Do social media algorithms erode our ability to make decisions freely? The jury is out



Charles Deluvio/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Lewis Mitchell and James Bagrow, University of Vermont

Social media algorithms, artificial intelligence, and our own genetics are among the factors influencing us beyond our awareness. This raises an ancient question: do we have control over our own lives? This article is part of The Conversation’s series on the science of free will.


Have you ever watched a video or movie because YouTube or Netflix recommended it to you? Or added a friend on Facebook from the list of “people you may know”?

And how does Twitter decide which tweets to show you at the top of your feed?

These platforms are driven by algorithms, which rank and recommend content for us based on our data.

As Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, Boston, explains:

If you want to know when social media companies are trying to manipulate you into disclosing information or engaging more, the answer is always.

So if we are making decisions based on what’s shown to us by these algorithms, what does that mean for our ability to make decisions freely?

What we see is tailored for us

An algorithm is a digital recipe: a list of rules for achieving an outcome, using a set of ingredients. Usually, for tech companies, that outcome is to make money by convincing us to buy something or keeping us scrolling in order to show us more advertisements.

The ingredients used are the data we provide through our actions online – knowingly or otherwise. Every time you like a post, watch a video, or buy something, you provide data that can be used to make predictions about your next move.

These algorithms can influence us, even if we’re not aware of it. As the New York Times’ Rabbit Hole podcast explores, YouTube’s recommendation algorithms can drive viewers to increasingly extreme content, potentially leading to online radicalisation.

Facebook’s News Feed algorithm ranks content to keep us engaged on the platform. It can produce a phenomenon called “emotional contagion”, in which seeing positive posts leads us to write positive posts ourselves, and seeing negative posts means we’re more likely to craft negative posts — though this study was controversial partially because the effect sizes were small.

Also, so-called “dark patterns” are designed to trick us into sharing more, or spending more on websites like Amazon. These are tricks of website design such as hiding the unsubscribe button, or showing how many people are buying the product you’re looking at right now. They subconsciously nudge you towards actions the site would like you to take.




Read more:
Sludge: how corporations ‘nudge’ us into spending more


You are being profiled

Cambridge Analytica, the company involved in the largest known Facebook data leak to date, claimed to be able to profile your psychology based on your “likes”. These profiles could then be used to target you with political advertising.

“Cookies” are small pieces of data which track us across websites. They are records of actions you’ve taken online (such as links clicked and pages visited) that are stored in the browser. When they are combined with data from multiple sources including from large-scale hacks, this is known as “data enrichment”. It can link our personal data like email addresses to other information such as our education level.

These data are regularly used by tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and others to build profiles of us and predict our future behaviour.

You are being predicted

So, how much of your behaviour can be predicted by algorithms based on your data?

Our research, published in Nature Human Behaviour last year, explored this question by looking at how much information about you is contained in the posts your friends make on social media.

Using data from Twitter, we estimated how predictable peoples’ tweets were, using only the data from their friends. We found data from eight or nine friends was enough to be able to predict someone’s tweets just as well as if we had downloaded them directly (well over 50% accuracy, see graph below). Indeed, 95% of the potential predictive accuracy that a machine learning algorithm might achieve is obtainable just from friends’ data.

Average predictability from your circle of closest friends (blue line). A value of 50% means getting the next word right half of the time — no mean feat as most people have a vocabulary of around 5,000 words. The curve shows how much an AI algorithm can predict about you from your friends’ data. Roughly 8-9 friends are enough to predict your future posts as accurately as if the algorithm had access to your own data (dashed line).
Bagrow, Liu, & Mitchell (2019)

Our results mean that even if you #DeleteFacebook (which trended after the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018), you may still be able to be profiled, due to the social ties that remain. And that’s before we consider the things about Facebook that make it so difficult to delete anyway.




Read more:
Why it’s so hard to #DeleteFacebook: Constant psychological boosts keep you hooked


We also found it’s possible to build profiles of non-users — so-called “shadow profiles” — based on their contacts who are on the platform. Even if you have never used Facebook, if your friends do, there is the possibility a shadow profile could be built of you.

On social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, privacy is no longer tied to the individual, but to the network as a whole.

No more free will? Not quite

But all hope is not lost. If you do delete your account, the information contained in your social ties with friends grows stale over time. We found predictability gradually declines to a low level, so your privacy and anonymity will eventually return.

While it may seem like algorithms are eroding our ability to think for ourselves, it’s not necessarily the case. The evidence on the effectiveness of psychological profiling to influence voters is thin.

Most importantly, when it comes to the role of people versus algorithms in things like spreading (mis)information, people are just as important. On Facebook, the extent of your exposure to diverse points of view is more closely related to your social groupings than to the way News Feed presents you with content. And on Twitter, while “fake news” may spread faster than facts, it is primarily people who spread it, rather than bots.

Of course, content creators exploit social media platforms’ algorithms to promote content, on YouTube, Reddit and other platforms, not just the other way round.

At the end of the day, underneath all the algorithms are people. And we influence the algorithms just as much as they may influence us.




Read more:
Don’t just blame YouTube’s algorithms for ‘radicalisation’. Humans also play a part


The Conversation


Lewis Mitchell, Senior Lecturer in Applied Mathematics and James Bagrow, Associate Professor, Mathematics & Statistics, University of Vermont

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Parler: what you need to know about the ‘free speech’ Twitter alternative



Wikimedia

Audrey Courty, Griffith University

Amid claims of social media platforms stifling free speech, a new challenger called Parler is drawing attention for its anti-censorship stance.

Last week, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter signed by 150 academics, writers and activists concerning perceived threats to the future of free speech.

The letter, signed by Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Gloria Steinem and J.K. Rowling, among others, reads:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.

Debates surroundings free speech and censorship have taken centre stage in recent months. In May, Twitter started adding fact-check labels to tweets from Donald Trump.

