Interview

Opening up the echo chambers

Researchers look for solutions to address the distortion of online information.

While news was once the purview of journalists, social media algorithms increasingly drive the process by which information reaches consumers. Information and misinformation – much of which reverberates in online echo chambers that serve only to confirm existing views and prejudices. Technologist spoke with Walter Quattrociocchi, head computational social scientist at the IMT School for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy.

Technologist: What have you learned from researching echo chambers?

Walter Quattrociocchi: We did massive data analysis on millions of Facebook users in which we studied the fusion of scientific news and conspiracy news across public pages. We analysed five years’ worth of posts and found that people just join one narrative, are surrounded by users with the same attitude and collaborate to reinforce this, without considering the other narrative. The actual problem behind misinformation is this polarisation of narratives – such as science vs. conspiracy, or official institutions vs. populist campaigns.

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T. What can be done?

WQ. We hope we can find a simple mechanism to apply to online interactions that can reduce polarisation. We are thus working to find funding to open a media observatory this year, by the name of Pandoors, probably in Geneva. It will be a third-party institution open to all scientists working to deal with these phenomena, with a board composed of journalists, prominent scientists and people from international organisations like the World Economic Forum.

T. What role should social media providers play?

WQ. We’re asking them to participate actively because flagging of fake news will not alone solve the problem of people ignoring information they disagree with. Facebook is starting to collaborate with newsrooms and becoming more sensitive
to the problem. But since their power to shape public opinion is enormous, we need a third-party organisation to be granted access to monitor what they are doing with algorithms and how it affects the spread of information.

Mapping claims and hoaxes in real time

How does fake news circulate on social media? To find out, the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University developed Hoaxy. Launched at the end of 2016, the search engine can visualise the spread of fake news from 132 satire or conspiracy news sites.

Hoaxy also measures how fake news is disproved on the internet. “Our goal is to help people realise how vulnerable we are to being manipulated on social media”, says Italian professor Filippo Menczer.

Walter Quattrociocchi (IMT School for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy)