How Toxic Is Twitter? Universities Are Working to Find Out

How Toxic Is Twitter? Universities Are Working to Find Out

Twitter selects Leiden University to study echo chambers on the platform, while the University of Oxford and University of Amsterdam will try to measure the health of Twitter conversations.

By Michael Kan July 30, 2018 6:03PM EST

Twitter is looking to the world of academia to find out why it's so toxic.

The company hired a pair of research groups to measure the presence of "echo chambers" on Twitter, and whether exposing users to diverse viewpoints can make a dent in stopping prejudice, it said in a blog post on Monday.

Five months ago, the company called on the public to submit ideas about how it might measure "conversational health" across the platform. This came as Twitter's CEO admitted that the platform had become a hotbed of harassment, abuse, and propaganda campaigns, despite ongoing attempts to root out bad content.

To improve Twitter's health, the company asked for proposals on how the company might go about measuring it. After receiving over 230 proposals, Twitter narrowed down the field to two, both of which came from universities.

The first research group, led by a professor at Leiden University, is focused on investigating echo chambers, in which people limit themselves to following Twitter accounts with like-minded political views. According to Twitter, a side effect of echo chambers is how they can "increase hostility and promote resentment towards those not having the same conversation."

The Leiden-led project will attempt to measure whether users recognize they're interacting in an echo chamber or engaging with a diverse set of viewpoints. It'll also try to assess whether computer algorithms can discern between toxic Twitter conversations containing hate speech, racism and xenophobia, and those that merely contain "incivility."

The second research group comes from the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam. It'll try to measure the health of Twitter conversations by looking for text classifiers associated with positive sentiments and cooperation.

"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 University professor Miles Hewstone wrote 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."

Twitter hasn't offered a timetable for when the research will be completed. But the company's CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted: "To set expectations, this is going to take some time to do right. We're committing to be open with our findings and progress."


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