive programming for early childhood STEM experiences. The idea is to introduce kids to computer science in a playful way. They create their own robotic companion out of LEGOs and stickers, and use an Android application to bring their creation to life.

My experience in the Personal Robots group was great. Everyone was very kind and engaging, willing to help out with any problem I encountered. I honestly expected a strict work environment, but it was really relaxed and overall a great place to work. My research advisor, Hae Won Park, was understanding and patient with my extremely long emails and masses of questions. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work under her. Being a part of the MSRP program with eight other interns in the Media Lab was also fantastic, and made the whole experience a lot more meaningful.

While working at the Lab, I came to realize how dynamic people can be with their disciplines. For example, many members of the Personal Robots group develop hardware for the robots, software to program them, and social studies to test their engagement with people. The idea of taking on various projects at once in a specialized way appealed to me a lot, and motivated me to look into tinkering with other disciplines I simply had not considered before. I hope to learn and apply new disciplines in industry, and constantly learn new things by diving into diverse projects.


“Hard work, fun downtime”

Jesse Smith, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, MD

Jesse Smith’s work in the Fluid Interfaces group explored how interactions with simple avatars compare with face-to-face interactions. Credit: Stephanie Ku/MIT Media Lab

My work this summer focused on avatar realism, more specifically on how interactions with simple avatars compare with face-to-face interactions. To study this, we created basic avatar models and developed a robust software system to record a participant’s 3D movement throughout a series of word-guessing games. This work is vital to understanding the potential for real-time collaboration in room-scale virtual reality.

I had the pleasure of working in the Fluid Interfaces group under its director, Pattie Maes, and my research advisor, Scott Greenwald. One thing that surprised me about the Fluid folks is their commitment to including undergraduate researchers. In our lab we had roughly 10 students from different universities around the world. This made for a great atmosphere — one that not only embodied hard work, but also allowed us to engage in some fun downtime — playing ping pong or rushing downstairs when we got a “foodcam” alert. Enjoying each other’s company and the occasional lighthearted interactions with the graduate students made for a unique experience.

Before participating in MSRP, I was part of an initiative that strongly pushed students toward obtaining a terminal degree. Naturally, I bought into that concept, not thinking twice about taking strides towards achieving that goal. But, at the Media Lab this summer, I realized I was blindly chasing something I did not fully understand. Doing research in Fluid and talking with graduate students allowed me to better understand what I wanted to achieve, and more importantly why I wanted to pursue a graduate degree. I’ve learned and grown a lot through this experience, and I’m thankful for all the people who have made an impact on me.


“True impact and joy of the work”

Reynis Vazquez-Guzman, Stanford University, CA

Susan Klimczak (left) and Xia Josiah-Faeduwor (center), both from the South End Technology Center, visiting the Lifelong Kindergarten group with Reynis Vazquez-Guzman (right). Credit: Mitchel Resnick

The Lifelong Kindergarten group is the result of a bunch of people who truly care about making sure that everyone has the opportunity to learn through the expression of their ideas. It’s not uncommon to hear a lot of noise coming from the research group; it probably means a Scratch workshop is happening. This summer, I was at one particular session where most students were English-language learners. After our demo, which we gave in English, I talked with a girl who told me she’d had no idea what was going on. We both spoke Spanish, so she told me she wanted to make a girl dance on the screen. For the rest of the workshop, we laughed at our attempts and worked together to create an animation. By the end, I knew I had just witnessed the true impact and joy of the work of Lifelong Kindergarten.

Through qualitative interviews and quantitative analysis of the database, I investigated measures of retention, social engagement, and socioeconomic status of the online Scratch community. I chose this project because I was a Scratcher when I was in middle school, and I hope this project helps engage even more children in creative learning experiences.

My time in the Media Lab has shown me the vast potential for progress when you combine efforts from multiple disciplines. It has solidified my desire to look beyond the traditional paths as I search for grad schools or plan my future. The Media Lab has helped me learn to look not just for projects that match my interests, but also for people who will inspire me, challenge me, and help me grow every day.


We invite you to find out more about MSRP and the Program in Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab.


Monica Orta is the Media Lab’s assistant director for diversity and student support.

Next Story — Shooting from the Lip
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Shooting from the Lip

How a single comment can shift the focus of the election online

by Andrew Heyward and Uzra Khan

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Whatever you think of Trump’s now notorious comments, they present a case study in the power of social media to alter the national conversation with astonishing force and speed. And Trump’s new campaign leadership — with chief strategist Paul Manafort out, and right-wing media enfant terrible Steve Bannon in — is poised to exploit that power.

Guns had faded as an election issue on Twitter in the nearly two months since the Orlando nightclub shooting in mid-June, but Trump’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks on August 9th brought them back with a vengeance. In fact, his comments generated an even bigger Twitter spike around guns than Orlando, the worst mass shooting in US history. And whether or not Trump’s words were a “dog whistle” to some of his followers, they instantly became a clarion call to Hillary Clinton’s.

