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Tuesday, July 12 • 10:31 - 12:00
What can big data analysis approaches to social media tell us about the relationship between illicit drug use communities, public discourse and social change?

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Location: PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - LG02, 
Goldsmiths, University of London, Building 2
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  • Alexia Maddox, Deakin University, Australia
  • Monica Barratt, NDARC, University of NSW, Australia
  • Matthew Allen, Deakin University, Australia
  • Simon Lenton, NDRI, Curtin University, Australia


Discussion online of illicit drug taking can be seen as a knowledge sharing that creates a sense of shared community for drug users, which can lead to harm reduction and also offers social resistance to mainstream drug-use narratives (Bancroft & Reid, 2016; Barratt, Allen & Lenton, 2014). Online drug discussion and the communities of interest formed through that discussion have been common in Australia for at least twenty years. As internet communication technologies have changed during this time, so too have the ways in which that discussion occurs. Recent developments in social media therefore have created new socio-technical forms for online drug discussion. This study will focus on online public discussion via social media platforms (such as Twitter) about the recent provisions for legal supply of medicinal cannabis in Australia. Through the specific focus of this study on an illicit drug with recently legalised supply and access avenues, we seek to reduce possible harms to the online drug discussion community yet retain the benefits of studying how a stigmatised topic such as illicit drug use is engaged with through social media.


The aim of this research is to investigate whether and how social media is used to debate, amplify and curate discussion of illicit drugs online using a case study of recently legalised supply and access of an illicit drug. The second objective is the development of insights into the specific benefits to research of big data analytical approaches to social media that contributes insights into the online public debate of controversial topics.


The study will seek to characterise the communications network (including bots) of those who are commenting, curating and listening to this discussion. To do this, we will conduct the analysis within the Australian twittersphere using social media data curated by the Tracking Infrastructure for Social Media Analysis (TrISMA) archive. Through the use of Tableau, we will initially identify the communications network of those engaging with the topic of “medicinal cannabis”, associated hashtags (such as #medicinalcannabis, ‪#cannabis‪, #marijuana, ‪#MedicalMarijuana), and public figures and organisations, during key events leading up to and including the recent provisions for legal supply of medicinal cannabis in Australia. The analysis will then focus on developing a typology of actors characterised by: attempts at dominance (through frequency and volume of commenting); influence and amplification (through the dispersion of messages by retweets, quoting and modified tweets); and content curation (tweet streams that consistently reflect particular positions and paradigms in the debate).


This research seeks to generate insight into how social media engagement contributes to the ways in which Australians discuss the complex social issues relating to drug use, focusing on a ‘liminal’ case of the legalisation of a normally illicit drug for specific medical purposes’

Future Work: 

This study will contribute to the rationale and generation of social media analysis of illicit drug discussion online. For future work, it will outline how the mechanisms for and configurations of social engagement, influence and information dissemination identified through this case study can contribute new knowledge of social change processes through big data analytical approaches to social media.


Bancroft, A., & Scott Reid, P. (2016). Challenging the techno-politics of anonymity: the case of cryptomarket users. Information, Communication & Society, 1-16. doi: 10.1080/1369118x.2016.1187643

Barratt, M. J., Allen, M., & Lenton, S. (2014). ‘PMA sounds fun’: Negotiating drug discourses online. Substance Use and Misuse, 49, 987-998. 

Tuesday July 12, 2016 10:31 - 12:00 UTC
PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - LG02 Goldsmiths University, Building 2