More recently, Reddit permanently removed its largest community of Trump supporters.

In this climate, Parler presents itself as a “non-biased, free speech driven” alternative to Twitter. Here’s what you should know about the US-based startup.




Read more:
Is cancel culture silencing open debate? There are risks to shutting down opinions we disagree with


What is Parler?

Parler reports more than 1.5 million users and is growing in popularity, especially as Twitter and other social media giants crackdown on misinformation and violent content.

Parler appears similar to Twitter in its appearance and functions.
screenshot

Parler is very similar to Twitter in appearance and function, albeit clunkier. Like Twitter, Parler users can follow others and engage with public figures, news sources and other users.

Public posts are called “parleys” rather than “tweets” and can contain up to 1,000 characters.

Users can comment, ‘echo’ or ‘vote’ on parleys.
screenshot

Users can search for hashtags, make comments, “echo” posts (similar to a retweet) and “vote” (similar to a like) on posts. There’s also a direct private messaging feature, just like Twitter.

Given this likeness, what actually is unique about Parler?

Fringe views welcome?

Parler’s main selling point is its claim it embraces freedom of speech and has minimal moderation. “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler”, founder John Matze explains.

This branding effort capitalises on allegations competitors such as Twitter and Facebook unfairly censor content and discriminate against right-wing political speech.

While other platforms often employ fact checkers, or third-party editorial boards, Parler claims to moderate content based on American Federal Communications Commission guidelines and Supreme Court rulings.

So if someone shared demonstrably false information on Parler, Matze said it would be up to other users to fact-check them “organically”.

And although Parler is still dwarfed by Twitter (330 million users) and Facebook (2.6 billion users) the platform’s anti-censorship stance continues to attract users turned off by the regulations of larger social media platforms.

When Twitter recently hid tweets from Trump for “glorifying violence”, this partly prompted the Trump campaign to consider moving to a platform such as Parler.

Far-right American political activist and conspiracy theorist Lara Loomer is among Parler’s most popular users.
screenshot

Matze also claims Parler protects users’ privacy by not tracking or sharing their data.

Is Parler really a free speech haven?

Companies such as Twitter and Facebook have denied they are silencing conservative voices, pointing to blanket policies against hate speech and content inciting violence.

Parler’s “free speech” has resulted in various American Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz, promoting the platform.

Many conservative influencers such as Katie Hopkins, Lara Loomer and Alex Jones have sought refuge on Parler after being banned from other platforms.

Although it brands itself as a bipartisan safe space, Parler is mostly used by right-wing media, politicians and commentators.

Moreover, a closer look at its user agreement suggests it moderates content the same way as any platform, maybe even more.

The company states:

Parler may remove any content and terminate your access to the Services at any time and for any reason or no reason.

Parler’s community guidelines prohibit a range of content including spam, terrorism, unsolicited ads, defamation, blackmail, bribery and criminal behaviour.

Although there are no explicit rules against hate speech, there are policies against “fighting words” and “threats of harm”. This includes “a threat of or advocating for violation against an individual or group”.

Parler CEO John Matze clarified the platform’s rules after banning users, presumably for breaking one or more of the listed rules.

There are rules against content that is obscene, sexual or “lacks serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value”. For example, visuals of genitalia, female nipples, or faecal matter are barred from Parler.

Meanwhile, Twitter allows “consensually produced adult content” if its marked as “sensitive”. It also has no policy against the visual display of excrement.

As a private company, Parler can remove whatever content it wants. Some users have already been banned for breaking rules.

What’s more, in spite of claims it does not share user data, Parler’s privacy policy states data collected can be used for advertising and marketing.




Read more:
Friday essay: Twitter and the way of the hashtag


No marks of establishment

Given its limited user base, Parler has yet to become the “open town square” it aspires to be.

The platform is in its infancy and its user base is much less representative than larger social media platforms.

Despite Matze saying “left-leaning” users tied to the Black Lives Matter movement were joining Parler to challenge conservatives, Parler lacks the diverse audience needed for any real debate.

Upon joining the platform, Parler suggests following several politically conservative users.
screenshot

Matze also said he doesn’t want Parler to be an “echo chamber” for conservative voices. In fact, he is offering a US$20,000 “progressive bounty” for an openly liberal pundit with 50,000 followers on Twitter or Facebook to join.

Clearly, the platform has a long way to go before it bursts its conservative bubble.




Read more:
Don’t (just) blame echo chambers. Conspiracy theorists actively seek out their online communities


The Conversation


Audrey Courty, PhD candidate, School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Disasters expose gaps in emergency services’ social media use


Tan Yigitcanlar, Queensland University of Technology; Ashantha Goonetilleke, Queensland University of Technology, and Nayomi Kankanamge, Queensland University of Technology

Australia has borne the brunt of several major disasters in recent years, including drought, bushfires, floods and cyclones. The increasing use of social media is changing how we prepare for and respond to these disasters. Not only emergency services but also their social media are now much-sought-after sources of disaster information and warnings.

We studied Australian emergency services’ social media use in times of disaster. Social media can provide invaluable and time-critical information to both emergency services and communities at risk. But we also found problems.




Read more:
Drought, fire and flood: how outer urban areas can manage the emergency while reducing future risks


How do emergency services use social media?

The 2019-20 Australian bushfires affected 80% of the population directly or indirectly. Social media were widely used to spread awareness of the bushfire disaster and to raise funds – albeit sometimes controversially – to help people in need.

The escalating use and importance of social media in disaster management raises an important question:

How effective are social media pages of Australian state emergency management organisations in meeting community expectations and needs?

To answer this question, QUT’s Urban Studies Lab investigated the community engagement approaches of social media pages maintained by various Australian emergency services. We placed Facebook and Twitter pages of New South Wales State Emergency Services (NSW-SES), Victoria State Emergency Services (VIC-SES) and Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QLD-FES) under the microscope.