We know that because here at the Laboratory for Social Machines, part of the MIT Media Lab, data scientists have been tracking the election conversation about issues throughout the campaign. Our algorithms, collectively called Electome, cull election-related tweets from the full output of Twitter and then classify them by issue, candidate, and other relevant filters.

It’s no secret that some issues — guns and terrorism among them — are particularly sensitive to actual news events.

Example: In the two days before the Orlando shooting, conversations about guns made up fewer than 8% of issue-related tweets. The June 12th massacre changed that overnight: on the 12th, guns shot to the top of Electome’s list of issues , commanding fully a third of the tweets, and still dominated the conversation on June 20th, at 35%.

Percentage numbers on the left denote the average proportion of tweets in the selected time frame

By the time of Trump’s Second Amendment comments on August 9th, however, guns had receded significantly as an issue among the Twittizenry. On August 8th, only 2% of the conversations about issues involved guns; by comparison, about 30% were about foreign policy or national security, and 25% about the economy.

“Maybe there is, I don’t know” changed all that in a flash. Take a look:

Percentage numbers on the left denote the average proportion of tweets in the selected time frame

By August 10th, the next day, guns were Electome’s top issue by far, with a 44% percent share of the conversation — larger than in the aftermath of Orlando. Among Clinton’s unique followers — people who follow her and no other presidential candidate — guns commanded an astonishing all-time-high 51% of all issue-related tweets that day. (Trump’s unique followers didn’t exactly shy away from the subject either: about 30% of their tweets on August 10th involved guns as well.)

However, unlike after Orlando, guns faded from the conversation relatively fast, and a week after Trump’s remarks, they were back at the 5% mark. This is why the percentage number for guns that you see on the left in the images — denoting the average proportion of tweets about the issue in the selected time frame — is higher for Orlando.

Electome’s data can’t tell us how or even whether the sudden spike in conversation about guns last week hurt (or conceivably helped) Trump, though reaction to this particular comment in the Twitterverse was especially fast and furious. The controversy does coincide with a rough time in his campaign, with declining poll numbers and rising defections in the GOP ranks.

Now come this week’s changes: the staff shakeup, a more disciplined delivery on the stump, even rare words of regret in Charlotte yesterday about some of the pain his remarks have caused. Trump may have pressed the reset button, but throughout the campaign, his finger has always returned to the hot button— triggering explosive responses on social media whose consequences are hard to predict.

Andrew Heyward is a visiting researcher at the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines . Uzra Khan, a recent graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is spending the summer as a project manager there. Soroush Vosoughi and Prashanth Vijayaraghavan, researchers at the Laboratory for Social Machines, developed the analytics for this post.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Next Story — Look Who’s Talking
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Look Who’s Talking

Whose followers tweet more about this election, Trump’s or Clinton’s?

by Andrew Heyward, Uzra Khan and Soroush Vosoughi

It turns out Donald Trump is not the only one with an itchy Twitter finger — his followers are also eager tweeters. And even though you might think that Trump’s stumbles since the conventions would energize Clinton’s followers, his troubles have actually widened the Twitter gap in Trump’s favor.

Electome, a set of algorithms developed at MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines (part of the Media Lab), uses the full output of Twitter to analyze the social-media conversation around Election 2016.

We wondered whose unique followers– people who follow that candidate and no other — generate the largest share of election-related tweets.

Both Trump and Clinton have millions of unique followers — together, the two groups account for about 20% of all the election-related tweets Electome captures. Let’s think about that for a minute — a fifth of all conversation about the election on Twitter comes from people who don’t want to listen to any other candidate but one.

But whose followers are more active on any given day? Here’s how Electome sees it:

Trump has 1.4 X as many unique followers as Clinton. So whenever the share of election tweets by Only-Trumps (OTs) exceeds the share by Only-Clintons (OCs) by more than 1.4 X, Trump followers are out-performing Clinton followers. Conversely, whenever the ratio is less than 1.4 X, the OCs are tweeting above their weight.

This chart traces the relative shares from July 18th, just before the Republican Convention, to this week (August 10th). Every time the jagged line dips into blue, Clinton’s followers are beating the ratio and therefore out-tweeting Trump’s. When it’s red, Trump’s followers are out-performing Clinton’s.

You can see that Clinton’s unique followers out-tweeted Trump’s a few times, — notably three bumps: 1) on July 19th and 20th, 2) on July 22nd (two of the four days of the RNC and the day after); and 3) on July 28th and 29th (the day of Clinton’s acceptance speech at the DNC and the day after). On the 29th, when the OTs generated 12% of the election-related tweets, the OCs nearly closed the gap altogether despite being outnumbered — reaching a share of just under 11%.

But that’s it. Look at the relative share of Only-Trumps in August, which have been some of the worst days of the Trump campaign according to polls— about double the election-related tweets of Only-Clintons.

It reminds us of the old high school cheer:

“We’re for TRUMP, and no one could be prouder.
And if you don’t believe us, we’ll yell a little louder!”

Andrew Heyward is a visiting researcher at the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines . Uzra Khan, a recent graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is spending the summer as a project manager there. Prashanth Vijayaraghavan, a researcher at the Laboratory for Social Machines, helped develop the analytics for this post.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

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