Research Spotlight: Adam Saffer

Associate Professor Adam Saffer’s research uses the latest advances in network science to reveal how social ties affect organizations and individuals

How many people do you speak to on a day-to-day basis? Who do you trust to go to for credible information? Have you ever thought about how the people around you might shape what you believe?

These are the questions that underlie the concept of networks; or the many ways that social environments influence people’s behaviors and perceptions of events. Networks are a key area of study for Associate Professor Adam Saffer of the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, whose most recent research employs some of the latest advances in network science to study how networks shape communication between Malaysian NGOs and how they shape individuals’ attitudes toward COVID-19 in the U.S.

Mapping Activist Networks in Malaysia
In the last five years, the Malaysian government has entered a period of instability. In May 2018, the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan soundly defeated the Barisan Nasional party, which had held power for 61 years—the entirety of Malaysia’s independent political existence. Yet, just as the pandemic began unfolding in 2020, the governing coalition collapsed with the surreptitious realignment of political parties and the sudden resignation of the prime minister. Malaysia is now on the border between electoral democracy and electoral authoritarianism, with Malaysian civil society losing its foothold in government. This political upheaval has also sparked new connections and severed other ties among Malaysian government reform NGOs trying to navigate a changing political landscape.

Saffer uses the term political opportunity structure as a way to think through the ways that changes in political structures can constrain or encourage collective action, and this concept of political opportunity structures is central to new research that tracks, maps, and illuminates the complicated networks of Malaysian activist groups. “We want to know why network structures among NGOs take the form that they do, and how they constrain or enable NGOs to accomplish their collective action goals,” he said. 

The project is a collaboration that spans countries and institutions—with other main collaborators including new Hubbard School Associate Professor Erich Sommerfeldt, previously from the University of Maryland, Andy Pilny from the University of Kentucky, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is providing groundwork support in collecting data through surveys. According to Saffer, this approach to studying activist groups is unique. 

Rather than isolating one organization, Saffer is able to map a complex network that gets at the heart of how NGOs communicate and collaborate using surveys. This allows his team to not only track connections between organizations, but also understand those connections at a deeper level. “When researchers only use secondary data scraped from websites or social media, they only know that NGO A has some connection with NGO B. That doesn’t tell us ‘do they trust them?’ or ‘what is the frequency of communication between those NGOs?’ With my data, we can actually see the strength of those ties.”

Although this research is focused on Malaysian international politics, Saffer is hoping that his data will bring about a better understanding of how global shifts toward authoritarianism are shaping activism in destabilized countries, and how activists can work together in order to combat oppressive practices, like threats toward migrants, LGBTQ people, and other threats that jeopardize the lives of people in authoritarian countries.

Measuring Attitudes about COVID-19
Saffer’s research has also focused on issues relevant to the United States, like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. More specifically, one of Saffer’s studies unpacked how social networks play a role in whether or not people avoid news about COVID-19, and how overlapping ties with certain types of individuals may limit a person’s exposure to new information. 

In a time of political polarization, especially over health initiatives, understanding how and why people come to ignore public health recommendations is vastly important. Saffer says that avoidance of COVID news is “one of the big challenges when you’re trying to get people to comply with recommendations like wearing a mask or getting vaccinated.” 

Through research, Saffer found that the size and interconnectedness of social groups can have a large impact on whether people believe COVID news. For instance, if a person has a relatively small social circle in which everyone knows each other, information that can be redundant is more likely to be amplified. Whereas if a person’s social circle is large and has less overlap, they’re exposed to a wider variety of information.

Saffer also stresses that just because a person avoids the news, that doesn’t mean that the people in their social networks do. He said, “as much as people might try to avoid reading news articles or watching news segments, people are still connected to others who are influenced by news in some way.” Therefore, rather than asking questions like “are you avoiding the news?” Saffer is more interested in questions like “who do you turn to to talk about COVID-19?” that reveal the underlying norms in social networks that encourage or discourage people to talk about COVID.

Saffer’ work shows that social networks can be a better tool to understand behaviors and attitudes than most traditional research methods. He said, “one of the problems with traditional research approaches is that they make the major assumption that individuals are isolated. In the last decade or so there have been more tools for researchers to study social environments. What I’m trying to do is have a better understanding of the dynamics of individual social environments so that we can design messages and campaigns that take that into account.” 

These social networks have far-reaching implications for the ways that news outlets and government agencies convey information and could help communicators create more effective messaging. “One of the most surprising things we found is that very few people listed a doctor as one of the people they turn to for COVID news,” he said “and so one of the implications of our study is designing messages to nudge people to have conversations with the ‘right’ people.” 

Associate Professor Adam Saffer holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Journalism & Mass Communication with an emphasis in Advertising and Public Relations from the University of Oklahoma. He also holds an MA in Communication and a BA in Organizational Communication from the University of Colorado–Colorado Springs.

Written by Madeleine Ware, Backpack.