Our study made four key findings.

First, emergency services’ social media pages are intended to:

  • disseminate warnings
  • provide an alternative communication channel
  • receive rescue and recovery requests
  • collect information about the public’s experiences
  • raise disaster awareness
  • build collective intelligence
  • encourage volunteerism
  • express gratitude to emergency service staff and volunteers
  • raise funds for those in need.



Read more:
With costs approaching $100 billion, the fires are Australia’s costliest natural disaster


Examples of emergency services’ social media posts are shown below.

NSW-SES collecting data from the public through their posts.
Facebook
VIC-SES sharing weather warnings to inform the public.
Facebook
QLD-FES posting fire condition information to increase public awareness.
Facebook
QLD-FES showing the direction of a cyclone and warning the community.
Facebook

Second, Facebook pages of emergency services attract more community attention than Twitter pages. Services need to make their Twitter pages more attractive as, unlike Facebook, Twitter allows streamlined data download for social media analytics. A widely used Twitter page of emergency service means more data for analysis and potentially more accurate policies and actions.

Third, Australia lacks a legal framework for the use of social media in emergency service operations. Developing these frameworks will help organisations maximise its use, especially in the case of financial matters such as donations.

Fourth, the credibility of public-generated information can sometimes be questionable. Authorities need to be able to respond rapidly to such information to avoid the spread of misinformation or “fake news” on social media.

Services could do more with social media

Our research highlighted that emergency services could use social media more effectively. We do not see these services analysing social media data to inform their activities before, during and after disasters.

In another study on the use of social media analytics for disaster management, we developed a novel approach to show how emergency services can identify disaster-affected areas using real-time social media data. For that study, we collected Twitter data with location information on the 2010-11 Queensland floods. We were able to identify disaster severity by analysing the emotional or sentiment values of tweets.




Read more:
Explainer: how the internet knows if you’re happy or sad


This work generated the disaster severity map show below. The map is over 90% accurate to actual figures in the report of the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry.

Disaster severity map created through Twitter analytics.
Authors

Concerns about using social media to manage disaster

The first highly voiced concern about social media use in disaster management is the digital divide. While the issue of underrepresented people and communities remains important, the use of technology is spreading widely. There were 3.4 billion social media users worldwide in 2019, and the growth in numbers is accelerating.




Read more:
Online tools can help people in disasters, but do they represent everyone?


Besides, many Australian cities and towns are investing in smart city strategies and infrastructures. These localities provide free public Wi-Fi connections. And almost 90% of Australians now own a smart phone.

The second concern is information accuracy or “fake news” on social media. Evidently, sharing false information and rumours compromises the information social media provides. Social media images and videos tagged with location information can provide more reliable, eye-witness information.

Another concern is difficulty in receiving social media messages from severely affected areas. For instance, the disaster might have brought down internet or 4G/5G coverage, or people might have been evacuated from areas at risk. This might lead to limited social media posts from the actual disaster zone, with increasing numbers of posts from the places people are relocated.

In such a scenario, alternative social media analytics are on offer. We can use content analysis and sentiment analysis to determine the disaster location and impact.

How to make the most of social media

Social media and its applications are generating new and innovative ways to manage disasters and reduce their impacts. These include:

  • increasing community trust in emergency services by social media profiling
  • crowd-sourcing the collection and sharing of disaster information
  • creating awareness by incorporating gamification applications in social media
  • using social media data to detect disaster intensity and hotspot locations
  • running real-time data analytics.

In sum, social media could become a mainstream information provider for disaster management. The need is likely to become more pressing as human-induced climate change increases the severity and frequency of disasters.

Today, as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic, social media analytics are helping to ease its impacts. Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are greatly reducing processing time for social media analytics. We believe the next-generation AI will enable us to undertake real-time social media analytics more accurately.




Read more:
Coronavirus: How Twitter could more effectively ease its impact


The Conversation


Tan Yigitcanlar, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, Queensland University of Technology; Ashantha Goonetilleke, Professor, Queensland University of Technology, and Nayomi Kankanamge, PhD Candidate, School of Built Environment, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When a virus goes viral: pros and cons to the coronavirus spread on social media



Tim Gouw/Unsplash, CC BY

Axel Bruns, Queensland University of Technology; Daniel Angus, Queensland University of Technology; Timothy Graham, Queensland University of Technology, and Tobias R. Keller, Queensland University of Technology

News and views about coronavirus has spread via social media in a way that no health emergency has done before.

Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tik Tok and Instagram have played critical roles in sharing news and information, but also in disseminating rumours and misinformation.

Getting the Message Out

Early on, snippets of information circulated on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat, before state censors banned discussions. These posts already painted a grim picture, and Chinese users continue to play cat and mouse with the Internet police in order to share unfiltered information.

As the virus spread, so did the social media conversation. On Facebook and Twitter, discussions have often taken place ahead of official announcements: calls to cancel the Australian Formula One Grand Prix were trending on Twitter days before the official decision.

Similarly, user-generated public health explainers have circulated while official government agencies in many countries discuss campaign briefs with advertising agencies.

Many will have come across (and, hopefully, adopted) hand-washing advice set to the lyrics of someone’s favourite song:

Widespread circulation of graphs has also explained the importance of “flattening the curve” and social distancing.

Debunking myths

Social media have been instrumental in responding to COVID-19 myths and misinformation. Journalists, public health experts, and users have combined to provide corrections to dangerous misinformation shared in US President Donald Trump’s press conferences:

Other posts have highlighted potentially deadly assumptions in the UK government’s herd immunity approach to the crisis:

Users have also pointed out inconsistencies in the Australian cabinet’s response to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s coronavirus diagnosis.

The circulation of such content through social media is so effective because we tend to pay more attention to information we receive through our networks of social contacts.

