Twitter is auditing itself for toxicity

Metrics could help in the fight against discrimination.

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Whether it's the veil of anonymity, the controversial nature of political discourse, or both -- conversations on social media can quickly turn into emotionally charged quarrels. To combat these ongoing issues, Twitter has cracked down on fake accounts, added extra verification steps for new users, and acquired Smyte -- a software company that's dedicated to preventing spam and abuse. Now the social networking site is turning to university experts to promote healthier dialog.

Leiden University's Dr. Rebekah Tromble will head a team of researchers to investigate the formation of echo chambers and underlying causes of uncivil discourse. The joint project will look to measure how communities take shape around political discussions, and observe any problems that manifest. To do this, the researchers will gauge how frequently Twitter users engage with diverse viewpoints, and develop algorithms that determine whether a conversation is 'uncivil' -- one that breaks politeness norms -- or 'intolerant', responses that fall more in line with hate speech, racism, or xenophobia:

"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," Dr. Tromble said.

In the past, Leiden studies have indicated that the similarity of opinions in echo chambers tends to foster hostility and resentment towards people with opposing perspectives.

Oxford University researchers are also joining Twitter's initiative to cultivate a healthier, less discriminatory online space. Social psychology professor Miles Hewstone says communicating with individuals from different backgrounds is a proven method for reducing prejudice, and his team is interested in determining whether the positivity of an interaction online is transferred when a user logs off.

In an age where the boundaries between online and real-world identities have become increasingly blurred, and words can be used as weapons, such initiatives may prove useful for Twitter. After all, the rush of happiness we experience after a pleasant online conversation with a stranger is very much real.

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