I initially started my research with an eye to using digital techniques to analyze an encyclopedia that collects a number of conspiracy theories in order to determine what constitute typical features of conspiracy theories. At this point, I realize there were two flaws in my original plan. First, as discussed in a previous blog post, the book I selected failed to provide the sort of evidence I required to establish typical features of conspiracy theories. Second, the length of the book, though sizable, was nowhere near large enough to provide a corpus that I could use a topic model on in order to derive interesting information.
My hope is that I can shift to online sources of text in order to solve both of these problems. Specifically, I will be collecting posts from Reddit. The first problem was that my original book merely stated the content of a number of conspiracy theories, without making any effort to convince the reader that they were true. As a result, there was little evidence of typical rhetorical and argumentative strategies that might characterize conspiracy theories. Reddit, on the other hand, will provide thousands of instances of people interacting in an effort to convince other Redditors of the truth or falsity of particular conspiracy theories. The sorts of strategies that were absent from the encyclopedia of conspiracy theories will, I hope, be present on Reddit.
The second problem was that the encyclopedia failed to provide a sufficient amount of text. Utilizing Reddit will certainly solve this problem; in less than twenty-four hours, there were over 1,300 comments on a recent post alone. If anything, the solution to this problem represents a whole new problem: how to deal with such a vast (and rapidly changing) body of information.
Before I worry too much about that, it is important that I be able to access the information in the first place. To do this, I’ll need to use Reddit’s API. API stands for Application Programming Interface, and it’s essentially a tool for letting a user interact with a system. In this case, the API allows a user to access information on the Reddit website. Of course, we can already do this with an web browser. The API, however, allows for more fine-grained control than a browser. When I navigate to a Reddit page with my web browser, my requests are interpreted in a very pre-scripted manner. This is convenient; when I’m browsing a website, I don’t want to have to specify what sort of information I want to see every time a new page loads. However, if I’m looking for very specific information, it can be useful to use an API to hone in on just the relevant parts of the website.
For my purposes, I’m primarily interested in downloading massive numbers of Reddit posts, with just their text body, along with certain identifiers (e.g., the name of the poster, timestamp, and the relation of that post to other posts). The first obstacle to accessing the information I need is learning how to request just that particular set of information. In order to do this, I’ll need to learn how to write a request in Reddit’s API format. Reddit provides some help with this, but I’ve found these other resources a bit more helpful. The second obstacle is that I will need to write a program that automates my requests, to save myself from having to perform tens of thousands of individual requests. I will be attempting to do this in Python. While doing this, I’ll have to be sure that I abide by Reddit’s regulations for using its API. For example, a limited number of requests per minute are allowed so that the website is not overloaded. There seems to be a dearth of example code on the Internet for text acquisition of this sort, so I’ll be posting a link to any functional code I write in future posts.