Twitter Taps Researchers to Tackle ‘Uncivil Discourse’

It’s the latest move by the company to make its platform less of a battleground

Last Updated: July 30, 2018 @ 10:09 AM

Twitter is taking a few more steps toward improving what CEO Jack Dorsey has called the “health of public conversation” on its platform.

The company announced on Monday it has commissioned two projects, one to examine the effects of echo chambers and “uncivil discourse,” and another to promote users interacting with a wide variety of viewpoints.

The first project is spearheaded by several professors from Leiden University. It’ll look at how echo chambers, where people are only following and talking to users with similar opinions, “can increase hostility and promote resentment,” according to Twitter in its blog post.

The researchers will also examine the difference between uncivil conversations — which Twitter says can be beneficial — and intolerant conversations, something its working to decrease.

“The group has found that while incivility, which breaks norms of politeness, can be problematic, it can also serve important functions in political dialog,” said Twitter. “In contrast, intolerant discourse — such as hate speech, racism, and xenophobia — is inherently threatening to democracy.”

The project will also work on creating an algorithm to differentiate the two behaviors on its platform — although it is not yet clear how Twitter will use this information.

Another project, led by professors from Oxford and the University of Amsterdam, aims to show how healthy discussions with people from different backgrounds and with different political beliefs foster a decrease in prejudice.

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

Monday’s announcement is the latest attempt by Twitter to make its less toxic. The San Francisco-based company has taken several steps this year to clean up its platform, including deleting 70 million fake accounts between May and June. Twitter started adding warning signs to “suspicious accounts,” or users that showed spammy behavior, last month. And the platform has also started hiding mean tweets lower down in reply threads, and replaced its pistol emoji with a water gun.