The Final Word – A new way to study social media behaviour

5 July 2022 / by Maddy Mahoney
A blue background with building blocks that have the logos of social media sites


On the June 24 episode of The Final Word, Abby Hughes spoke with a PhD student from Toronto Metropolitan University who has created a new tool to help researchers study people’s behaviour on social media platforms.

Arvin Jagayat, a PhD. student at Toronto Metropolitan University, created a software that has the potential to provide more accurate research on social media behaviour by simulating a social media timeline. 


While social platforms have a huge impact on how we interact with others and take in information, there is only a tiny body of research investigating how these platforms affect us as users. Further, according to Jagayat, the way researchers conduct studies about social platforms often leaves something to be desired.


He says that most researchers either track user behavior on real social platforms, like Twitter, or show research participants mock posts, then ask questions about how they would interact with that post if they saw it online. 


The second method takes people out of the natural headspace of being on a social platform, says Jagayat. In researcher terms, that makes such studies less “ecologically valid”, because participants aren’t just clicking ‘like’ or commenting as they would in the natural social media sphere. 


That’s where Jagayat’s mock social media tool comes in. The student wanted to create a software researchers could input their mock content into. Participants would then be able to interact with those fake posts in a more life-like way.


“The social media website tool is essentially a piece of research software that allows us to make pretend versions of real social media websites, and then let research participants interact with those pretend versions of social media websites like Facebook or Twitter, just like they would the actual Facebook and Twitter,” said Jagayat. “But it allows us researchers to choose what kind of posts that we want to show on it.” 


“It allows us to essentially simulate a real social media experience, but customize it in ways that are unique.”


Jagayat says the project was conceived around the time of the American presidential election in 2016. He found himself wondering what researchers could do to help reduce user engagement with misinformation. 


“I saw that there was definitely a need to find a way to simulate these platforms, so that we could conduct experiments,” said Jagayat. “It was very frustrating because there just wasn’t anything available.”


“So we built a prototype.”


An offline version of the tool that could be used in a lab was made available in June 2021. The online version, which lets researchers make their own link to the mock tool that can be distributed to remote participants, has been out since December 2021.


Jagayat and the team at Toronto Metropolitan University have conducted studies of their own using the tool. One study examined how vulnerable immigrants and refugees in Canada were to disinformation online. Another tested a made-up feature that displayed the presenters’ reputation for sharing misinformation. 


Despite how new it is, some researchers – like PhD student Jordan Daley – have already deployed the software in studies. Daley has been using the mock social media tool to research skin tone bias on social media, and experiment with how users react differently to posts depending on the race and skin tone of the poster. 


Jagayat says other political and social scientists from institutions around the world have let him know they’re working with the tool.


“It’s not a silver bullet,”  says Jagayat. “This does not replace the need for policymakers and people at the platforms themselves, many of which are also trying to improve the platform based on their own research.”


“But I think every study, every good study that we have, it’s like building a house of evidence.” 

Want more? Hear the full story, and others, on The Final Word from June 24, 2022. The podcast can be found on SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple Music.