Posted on July 31, 2018

Twitter Hires Academics to Monitor Its ‘Health’ and Combat Hate Speech

Joseph Archer, Telegraph, July 30, 2018

Twitter has hired academics from institutions including Oxford University to help it combat “intolerant discourse” and monitor the “health” of the social network.

The firm is working with social psychology Professor Miles Hewstone and John Gallacher, along with Dr Marc Heerdink from the University of Amsterdam, to study the spread of hate speech.

The move is part of Twitter’s aim to create algorithms that better distinguish between hate speech and conversations that break the “norms of politeness”.

The academics will investigate the “social challenges of a digitally connected world” and take a look at how people use Twitter. They want to see whether the effects of positive interaction online can be carried across to the offline world.

Meanwhile, academics from the US, the Netherlands and Italy will look at the effects of “echo chambers”. These are online groups of like-minded individuals that perpetuate hostility against outsiders.

This group, led by Dr Rebekah Tromble at Leiden University, will develop two sets of metrics to demonstrate how communities form around political discussions on Twitter. They want to see how many users exist in these echo chambers and how many users engage with other users that have different views to their own.

“In the context of growing political polarisation, 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,” said Dr Tromble.

In March this year, the social network asked for ideas from researchers on how they might investigate and analyse conversations on its site. Twitter received 280 proposals from academics, which were then reviewed by the company, leading to the selection of the two teams.

Twitter has already taken some steps to improve the health of the platform, including removing locked, inactive accounts and changing how tweets and replies appear on the site.

Writing in a blog post on its new partnerships on conversation health, the site said it had to improve the health of its content.

“Ensuring we have thoughtful, comprehensive metrics to measure the health of public conversation on Twitter is crucial to guiding our work and making progress, and both of our partners will help us continue to think critically and inclusively so we can get this right,” the firm said.

“We know this is a very ambitious task, and look forward to working with these two teams, challenging ourselves to better support a thriving, healthy public conversation.”

On Friday, Twitter stock dropped more than 20pc after the company announced the number of monthly active users fell by 1 million. The drop, Twitter said, was partly due to “decisions we have made to prioritize the health of the platform”.

In a call after the announcement, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey said that his company would “prioritise the long-term health of Twitter over near-term metrics.” The social network recently purged fake accounts on its platform, which is likely to have contributed to the dip in active users.