The University of Michigan Center for Social Media Responsibility (CSMR) addresses the negative effects of broad access to the means of public communication, while amplifying positive effects.
Technologists at social media companies (product managers, designers, and engineers) are the day-to-day policymakers of today's social media landscape. CSMR, established in 2018, articulates principles and creates metrics and tools that empower technologists to set responsible policy.
We are devoted to understanding how the contemporary information environment is influencing the public and what we can do about it. Our mission is to help media platforms meet their public responsibilities.
The context of our work
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.
- The use of 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.
- The effects of social influence online can lead to groupthink rather than a harnessing of 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 design of our work
In pursuit of our mission, 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.
The implementation of our work
We use a “business accelerator” model to support translational research about the public responsibilities and impacts of social media platforms. 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.