The School of Social and Political Sciences has appointed Dr Denis Stukal as lecturer in Data Analytics, a newly created role within the Department of Government and International Relations.
Hailing from New York University, where he completed his PhD and conducted research at the Social Media and Political Participation Lab (SMaPP) as a Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Stukal brings unique expertise in data science, computational communication, and comparative politics to the School.
His research centres on forms of disinformation and propaganda in mass and social media, including the use of bots, which are programmed to control social media accounts and can autonomously perform a variety of actions as if they were controlled by a human being.
“My current projects look at the use of Twitter bots in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and in Russian domestic politics from 2015-2018. The latter case is less known since media discussion of Russian social media bots mainly focuses on their interference in political debates outside of Russia”, says Dr Stukal.
Despite growing research on bot detection in the fields of computer science and data science, the study of bots in the social sciences is still rare. Little is known about the effect they have on how people use social media, consume and process information.
We know almost nothing about whether bots actually matter. We know they are deployed and utilised, and we have some theories about their purposes and strategies, but it isn’t completely clear yet what the consequences are. My research aims to shed light on these questions.
Detecting bots in order to study them is one of the many hurdles data analysts face, with new developments in the field of natural language processing make it increasingly harder to distinguish between human-generated and machine-generated text, especially when dealing with short text in tweets.
Lack of data is another issue, with access limited to samples of publicly available data, due to the cost of acquiring data or the platform’s terms of service.
Access to advanced digital infrastructure is also critical to research in this field and is one of the reasons Dr Stukal chose the University of Sydney. The Sydney Informatics Hub’s Artemis – High performance computing cluster will significantly aid his research by enabling him to analyse large collections of social media data.
It’s both a challenging and exciting time to be at the forefront of research into social media bots and their impact on the democratic process.
When discussing what he is most looking forward to in his new role, Dr Stukal reveals that he is excited about working with renowned academics in the social and political sciences, data science, statistic, and computer science at the University of Sydney.
“A variety of modern problems – ranging from environmental issues and economic inequality to human-computer interaction and algorithmic bias – require the joint effort of scholars across various disciplines. I think my position and research at the intersection of social sciences and data science will give me a chance to work across both disciplines and hopefully contribute to bridging the gap between them.”