Similarly, professional health communicators like Dr Norman Swan have been playing an important role in answering questions and amplifying public health messages, while others have set up resources to keep the public informed on confirmed cases:

Even just seeing our leaders’ poor hygienic practices ridiculed might lead us to take better care ourselves:

Some politicians, like Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, blandly dismiss social media channels as a crucial source of crisis information, despite more than a decade’s research showing their importance.

This is deeply unhelpful: they should be embracing social media channels as they seek to disseminate urgent public health advice.

Stoking fear

The downside of all that user-driven sharing is that it can lead to mass panics and irrational behaviour – as we have seen with the panic-buying of toiletpaper and other essentials.

The panic spiral spins even faster when social media trends are amplified by mainstream media reporting, and vice versa: even only a handful of widely shared images of empty shelves in supermarkets might lead consumers to buy what’s left, if media reporting makes the problem appear much larger than it really is.

News stories and tweets showing empty shelves are much more news- and share-worthy than fully stocked shelves: they’re exceptional. But a focus on these pictures distorts our perception of what is actually happening.

The promotion of such biased content by the news media then creates a higher “viral” potential, and such content gains much more public attention than it otherwise would.

Levels of fear and panic are already higher during times of crisis, of course. As a result, some of us – including journalists and media outlets – might also be willing to believe new information we would otherwise treat with more scepticism. This skews the public’s risk perception and makes us much more susceptible to misinformation.

A widely shared Twitter post showed how panic buying in (famously carnivorous) Glasgow had skipped the vegan food section:

Closer inspection revealed the photo originated from Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 (the dollar signs on the food prices are a giveaway).

This case also illustrates the ability of social media discussion to self-correct, though this can take time, and corrections may not travel as far as initial falsehoods. The potential for social media to stoke fears is measured by the difference in reach between the two.

The spread of true and false information is also directly affected by the platform architecture: the more public the conversations, the more likely it is that someone might encounter a falsehood and correct it.

In largely closed, private spaces like WhatsApp, or in closed groups or private profile discussions on Facebook, we might see falsehoods linger for considerably longer. A user’s willingness to correct misinformation can also be affected by their need to maintain good relationships within their community. People will often ignore misinformation shared by friends and family.

And unfortunately, the platforms’ own actions can also make things worse: this week, Facebook’s efforts to control “fake news” posts appeared to affect legitimate stories by mistake.

Rallying cries

Their ability to sustain communities is one of the great strengths of social media, especially as we are practising social distancing and even self-isolation. The internet still has a sense of humour which can help ease the ongoing tension and fear in our communities:

Younger generations are turning to newer social media platforms such as TikTok to share their experiences and craft pandemic memes. A key feature of TikTok is the uploading and repurposing of short music clips by platform users – music clip It’s Corona Time has been used in over 700,000 posts.

We have seen substantial self help efforts conducted via social media: school and university teachers who have been told to transition all of their teaching to online modes at very short notice, for example, have begun to share best-practice examples via the #AcademicTwitter hashtag.

The same is true for communities affected by event shutdowns and broader economic downturns, from freelancers to performing artists. Faced with bans on mass gatherings, some artists are finding ways to continue their work: providing access to 600 live concerts via digital concert halls or streaming concerts live on Twitter.

Such patterns are not new: we encountered them in our research as early as 2011, when social media users rallied together during natural disasters such as the Brisbane floods, Christchurch earthquakes, and Sendai tsunami to combat misinformation, amplify the messages of official emergency services organisations, and coordinate community activities.

Especially during crises, most people just want themselves and their community to be safe.The Conversation

Axel Bruns, Professor, Creative Industries, Queensland University of Technology; Daniel Angus, Associate Professor in Digital Communication, Queensland University of Technology; Timothy Graham, Senior Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology, and Tobias R. Keller, Visiting Postdoc, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The coronavirus and Chinese social media: finger-pointing in the post-truth era


Haiqing Yu, RMIT University

As public health authorities in China and the world fight the novel coronavirus, they face two major communication obstacles: the eroding trust in the media, and misinformation on social media.

As cities, towns, villages and residential compounds have been shut down or implemented curfews, social media have played a central role in crisis communication.

Chinese social media platforms, from WeChat and Weibo, to QQ, Toutiao, Douyin, Zhihu and Tieba, are the lifeline for many isolated and scared people who have been housebound for over two weeks, relying on their mobile phones to access information, socialise, and order food.

A meme being shared on WeChat reads: ‘When the epidemic is over, men will understand why women suffer from postnatal depression after one-month confinement upon childbirth.’
Author provided

These platforms constitute the mainstream media in the war on the coronavirus.

I experienced the most extraordinary Chinese New Year with my parents in China and witnessed the power of Chinese social media, especially WeChat, in spreading and controlling information and misinformation.

China is not only waging a war against the coronavirus. It is engaged in a media war against misinformation and “rumour” (as termed by the Chinese authorities and social media platforms).

This banner being shared on WeChat reads: ‘Those who do not come clean when having a fever are class enemies hidden among the people.’
Author provided

Information about the virus suddenly increased from January 21, after the central government publicly acknowledged the outbreak the previous day and Zhong Nanshan, China’s leading respiratory expert and anti-SARS hero, declared on the state broadcaster CCTV the virus was transmissible from person to person.




Read more:
Coronavirus: how health and politics have always been inextricably linked in China


On WeChat, the Chinese all-in-one super app with over 1.15 billion monthly active users, there has been only one dominant topic: the coronavirus.

Rumour mongers and rumour busters

In Wired, Robert Dingwall wrote “fear, finger-pointing, and militaristic action against the virus are unproductive”, asking if it is time to adjust to a new normal of outbreaks.

To many Chinese, this new normal of fear and militaristic action is already real in everyday life.

Finger-pointing, however, can be precarious in the era of information control and post-truth.

