Back in March, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey called on academic groups to help his company improve their capacity to measure the overall ‘conversational health’ of the platform by looking at ways in which they could better ensure more openness and discussion - and limit the impacts of the negative elements that have become increasingly prominent via tweet.
Dorsey called for applications along this line, and this week, Twitter has announced that from the 230 proposals they received, they have now chosen two projects which will ideally help them improve Twitter discourse by focusing on some key areas of concern.
The first area is echo chambers - or specifically ‘Examining Echo Chambers and Uncivil Discourse’. This became a focus following the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election – the success of Donald Trump highlight deep divides in America society, which many were unaware existed, at least to the extent displayed.
Part of the reasoning behind this divide may be social media echo chambers - with algorithms showing you more of what you like, and less of what you don’t, and with the capacity to simply switch off dissenting voices, the theory is that the increasing use of social media, particularly for news and information sharing, works to reinforce and further entrench perspectives, rather than broadening the conversation.
To examine this concept on Twitter, Dr. Rebekah Tromble, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Leiden University, will lead a team which includes representatives from Syracuse University, Delft University of Technology and Bocconi University. The group will analyze the echo chamber effect, and provide options on how to limit such impacts.
As per to Tromble:
“In the context of growing political polarization, the spread of misinformation, and increases in incivility and intolerance, it’s clear that if we’re going to effectively evaluate and address some of the most difficult challenges arising on social media, academic researchers and tech companies will need to work together much more closely. This initiative presents an important and promising opportunity for Twitter and our team of researchers to share expertise and work on solutions together,”
The project aims to develop two sets of metrics – the first will assess the extent to which people acknowledge and engage with diverse viewpoints on Twitter. The second will focus on incivility and intolerance in Twitter conversations.
Based on this, Twitter will be able to better contextualize conversational health on the platform, and consider options to address any issues. Those solutions, of course, won’t be easy, but the first step is understanding the extent of the problem at hand, and this project should provide some key insight, both for Twitter and the public, in understanding the platform’s role in broader trends.
The second proposal which Twitter has approved will be conducted by Professors Miles Hewstone and John Gallacher at The University of Oxford, in partnership with Dr. Marc Heerdink at the University of Amsterdam. Their initiative will examine how people use Twitter, and whether wider exposure to a variety of perspectives and backgrounds can decrease prejudice and discrimination.
Of course, you would expect it can – the answer in this sense is likely a foregone conclusion – but the study will look specifically at how tweets can play a part in this process.
“Evidence from social psychology has shown how communication between people from different backgrounds is one of the best ways to decrease prejudice and discrimination. We’re aiming to investigate how this understanding can be used to measure the health of conversations on Twitter, and whether the effects of positive online interaction carry across to the offline world.”
Again, this is a starting point – how Twitter actually facilitates broader interaction based on these findings is the next stage. Right now, we’re in the discovery phase, getting a better understanding of the problems before Twitter decides on potential actions to take.
Those actions could include algorithm tweaks to broaden exposure to more content, changes to Twitter’s discovery surfaces to highlight more diverse material, or any number other of potential updates and tweaks to facilitate more productive discourse.
It’s only the start of the project, and Twitter has a long way to go before it becomes anything viable, but it is good to see Twitter partnering with outside sources to seek more inclusive, and hopefully effective, solutions to these key areas of concern.
Expect more platform changes in future.