The state of online discourse is not great, per the comments section of any YouTube video, or at basically any tweet. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey claims to be well aware of this (despite the fact that, you know, he still won’t ban the hordes of Nazis). On March 1, Dorsey admitted that our conversations on Twitter were toxic (the belated understatement of the year) and pledged to bring in two teams of independent researchers to measure the so-called “health” of the platform. On Monday, he appears to have followed through on a major part of that promise, announcing the two finalists and their designated research topics.
“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.” wrote Twitter’s Vijaya Gadde and David Gasca in a statement.
Researchers led by the Netherlands’ Leiden University will examine echo chambers and uncivil discourse to develop two distinct sets of metrics for quantifying ideological diversity and identifying intolerant discourse. The second team, led by Miles Hewstone of the University of Oxford, will see whether increased communication between different communities and heightened exposure to a variety of viewpoints could reduce intolerance and hate on Twitter.
“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,” said lead researcher, Rebekah Tromble of Leiden University. “This initiative presents an important and promising opportunity for Twitter and our team of researchers to share expertise and work on solutions together.”
While tech companies have brought academics into the fold to conduct research on their many, many flaws before, this appears to be the first devoted solely to measuring and improving conversational health. The researchers will receive funding from Twitter, and the gift is unrestricted, says Dorsey. “Our expectation is that successful projects will produce peer-reviewed, publicly available, open-access research articles and open source software whenever possible,” says Twitter’s proposal page. So long as the projects at hand actually stay untainted by the influence of Twitter’s top brass, researchers stand a chance of rooting out some of the platform’s systemic issues. Whether Jack Dorsey will actually listen to the results — especially now that conservatives are breathing down his neck — is anyone’s guess.