Twitter recruits profs to fight ‘incivility and intolerance’

Twitter, which has been widely accused of discriminating against conservatives, recently launched an initiative to fight “incivility” and promote “healthy conversation” among users.

The social media company announced the research initiative in a July blog post, describing it as an attempt to focus resources on remedying toxicity and promote “conversational health” on the platform.

To accomplish this, Twitter has assembled a team of nine professors to conduct research on “measuring healthy conversation” across the platform, dividing them into two groups with separate but related objectives.

The first group, led by Leiden University political science researcher Dr. Rebekah Tromble, will address the issue of “echo chambers” and online civil discourse, while the other group will explore ways of bridging gaps between different communities.

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Twitter has faced heavy criticism from conservatives in Congress, the media, and the Trump administration following claims that some conservative users have been secretly “shadow banned” by the social media entity, meaning their profiles did not appear in search results.

Shadow banning has made it difficult for users to search for the Twitter feeds of prominent conservatives, according to Vice News.

“The Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel, several conservative Republican congressmen, and Donald Trump Jr.’s spokesman no longer appear in the auto-populated drop-down search box on Twitter,” Vice reports, “It’s a shift that diminishes their reach on the platform—and it’s the same one being deployed against prominent racists to limit their visibility.”

Members of the House of Representatives, headed by Rep. Devin Nunes, are now exploring “legal remedies” to prevent Twitter’s rampant censorship of conservatives.

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Twitter has indicated that the accounts may have been flagged for “troll-like behavior,” saying that it has made changes to its platform so that “people contributing to the healthy conversation will be more visible in conversations and search.”

“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,” Dr. Tromble explained in Twitter’s blog post.

“This initiative presents an important and promising opportunity for Twitter and our team of researchers to share expertise and work on solutions together,” she added.

The community-focused group will research how different people use Twitter, and how “exposure to a variety of perspectives and backgrounds can decrease prejudice and discrimination,” while also devising strategies for “bridging gaps” between communities on the site.

“Evidence from social psychology has shown how communication between people from different backgrounds is one of the best ways to decrease prejudice and discrimination,” said Dr. Miles Hewstone, professor of Social Psychology at Oxford University. “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.”

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The group addressing echo chambers and civil discourse is basing its research on a Leiden University study that found that when a group of like-minded individuals assemble to discuss similar viewpoints, they’re encouraged by one another to hate those not engaged in the same discussion, thus creating an echo chamber of ideas.

The research team will examine how many users exist in these perceived echo chambers, compared to how many are actively consulting with users with diverse perspectives.

This group also plans to create metrics to track “incivility and intolerance” within Twitter conversations.

“The group has found that while incivility, which breaks norms of politeness, can be problematic, it can also serve important functions in political dialog,” Twitter states. “In contrast, intolerant discourse—such as hate speech, racism, and xenophobia—is inherently threatening to democracy. The team will therefore work on developing algorithms that distinguish between these two behaviors.”

The professors in Twitter’s research study did not immediately respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @StoneWashingto2