Understanding the Challenges of the Food System grant winner

Public reaction to horse meat to be analysed through social media

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Data from Twitter will be looked at in the project
Data from Twitter will be looked at in the project
Social media data surrounding the horse meat incident will be analysed by Cardiff University researchers to see how rumours spread and measure public engagement.   

The project will investigate how the growing complexity of international food supply chains is prompting a new generation of risks and concerns.

The university’s Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory (COSMOS) has been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant worth £291,200.

It will share £2m to investigate the UK food system with Manchester University, Queens University Belfast, Newcastle University and University of Hertfordshire as we reported last week​.

COSMOS is a £1.25M ESRC investment that brings together social, computer, political, health and mathematical scientists to study the methodological, theoretical, empirical and policy dimensions of Big ‘Social’ Data.

Who were the opinion setters?

Dr Luke Sloan, from the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, said the analysis will be based on Twitter data as it is the most appropriate platform.

“With Twitter we can see who is at the centre and who were the opinion setters for horse meat, with scandals there can be mis-information and you can find where is that coming from and who is re-tweeting or passing it on,” ​he told FoodQualityNews.com.

“With our work you can address this person directly, so the FSA can go to the person and say this is what we are doing to inform them about the truth and stop the mis-information spreading.

“We will select criteria and analyse social media to identify the event, otherwise it is just noise in the background, Google Trends show January, February and March were the months with the most activity online.

“We will search the public engagement with the topic with Google Trends data showing the best time periods for horse meat, horse burger or major chains that were involved.”

Sloan said current methods have no way of detecting joke and sarcasm which forms part of the public reaction.

“People don’t understand how information proliferates so the software maps information from the source, if this had been available at the time would the FSA have been more informed and effective in reassurances to the consumer?,” ​he said.

“It may not have changed how they acted but it may have altered the reaction and behaviour and this could be ready for the next time an incident happens so we can work in real-time.”

Database of 3bn tweets

COSMOS will work with NatCen, the University of Warwick and the University of Westminster.

Dr Pete Burnap, computer scientist and expert in risk in distributed and collaborative online networks, said COSMOS provides an opportunity to study the story arc of crises in detail. 

“We have collected data from public Twitter accounts since 2012 and our database of more than three billion tweets will allow us to trace the unfolding of the horse meat scandal; pinpointing moments of escalation, de-escalation and duration,” ​he said. 

“We can also mine the data to discover variation in levels of public sentiment and tension around the topic, as well as identify demographic characteristics of those involved and the geographic spread of the scare.

“This study will enhance understanding of the potential of social media analysis to both access public perceptions and how these evolve and to establish how social media analysis can be used in risk governance and engagement with the public about risks more generally.”

The project team are Sloan, Dr Matthew Williams (COSMOS, Cardiff School of Social Sciences), Burnap (COSMOS, Cardiff School of Computer Science and Informatics), Caireen Roberts (NatCen), Professor Elizabeth Dowler (University of Warwick) and Dr Alizon Draper (University of Westminster).

Caireen Roberts from NatCen Social Research will use qualitative and quantitative methods with social media analysis to generate empirical findings on public perceptions of food supply chains, what people's concerns are, what influences these and how they may be best managed in the future.

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