One of many spoof Cultural Revolution posters being shared on social media to warn people of the consequence of not wearing masks.
Author provided

On WeChat and other popular social media platforms, information about the virus from official, semi-official, unofficial and personal sources is abundant in chat groups, “Moments”, WeChat official accounts, and newsfeeds (mostly from Tencent News and Toutiao).

Information includes personal accounts of life under lockdown, duanzi (jokes, parodies, humorous videos), heroism of volunteers, generosity of donations, quack remedies, scaremongering about deaths and price hikes, and the conspiracy theory of the US waging a biological war against China.

TikTok video (shared on WeChat) on the life of a man in isolation at home and his ‘social life’.

There is also veiled criticism of the government and government officials for mismanagement, bad decisions, despicable behaviours and lack of accountability.

At the same time, the official media and Tencent have stepped up their rumour-busting effort.

They regularly publish rumour-busting pieces. They mobilise the “50-cent army” (wumao) and volunteer wumao (ziganwu) as their truth ambassadors.

Tencent has taken on the responsibility to provide “transparent” communication. It opened a new function through its WeChat mini-program Health, providing real-time updates of the epidemic and comprehensive information – including fake news busting.

The government has told people to only post and forward information from official channels and warned of severe consequences for anyone found guilty of disseminating “rumours”, including permanently blocking WeChat groups, blocking social media accounts, and possible jail terms.

A warning to WeChat users not to spread fake news about the coronavirus.
Author provided

Chinese people, accustomed to having posts deleted, face increased peer pressure in their chat groups to comply with the heightened censorship regime. Amid the panic the general advice is: don’t repost anything.

They are asked to be savvy consumers, able to distinguish fake news, half-truths or rumours, and to trust only one source of truth: the official channels.

But the skills to detect and contain false content are becoming rarer and more difficult to obtain.

Coronavirus and the post-truth

We live in the post-truth era, where every “truth” is driven by subjective, elusive, self-confirming and emotional “facts”.




Read more:
Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth


Any news source can take you in the wrong direction.

We have seen that in the eight doctors from Wuhan who transformed from being rumourmongers to whistleblowers and heroes within a month.

Dr Li Wenliang, the first to warn others of the “SARS-like” virus in December 2019, died from the novel coronavirus in the early hours of February 7 2020. There is an overwhelming sense of loss, mourning and unspoken indignation at his death in various WeChat groups.

WeChat users mourning the death of Dr Li Wenliang.
Author provided

In the face of this post-truth era, we must ask the questions: what is “rumour”, who defines “rumour”, and how does “rumour” occur in the first place?

Information overload is accompanied by information pollution. Detecting and contain false information on social media has been a technical, sociological and ideological challenge.

With a state-led campaign to “bust rumours” and “clean the web” in a controlled environment at a time of crisis, these questions are more urgent than ever.

As media scholar Yong Hu said in 2011, when “official lies outpace popular rumors” the government and its information control mechanism constitute the greatest obstruction of the truth.

On the one hand, the government has provided an environment conducive to the spread of rumours, and on the other it sternly lashes out against rumours, placing itself in the midst of an insoluble contradiction.

As the late Dr Li Wenliang said: “[To me] truth is more important than my case being redressed; a healthy society should not only allow one voice.”

A screenshot from WeChat quoting Dr Li Wenliang: ‘[To me] truth is more important than my case being redressed; a healthy society should not only allow one voice.’
Author provided

China can lock down its cities, but it cannot lock down rumours on social media.

In fact, the Chinese people are not worried about rumours. They are worried about where to find truth and voice facts: not one single source of truth, but multiple sources of facts that will save lives.The Conversation

Haiqing Yu, Associate Professor, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Does social media make us more or less lonely? Depends on how you use it



Research by Relationships Australia released in 2018 revealed one in six Australians experience emotional loneliness, which means they lack meaningful relationships in their lives.
SHUTTERSTOCK

Roger Patulny, University of Wollongong

Humans are more connected to each other than ever, thanks to smartphones, the web and social media. At the same time, loneliness is a huge and growing social problem.

Why is this so? Research shows social media use alone can’t cure loneliness – but it can be a tool to build and strengthen our genuine connections with others, which are important for a happy life.

To understand why this is the case, we need to understand more about loneliness, its harmful impact, and what this has to do with social media.

The scale of loneliness

There is great concern about a loneliness epidemic in Australia. In the 2018 Australian Loneliness Report, more than one-quarter of survey participants reported feeling lonely three or more days a week.

Studies have linked loneliness to early mortality, increased cardio-vascular disease, poor mental health and depression, suicide, and increased social and health care costs.

But how does this relate to social media?




Read more:
How to be a healthy user of social media


More and more Australians are becoming physically isolated. My previous research demonstrated that face-to-face contact in Australia is declining, and this is accompanied by a rise in technology-enabled communication.

Enter social media, which for many is serving as a replacement for physical connection. Social media influences nearly all relationships now.

Navigating the physical/digital interface

While there is evidence of more loneliness among heavy social media users, there is also evidence suggesting social media use decreases loneliness among highly social people.

How do we explain such apparent contradictions, wherein both the most and least lonely people are heavy social media users?

Research reveals social media is most effective in tackling loneliness when it is used to enhance existing relationships, or forge new meaningful connections. On the other hand, it is counterproductive if used as a substitute for real-life social interaction.

Thus, it is not social media itself, but the way we integrate it into our existing lives which impacts loneliness.

I wandered lonely in the cloud

While social media’s implications for loneliness can be positive, they can also be contradictory.

Tech-industry enthusiasts highlight social media’s benefits, such as how it offers easy, algorithimically-enhanced connection to anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. But this argument often ignores the quality of these connections.

Psychologist Robert Weiss makes a distinction between “social loneliness” – a lack of contact with others – and “emotional loneliness”, which can persist regardless of how many “connections” you have, especially if they do not provide support, affirm identity and create feelings of belonging.




