After the bombshell of the Panama Papers hit the news, two intrepid academics pursued accountability. They launched a study that looked at how Twitter could elicit audience reaction, and how publicly minded academics could expedite the process.
The Panama Papers blew the lid off international offshore investing by the rich and powerful. These 11.5 million documents, created and maintained by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailed financial and attorney-client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities (Source: Wikipedia). This laid bare the tax avoidance and evasion, and wealth accumulation activities of the super rich as far back as the 1970s. The Papers were officially released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in 2016, but they had been leaked by an anonymous source a year earlier.
Schulich School of Business Professor Dean Neu wondered about global reaction and accountability. What happens when this kind of information is made public? To answer this, he led a study, in collaboration with Schulich Professor and Big Data expert Gregory Saxton, and an academic from the Haskayne School of Business (University of Calgary), that focused on Twitter reaction. They found that there were different styles of response and that certain styles were more likely to elicit an audience reaction, especially if the Tweet sender were a journalist.
Their work also says something about the role of academics. “Our research implies that publicly minded academics can facilitate social accountability by helping to make previously private financial information public, and by cultivating sympathetic individuals in the media and in organizations that are active on social media,” Neu explains.
The research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, was published in Critical Perspectives on Accounting (2019), under the title: “Twitter and social accountability: Reactions to the Panama Papers.”
Key assumption: social media can be used to spark positive social change
The potential for social media to spread news, to disseminate information, is almost limitless. Unlike newspapers and traditional news outlets, this democratic tool can open a dialogue and elicit an audience reaction that can facilitate social accountability. This has the potential to enact positive social change.
This was a key assumption for Neu and Saxton, which they sought to prove in the study.
The methodology of this research involved studying Spanish-language Twitter reaction to the news. The publication of the Panama Papers incited a frenzy of Spanish-language Twitter activity: including 113,000 + Spanish language Tweets in the subsequent fourteen days, Neu explains. “The sheer number of highly visible politicians and personalities from Spanish-speaking countries mentioned in the Panama Papers encouraged us to focus on Spanish-language tweets,” he says.
The second step was to analyze the impact that a corporately controlled public space of appearance, such as Twitter, had on the emergence of social accountability conversations. Next, the researchers examined behaviour of those who were Tweeting, liking and re-Tweeting to gauge reaction.
The researchers noted some interesting patterns:
- Social position encouraged social actors to speak in certain ways. Increased levels of corruption in the speaker’s country was associated with expression of outrage.
- The proximity of the involved visible personalities was, in certain cases, associated with certain speaking patterns, especially if the personality was highly visible.
- Speaking patterns were learned as participants become more embedded in the social media machine. Over time, participants become more machine-like in that their outrage was removed from the repertoire of responses.
- The length constraints of Twitter produced responses that were either emotive or reasoned.
Academics have pivotal role to play as does social media
Broadly speaking – as Neu and Saxton’s research is rich and comprehensive – this work showed that there was a Twitter reaction to the Panama Papers, and that there were different styles of response, and that certain styles were more likely to elicit an audience reaction, especially if the tweeter was a journalist or organization.
Neu elaborates on how this research implies that academics, scholars and researchers can facilitate social accountability by helping to make previously private financial information public. “By educating or encouraging sympathetic individuals in the media and in organizations that are active on social media, social accountability could be achieved,” he says.
Can social media really lead to social change? Yes, Neu believes, the publication of this financial information, coupled with a vibrant public discussion, had an impact. “Indeed, the publication incited a social media reaction which may have helped to engender the resignation of Iceland’s Prime Minister, the arrest of a Pakistani Minister, and the initiation of legislative processes in a variety of other countries,” says Neu, quoting ICIJ (2019).
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