Thatcher death tweets examined in world’s first cross-platform academic research project into social media images

  • Picturing the Social focuses exclusively on images from social media platforms
  • Initial research will examine Twitter images around the death of Margaret Thatcher
  • Researchers will build a free image research tool for the academic community highlighting popularity of different images, who shares them and how quickly they spread

Pictures shared on Twitter around the death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher will be examined as part of the world’s first academic research project studying the explosion of images now shared across different social media platforms and apps.


Thanks to smartphones, most people now carry a camera with them at all times and use it to document different aspects of their lives – sharing more than 750 million social media images daily.

For the Thatcher research, academics have so far collected nearly 150,000 tweets containing images directly shared on Twitter and have downloaded 17,000 different images.

Users shared a variety of images showing events in real-time, specifically on the day of the funeral, but also used already existing images sourced from elsewhere online to express their opinion.

The most shared image is a picture of a public screen in Leeds, where only two people can be seen watching the funeral live, highlighting the emptiness of the rest of the square.

Other popular images include old news material, spoof images, references to popular culture, cartoons and screenshots of discussions, especially among younger users who were unsure who Thatcher was.

This research can shed light on how a range of different types of images are used on Twitter to express opinions, discuss news and collectively remember well-known people and events.

Picturing the Social, led by Dr Farida Vis, based in the Information School at the University of Sheffield, is the first project to explore the impact images of this kind have on society. This includes images taken during breaking news events and more everyday snaps like ‘selfies’ and friend photography.

As part of their wider inquiry, researchers will carry out a series of smaller projects focusing on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and Vine.

Dr Vis said: “Images tend to be trickier to study than words. With the rise in techniques that focus on large volumes of text, specifically with the growing interest in so-called ‘Big Data’, images tend to get forgotten. They are not easy to ‘mine’ for content and even harder to interpret.”

The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) will involve an interdisciplinary team from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Pulsar and University of Wolverhampton).

A key aim of the project is to use the insight from both academia and industry to build a free research tool for the academic community – work which will be led by Professor Mike Thelwall, Head of the Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group at the University of Wolverhampton.

The tool will allow researchers to capture this visual data to highlight and study different aspects. This will include the popularity of different kinds of images, who shares these, how quickly they spread, how they’re tagged, may include location data as well as look more closely at how images are discussed and appropriated.

A new Visual Social Media Lab will officially launch in September, which will work with a number of different stakeholders, including the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Dr Vis said: “What we see in industry is that there is a huge surge of interest in social media images.

“You see a lot of new apps, new companies and tools developing in this space. People are really interested in, for example, what users are doing with brands. From a research perspective a key issue that is raised over and over – and rightly so – is concern over ethics and privacy.

“What social media companies, marketers and researchers do with these images is important in the context of ethics. I feel that social media users themselves are often left out of these discussions, which is unhelpful and we hope to change that.”

Sian Thomas, Head of Analytics at the FSA, said: “We are delighted to be working in partnership with the University of Sheffield on this exciting initiative to better understand the opportunities of Big Data for government, and how it might contribute to evidence-based policy making.”

Dr Olga Goriunova, from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at Warwick University, said: “Being able to understand our contemporary condition means being able to draw upon computer science, design, social, media and art theory equally fluently.”

Academic research on social media is developing quickly and Kandy Woodfield, Director of Learning at NatCen Social Research and co-leader of the New Social Media, New Social Science? network highlights that using social media for social research has become a mainstream topic for debate amongst researchers over recent years.

She said: “We are delighted that the ESRC is funding projects, which will help us to seize this moment of opportunity to build new approaches to social science research. These innovative ways of researching social life present researchers with both challenges and opportunities and transformative projects like this will help us all to better understand how we can build robust and ethical approaches to using social media data.”

Two researchers from the Manchester School of Art, Dr Simon Faulkner and Professor James Aulich, add expertise in visual culture to the project.

Dr Faulkner, Senior Lecturer in Art History, said: “The School of Art is a place where visual practitioners work with academics to create, display, and interpret a wide range of images. This experience will be invaluable to a team of researchers concerned with the in-depth analysis of social media images and also with how the research might be creatively presented.”

The project also includes social scientist and industry researcher Dr Francesco D’Orazio, who is VP Products at Pulsar, a new social media-monitoring platform that has attracted significant interest within industry.

He said: “The Picturing the Social project gives us the opportunity to collaborate with a super talented team of likeminded researchers interested in mapping the genome of our visual digital culture and develop better tools to support other researchers in the process."

Samantha McGregor, Senior Policy Manager, of ESRC said: “We are committed to fostering and promoting greater transformative innovation and risk in the research that we support. This award particularly highlights the importance of Big Data, and specifically social media data, in achieving transformative social science, as well as their relevance to our broader research portfolio.”

Early findings of this work will be shared via the Visual Social Media Lab later this summer.

Additional information

1. The Visual Social Media Lab is @VisSocMedLab on Twitter. More information can be found here:

2. Dr Farida Vis is a Faculty Research Fellow. Her fellowship focuses on ‘Big Data and Social Change’. She is a leading social media scholar and has published widely in this area. She sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Social Media:

3. Full title of the project: ‘Picturing the Social: transforming our understanding of images in social media and Big Data research’. Full list of co-investigators: Dr Simon Faulkner, Manchester School of Art; Professor James Aulich, Manchester School of Art; Dr Olga Goriunova, Warwick University; Professor Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton and Dr Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar.

4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent high quality research, which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

5. NatCen Social Research ( is Britain’s largest independent social research organisation. By really understanding the complexity of people's lives and attitudes, NatCen gives the public a powerful role in shaping decisions and services that make a difference to everyone. NatCen has formidable reputation for delivering relevant and robust research and providing capacity-building activities, which help to strengthen the quality of social research in the UK. NatCen has been leading an international network of over 600 researchers using social media in their research for since 2011. This community of practice is exploring how social media are pushing the boundaries of established methodologies and collectively exploring ways to ensure these new forms of social science are robust, ethical and impactful

6. The Food Standards Agency is an independent government department responsible for food safety and hygiene across the UK. The FSA works with businesses to help them produce safe food, and with local authorities to enforce food safety regulations. Everything the FSA does reflects their vision of ‘safer food for the nation’. The FSA aims to ensure that food produced or sold in the UK is safe to eat, consumers have the information they need to make informed choices about where and what they eat and that regulation and enforcement is risk-based and focused on improving public health.

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