Social Science Theory and Methodology Essay

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Social Science Theory & Methods

MAIN STUDY QUESTION: What role does digital deception play in the establishment of trust, confidence and authenticity regarding the use of graphics and images in the online media sources we use?

The world is getting more and more comfortable with the integration of technology into our lives. While we often pay attention to this in the way that we use certain types of equipment or access portals (such as cell phones or websites), in reality there are a great deal of other types of digital integration that can be just as important. For example, there may be growing levels of falsified graphics or manipulated images in the communications and news postings that we are exposed to in the various kinds of sites we use online.

What does it mean when we see and accept false or altered pictures and information online as being true in settings where greater amounts of false information is being used? There has simply not yet been much scientific focus on what the implications might be about the where and to what degree we experience these forms of digital deception (James, 2011; Johnson, 2003). Nor has it been tested as to what it might mean for us to become accustom to having such false images used in everything from airbrushed photos in fashion news (MailOnline, 2009) to fake news or media stories -- not to mention the implications of the level of comfort we gain from purposefully using false identities or personalities when we engage in social networking, games or other settings.

Our main question has relevance on many levels. Each level is summarized:

INDIVIDUALS: The first line of access we have to digital images and deceptions is as individuals. This may be the most frequent type of access we experience. Simply using email or an active resource like Twitter is based on one-on-one or similar simple layers of communication, some of which includes pictures and graphics. It does involve a level of awareness of the fact that we are writing online where others can see what is happening, but these methods are often somewhat private. It is not known how often deception occurs in these kinds of settings but the chances are that there is some level of falsifying or exaggerating the information that is conveyed. Many users likely learn early through these steps about creating an online personality that may or may not be honest. The creation of false names, personalities and profiles is an introduction to minor forms of digital deception.

GROUPS: Though it too has not yet been widely studied, it is also very likely that it does not take long before individuals move from being involved in one-on-one communications to larger groups that share their own sense of community. These groups inherently generate a sense of electronic closeness as participants build collections of Friends or those they Like. People who gather in these groups do so to seek ways to share information on topics or to set up opportunities to meet others for everything from legitimate relationships (business, romantic, etc.) to discrete encounters. In settings like this it again can be the case that people will not just create falsified personalities but may actually create larger environments where deceptions prevail as part of their socialization process. Various levels of competition could also be introduced here, which may mean that when information or even images are shared, there could be pressure to exaggerate or otherwise fake content to make oneself appear better. For people who gather to monitor news, this might be an ideal location for purposefully spreading false information if one is inclined to want to impact a large number of people.

CULTURE/SOCIETY: It was reported recently that the planet is watching the creation of an entirely new nation -- one that already has 800 million citizens, each dedicated to Facebooking their lives together. This virtual nation is in line to become the largest social gathering on the planet. The relevance of this is just now beginning to become clearer but there could well be many more implications for what it means when people introduce themselves to others from across the planet. What does this kind of socialization mean for the way we think of others who normally communicate using different langauge, cultural expectations, standards of honesty, trust, confidence?


How can we verify whether someone is in or favors one group or another, and what this means about the exposure they have to various kinds of digital deception?

What types of survey or other measurement tools will be needed to measure someone's involvement and their exposure to false or misleading information?

How does one define "digital deception" or other kinds of intentional graphic manipulation in the first place, and what are the implications of these definitions?

The first two questions share common parameters and were developed specifically to be able to prove at what level the participants are at when they connect with each other or with larger groups. Are they mostly using "individual" level activities, or do they go to groups to engage with others? The third question seeks to develop the boundaries of understanding of what it means to purposefully deceive people by creating false information or even graphics. It will help us quantify what "digital deception" really, is and how it could or could not impact people in the various levels when the falsification is purposeful, playful or for some other purpose.

a. Social Scientific Analysis of Questions

Measuring digital involvement is a first priority. We need to understand when and how people in our study actually go online and what levels or degrees of involvement they engage with others online. Faking information in a group setting may be different than faking it in a one-to-one setting.

An appropriate way to judge this might be through the use of voluntary surveys. Survey instruments would allow us to ask direct questions about which levels people are at and whether they stay there, move from one to another, etc. Through survey questions we could then judge if their senses of honesty, trust and confidence are impacted by the levels in which they are engaged. On the other hand, we might also be able to monitor their involvement by creating ways to track their IP addresses and where they travel when they are online. This would be a more objective type of monitoring of various levels, if it could be done in a way that did not allow the user to manipulate the readings. A large selection of participants would be needed, which will add to the reliability of the findings since the information could be relatively anonymous. We might be able to integrate pop-up surveys or other kinds of secondary confirmations that activate when their equipment enters certain sites where we can judge their perceptions of deceptions (including potentially deceptions that we plant to test people's responses). This may be a way to test whether a user is being honest in the uses of their equipment and the types of access they use. Of course, for the third question the importance centers on helping to establish a standard for what honesty is and where the boundaries of digital deception might be. Independent groups of demographically balanced control groups could likewise be questioned about their understanding of the terms and concepts and what they say they would do if they faced false information at many levels.


The physical or natural sciences rely on empirical information and results that come from controlled investigations. Empirical information can be gathered directly through observation or the use of other senses, and it is usually noted to be quantitative, meaning its values can be measured through agreed upon numeric terms. These investigations can catalog core differences between items that are related or not using various weights, measures, chemical makeups, etc. Research studies of these natures can involve controlled experiments. This means that one or more groups can be identified and receive various interventions that are designed to test or measure physiological or related actions and reactions. Formal theories and hypotheses are created and then tested using the objective methods above. Social scientific explorations are less quantitative even when they are presented in similar formats. They focus on measuring perceptions that people have or their understandings of what something may mean to them. Inherent bias of the subjects can occur, which can make it more difficult for an independent reviewer to factor out subjective elements.

To what extent does a social scientific perspective rely on methods drawn from the physical and natural sciences?

The social scientific perspective relies heavily on the physical and natural scientific methods to establish standards of what is acceptable in achieving an answer that can be readily understood by others. Survey methods like those we propose seem to be good because they use constant questions and formats that every participant uses. However, both the substance…[continue]

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