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Without close, physical connections, shallow virtual friendships can do little to alleviate emotional loneliness. And there is reason to think many online connections are just that.

Evidence from past literature has associated heavy social media use with increased loneliness. This may be because online spaces are often oriented to performance, status, exaggerating favourable qualities (such as by posting only “happy” content and likes), and frowning on expressions of loneliness.

On the other hand, social media plays a vital role in helping us stay connected with friends over long distances, and organise catch-ups. Video conferencing can facilitate “meetings” when physically meeting is impractical.

Platforms like Facebook and Instagram can be used to engage with new people who may turn into real friends later on. Similarly, sites like Meetup can help us find local groups of people whose interests and activities align with our own.

And while face-to-face contact remains the best way to help reduce loneliness, help can sometimes be found through online support groups.

Why so lonely?

There are several likely reasons for our great physical disconnection and loneliness.

We’ve replaced the 20th century idea of stable, permanent careers spanning decades with flexible employment and gig work. This prompts regular relocation for work, which results in disconnection from family and friends.

The way we build McMansions (large, multi-room houses) and sprawl our suburbs is often antisocial, with little thought given to developing vibrant, walkable social centres.




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Single-person households are expected to increase from about 2.1 million in 2011 to almost 3.4 million in 2036.

All of the above means the way we manage loneliness is changing.

In our book, my co-authors and I argue people manage their feelings differently than in the past. Living far from friends and family, isolated individuals often deal with negative emotions alone, through therapy, or through connecting online with whoever may be available.

Social media use is pervasive, so the least we can do is bend it in a way that facilitates our real-life need to belong.

It is a tool that should work for us, not the other way around. Perhaps, once we achieve this, we can expect to live in a world that is a bit less lonely.The Conversation

Roger Patulny, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As fires rage, we must use social media for long-term change, not just short-term fundraising



Comedian Celeste Barber’s fundraising efforts have gained monumental support. But we need to think of long-term engagement in climate action too.
Facebook

Emma Hutchison, The University of Queensland

With 26 fatalities, half a billion animals impacted and 10.7 million hectares of land burnt, Australia faces a record-breaking bushfire season.

Yet, amid the despondency, moving stories have emerged of phenomenal fundraising conducted through social media.

At the forefront is Australian comedian Celeste Barber, whose Facebook fundraiser has raised more than AUD$45 million – the largest amount in the platform’s history.

Presenting shocking visuals, sites such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have been monumental in communicating the severity of the fires.

But at a time when experts predict worsening climate conditions and longer fire seasons, short bursts of compassion and donations aren’t enough.

For truly effective action against current and future fires, we need to use social media to implement lasting transformations, to our attitudes, and our ability to address climate change.

Get out of your echo-chamber

Links between social media and public engagement are complex. Their combination can be helpful, as we’re witnessing, but doesn’t necessarily help solve problems requiring long-term attention.




Read more:
Climate change is bringing a new world of bushfires


Online spaces can cultivate polarising, and sometimes harmful, debate.

Past research indicates the presence of online echo chambers, and users’ tendency to seek interaction with others holding the same beliefs as them.

If you’re stuck in an echo chamber, Harvard Law School lecturer Erica Ariel Fox suggests breaking the mould by going out of your way to understand diverse opinions.

Before gearing up to disagree with others, she recommends acknowledging the contradictions and biases you yourself hold, and embracing the opposing sides of yourself.

In tough times, many start to assign blame – often with political or personal agendas.

In the crisis engulfing Australia, we’ve seen this with repeated accusations from conservatives claiming the Greens party have made fire hazard reduction more difficult.

In such conversations, larger injustices and the underlying political challenges are often forgotten. The structural conditions underpinning the crisis remain unchallenged.

Slow and steady

We need to rethink our approach to dealing with climate change, and its harmful effects.

First, we should acknowledge there is no quick way to resolve the issue, despite the immediacy of the threats it poses.

Political change is slow, and needs steady growth. This is particularly true for climate politics, an issue which challenges the social and economic structures we rely on.

Our values and aspirations must also change, and be reflected in our online conversations. Our dialogue should shift from blame to a culture of appreciation, and growing concern for the impact of climate degradation.

Users should continue to explore and learn online, but need to do so in an informed way.

Reading Facebook and Twitter content is fine, but this must be complemented with reliable news sources. Follow authorised user accounts providing fact-based articles and guidance.

Before you join an online debate, it’s important you can back your claims. This helps prevent the spread of misinformation online, which is unfortunately rampant.

A 2018 Reuters Institute report found people’s interaction (sharing, commenting and reacting) with false news from a small number of Facebook outlets “generated more or as many interactions as established news brands”.

Also, avoid regressive discussions with dead-ends. Social media algorithms dictate that the posts you engage with set the tone for future posts targeted at you, and more engagement with posts will make them more visible to other users too. Spend your time and effort wisely.

And lastly, the internet has made it easier than ever to contact political leaders, whether it’s tweeting at your prime minister, or reaching out to the relevant minister on Facebook.




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Listen to your people Scott Morrison: the bushfires demand a climate policy reboot


Tangible change-making

History has proven meaningful social and political progress requires sustained public awareness and engagement.

Australian comedian Celeste Barber started fundraising with a goal of $30,000.
Celeste Barber/Facebook

Consider Australia’s recent legislation on marriage equality, or the historical transformation of women’s rights.

These issues affect people constantly, but fixing them required debate over long periods.

We should draw on the awareness raised over the past weeks, and not let dialogue about the heightened threat of bushfires fizzle out.

We must not return to our practices of do-nothingism as soon as the immediate disaster subsides.

Although bushfire fundraisers have collected millions, a European Social Survey of 44,387 respondents from 23 countries found that – while most participants were worried about climate change – less than one-third were willing to pay higher taxes on fossil fuels.

