Twitter recruits academics to improve conversations on platform

Twitter recruits academics to improve conversations on platform

Twitter has announced a partnership with two groups of researchers in their ongoing fight to foster healthy conversations on the platform.

Back in March, the company put out an open call for research proposals. They were seeking ideas for how to better track and measure analytics surrounding conversations on Twitter – the types of people involved in conversations, the content of conversations, the frequency of these conversations, and everything in between. When submissions closed, Twitter employees from a variety of key areas reviewed the proposals: Engineering, Product, Machine Learning, Data Science, Trust/Safety, and Legal/Research. The company mentioned that it was putting an emphasis on including diverse voices within its internal review committee – which is especially important at Twitter, given that only roughly 10 percent of Twitter’s workforce are ‘underrepresented minorities,’ according to Recode.

The review process is over, and two teams have been chosen to focus on specific, separate issues.

Investigating echo chambers and uncivil discourse

The first team, led by faculty at Leiden University, will develop and analyze two sets of metrics: how communities form around political discussions on Twitter, and the challenges that may arise from those discussions. The study will focus on the idea of echo chambers and incivility/intolerance for voices outside of one’s own echo chamber. The study is led by Dr. Rebekah Tromble, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Leiden, as well as Dr. Michael Meffert (Leiden), Dr. Patricia Rossini and Dr. Jennifer Stromer-Galley (Syracuse University), Dr. Nava Tintarev (Delft University of Technology), and Dr. Dirk Hovy (Bocconi University).

“In the context of growing political polarization, the spread of misinformation, and increases in incivility and intolerance, it is clear that if we are 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,” Tromble said to Twitter. “This initiative presents an important and promising opportunity for Twitter and our team of researchers to share expertise and work on solutions together.”

Bridging gaps, analyzing cross-community exposure

The second study, led by the University of Oxford, will focus on how exposure to different communities, perspectives, and backgrounds on the platform can decrease prejudice and discrimination. Researchers will use text classifiers to identify language associated with “positive sentiment, cooperative emotionality, and integrative complexity” to analyze and shape how communication is structured on Twitter. The study is led by Dr. Miles Hewstone and Prof. John Gallacher (Oxford), along with Dr. Marc Heerdink (University of Amsterdam).

“Evidence from social psychology has shown how communication between people from different backgrounds is one of the best ways to decrease prejudice and discrimination,” Hewstone said. “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.”

Twitter’s ambitious efforts in bringing on third-party researchers represents a strong commitment to improving a platform that has been notorious for wide-spread abuse and harassment. But amidst declining growth and stock prices, will it be enough to turn the platform’s trajectory around?