Over the past twenty years, the Internet has opened access to public communication channels. Anyone can now be a publisher, and everyone’s actions can now influence what will gain popular attention. Many hoped this change would inspire democratic citizens to learn more about what is happening in the world and to participate in shaping public discourse.
Paradoxically, however, we have learned that broader access may not lead to a more informed and engaged public. Some negative externalities are now becoming apparent. It is hard for people to tell who and what to trust when anyone can publish anything. Using social signals (clicks, likes, retweets, etc.) to drive content distribution leaves platforms open to manipulation. Anonymous trolling and harassment can deter participation by women and racial, ethnic, and sexual-orientation minorities. Social influence effects online can lead to groupthink rather than harnessing the wisdom of the crowd. Perhaps most troubling, a small but vocal minority of people increasingly reside in digital echo chambers that threaten to further polarize our society along political, racial, and social lines. The fundamental challenge of the information age, then, is to harness the benefits of broad access to public communication channels while reducing the negative externalities they create.
The University of Michigan Center for Social Media Responsibility (CSMR), established in 2018, is devoted to understanding how the contemporary information environment is influencing the public and what we can do about it. We develop rigorous metrics using both surveys and computational social science techniques. Drawing on those descriptive findings and social science theory, we also develop educational resources and software tools that help journalists, policy makers, platform providers, and the public to be better producers, consumers, and distributors of information. The educational resources and software tools are refined through an iterative design and testing process that includes laboratory and field experiments.
CSMR uses a “business accelerator” model to support translational research. In an academic setting, many projects are abandoned after proof of concept has been demonstrated. We take projects the last mile to public impact by providing continuously updated metrics and developing widely used educational resources and software tools. We also provide seed-stage support for speculative new investigations with potentially high social value.
CSMR faculty and affiliates unpack the challenges of public media, along with solutions for consumers, producers, and platforms. Part of the U-M’s Dissonance event series.
When people disclose sensitive information, audience responses can substantially impact the discloser’s wellbeing. We illustrate what types of support sought and provided in posts and comments co-occur.