If we want climate action, we must expect more from our governments but also from ourselves.

Social media should be used to consistently pressure government to take principled stances on key issues, not short-sighted policies geared towards the next election.

Opening the public’s eyes

There’s no denying social media has successfully driven home the extent of devastation caused by the fires.

A clip from Fire and Rescue NSW, viewed 7.8 million times on Twitter alone, gives audiences a view of what it’s like fighting on the frontlines.

Images of burnt, suffering animals and destroyed homes, resorts, farms and forests have signalled the horror of what has passed and what may come.

Social media can be a formidable source of inspiration and action. It’s expected to become even more pervasive in our lives, and this is why it must be used carefully.

While showings of solidarity are incredibly helpful, what happens in the coming weeks and months, after the fires pass, is what will matter most.The Conversation

Emma Hutchison, Associate Professor and ARC DECRA Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

6 things to ask yourself before you share a bushfire map on social media



NASA’s Worldview software gives you a satellite view of Earth right now, and can help track the spread of fires.
Nasa Worldview

Juan Pablo Guerschman, CSIRO

In recent days, many worrying bushfire maps have been circulating online, some appearing to suggest all of Australia is burning.

You might have seen this example, decried by some as misleading, prompting this Instagram post by its creator:

As he explained, the image isn’t a NASA photo. What a satellite actually “sees” is quite different.

I’ll explain how we use data collected by satellites to estimate how much of an area is burning, or has already been burnt, and what this information should look like once it’s mapped.




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Reflective images

When astronauts look out their window in space, this is what they see:

It’s similar to what you might see from an aeroplane window, but higher and covering a wider area.

As you read this, many unmanned satellites are orbiting and photographing Earth. These images are used to monitor fires in real-time. They fall into two categories: reflective and thermal.

Reflective images capture information in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum (in other words, what we can see). But they also capture information in wavelengths we can’t see, such as infrared wavelengths.

If we use only the visible wavelengths, we can render the image similar to what we might see with the naked eye from a satellite. We call these “true colour” images.

This is a true colour image of south-east Australia, taken on January 4th 2020 from the MODIS instrument on the Aqua satellite. Fire smoke is grey, clouds are white, forests are dark green, brown areas are dryland agricultural areas, and the ocean is blue.
NASA Worldview / https://go.nasa.gov/307pDDX

Note that the image doesn’t have political boundaries, as these aren’t physical features. To make satellite imagery useful for navigation, we overlay the map with location points.

The same image shown as true colour, with the relevant geographical features overlaid.
NASA Worldview / https://go.nasa.gov/2TafEMH

From this, we can predict where the fires are by looking at the smoke. However, the fires themselves are not directly visible.

‘False colour’ images

Shortwave infrared bands are less sensitive to smoke and more sensitive to fire, which means they can tell us where fire is present.

Converting these wavelengths into visible colours produces what we call “false colour” images. For instance:

The same image, this time shown as false colour. Now, the fire smoke is partially transparent grey while the clouds aren’t. Red shows the active fires and brown shows where bushfires have recently burnt.
NASA Worldview / https://go.nasa.gov/2NhzRfN

In this shortwave infrared image, we start to “see” under the smoke, and can identify active fires. We can also learn more about the areas that are already burnt.

Thermal and hotspots

As their name suggests, thermal images measure how hot or cold everything in the frame is. Active fires are detected as “hotspots” and mapped as points on the surface.

While reflective imagery is only useful when obtained by a satellite during daytime, thermal hotspots can be measured at night – doubling our capacity to observe active fires.

The same image shown as false color, with hotspots overlaid in red.
NASA Worldview / https://go.nasa.gov/2rZNIj9

This information can be used to create maps showing the aggregation of hotspots over several days, weeks or months.

Geoscience Australia’s Digital Earth hotspots service shows hotspots across the continent in the last 72 hours. It’s worth reading the “about” section to learn the limitations or potential for error in the map.




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When hotspots, which show “hot” pixels, are shown as extremely big icons, or are collected over long periods, the results can be deceiving. They can indicate a much larger area to be under fire than what is really burning.

For example, it would be wrong to believe all the areas in red in the map below are burning or have already burnt. It’s also unclear over what period of time the hotspots were aggregated.

The ‘world map of fire hotspots’ from the Environmental Investigation Agency.
Environmental Investigation Agency / https://eia-international.org/news/watching-the-world-burn-fires-threaten-the-worlds-tropical-forests-and-millions-of-people/

Get smart

Considering all of the above, there are some key questions you can ask to gauge the authenticity of a bushfire map. These are:

  • Where does this map come from, and who produced it?

  • is this a single satellite image, or one using hotspots overlaid on a map?

  • what are the colours representing?

  • do I know when this was taken?

  • if this map depicts hotspots, over what period of time were they collected? A day, a whole year?

  • is the size of the hotspots representative of the area that is actually burning?

So, the next time you see a bushfire map, think twice before pressing the share button.The Conversation

Juan Pablo Guerschman, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfires, bots and arson claims: Australia flung in the global disinformation spotlight


Timothy Graham, Queensland University of Technology and Tobias R. Keller, Queensland University of Technology

In the first week of 2020, hashtag #ArsonEmergency became the focal point of a new online narrative surrounding the bushfire crisis.

The message: the cause is arson, not climate change.

Police and bushfire services (and some journalists) have contradicted this claim.

We studied about 300 Twitter accounts driving the #ArsonEmergency hashtag to identify inauthentic behaviour. We found many accounts using #ArsonEmergency were behaving “suspiciously”, compared to those using #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.

Accounts peddling #ArsonEmergency carried out activity similar to what we’ve witnessed in past disinformation campaigns, such as the coordinated behaviour of Russian trolls during the 2016 US presidential election.

Bots, trolls and trollbots

The most effective disinformation campaigns use bot and troll accounts to infiltrate genuine political discussion, and shift it towards a different “master narrative”.

Bots and trolls have been a thorn in the side of fruitful political debate since Twitter’s early days. They mimic genuine opinions, akin to what a concerned citizen might display, with a goal of persuading others and gaining attention.

Bots are usually automated (acting without constant human oversight) and perform simple functions, such as retweeting or repeatedly pushing one type of content.

Troll accounts are controlled by humans. They try to stir controversy, hinder healthy debate and simulate fake grassroots movements. They aim to persuade, deceive and cause conflict.

We’ve observed both troll and bot accounts spouting disinformation regarding the bushfires on Twitter. We were able to distinguish these accounts as being inauthentic for two reasons.

First, we used sophisticated software tools including tweetbotornot, Botometer, and Bot Sentinel.

There are various definitions for the word “bot” or “troll”. Bot Sentinel says:

Propaganda bots are pieces of code that utilize Twitter API to automatically follow, tweet, or retweet other accounts bolstering a political agenda. Propaganda bots are designed to be polarizing and often promote content intended to be deceptive… Trollbot is a classification we created to describe human controlled accounts who exhibit troll-like behavior.

Some of these accounts frequently retweet known propaganda and fake news accounts, and they engage in repetitive bot-like activity. Other trollbot accounts target and harass specific Twitter accounts as part of a coordinated harassment campaign. Ideology, political affiliation, religious beliefs, and geographic location are not factors when determining the classification of a Twitter account.

These machine learning tools compared the behaviour of known bots and trolls with the accounts tweeting the hashtags #ArsonEmergency, #AustraliaFire, and #BushfireAustralia. From this, they provided a “score” for each account suggesting how likely it was to be a bot or troll account.

We also manually analysed the Twitter activity of suspicious accounts and the characteristics of their profiles, to validate the origins of #ArsonEmergency, as well as the potential motivations of the accounts spreading the hashtag.

Who to blame?

Unfortunately, we don’t know who is behind these accounts, as we can only access trace data such as tweet text and basic account information.

This graph shows how many times #ArsonEmergency was tweeted between December 31 last year and January 8 this year:

On the vertical axis is the number of tweets over time which featured #ArsonEmergency. On January 7, there were 4726 tweets.
Author provided

Previous bot and troll campaigns have been thought to be the work of foreign interference, such as Russian trolls, or PR firms hired to distract and manipulate voters.

The New York Times has also reported on perceptions that media magnate Rupert Murdoch is influencing Australia’s bushfire debate.




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Weeding-out inauthentic behaviour

In late November, some Twitter accounts began using #ArsonEmergency to counter evidence that climate change is linked to the severity of the bushfire crisis.

Below is one of the earliest examples of an attempt to replace #ClimateEmergency with #ArsonEmergency. The accounts tried to get #ArsonEmergency trending to drown out dialogue acknowledging the link between climate change and bushfires.

We suspect the origins of the #ArsonEmergency debacle can be traced back to a few accounts.
Author provided

The hashtag was only tweeted a few times in 2019, but gained traction this year in a sustained effort by about 300 accounts.

A much larger portion of bot and troll-like accounts pushed #ArsonEmergency, than they did #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.

The narrative was then adopted by genuine accounts who furthered its spread.

On multiple occasions, we noticed suspicious accounts countering expert opinions while using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag.

The inauthentic accounts engaged with genuine users in an effort to persuade them.
author provided

Bad publicity

Since media coverage has shone light on the disinformation campaign, #ArsonEmergency has gained even more prominence, but in a different light.

Some journalists are acknowledging the role of disinformation bushfire crisis – and countering narrative the Australia has an arson emergency. However, the campaign does indicate Australia has a climate denial problem.

What’s clear to me is that Australia has been propelled into the global disinformation battlefield.




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Keep your eyes peeled

It’s difficult to debunk disinformation, as it often contains a grain of truth. In many cases, it leverages people’s previously held beliefs and biases.

Humans are particularly vulnerable to disinformation in times of emergency, or when addressing contentious issues like climate change.

Online users, especially journalists, need to stay on their toes.

The accounts we come across on social media may not represent genuine citizens and their concerns. A trending hashtag may be trying to mislead the public.

Right now, it’s more important than ever for us to prioritise factual news from reliable sources – and identify and combat disinformation. The Earth’s future could depend on it.The Conversation

Timothy Graham, Senior lecturer, Queensland University of Technology and Tobias R. Keller, Visiting Postdoc, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is social media damaging to children and teens? We asked five experts



They need to have it to fit in, but social media is probably doing teens more harm than good.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Alexandra Hansen, The Conversation

If you have kids, chances are you’ve worried about their presence on social media.

Who are they talking to? What are they posting? Are they being bullied? Do they spend too much time on it? Do they realise their friends’ lives aren’t as good as they look on Instagram?

We asked five experts if social media is damaging to children and teens.

Four out of five experts said yes

The four experts who ultimately found social media is damaging said so for its negative effects on mental health, disturbances to sleep, cyberbullying, comparing themselves with others, privacy concerns, and body image.

However, they also conceded it can have positive effects in connecting young people with others, and living without it might even be more ostracising.

The dissident voice said it’s not social media itself that’s damaging, but how it’s used.

Here are their detailed responses:


If you have a “yes or no” health question you’d like posed to Five Experts, email your suggestion to: alexandra.hansen@theconversation.edu.au


Karyn Healy is a researcher affiliated with the Parenting and Family Support Centre at The University of Queensland and a psychologist working with schools and families to address bullying. Karyn is co-author of a family intervention for children bullied at school. Karyn is a member of the Queensland Anti-Cyberbullying Committee, but not a spokesperson for this committee; this article presents only her own professional views.The Conversation

Alexandra Hansen, Chief of Staff, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.