Digital Wildfire: (Mis)information flows, propagation and responsible governance

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Computer Science

Abstract

The rapid growth of social media platforms such as Twitter has had a significant impact on the way people can connect and communicate instantaneously with others. The content that users put onto social media platforms can 'go viral' in minutes and that content, whether text, images or links to other sites, can have profound effects on events as they unfold. This can be both for the good or the bad. In times of disaster, tweeting about events can call people to help from around the globe. But people can also spread dubious and dangerous information, hate speech and rumours, via social media. This type of behaviour has been called "digital wildfires". A World Economic Forum report indicates two situations in which digital wildfires are most dangerous: in situations of high tension, when false information or inaccurately presented imagery can cause damage before it is possible to correct it. The real-world equivalent is shouting "fire!" in a crowded theatre - even if it takes a moment for realisation to spread that there is no fire, in that time people may already have been crushed to death in the scramble for the exit. Another dangerous situation is when widely circulated information leads to 'groupthink' which may be resistant to attempts to correct it. These digital wildfires can seriously challenge the capacity of traditional media, civil society and government to report accurately and respond to events as they unfold. But how people communicate in these digital social spaces is not well understood; users may not fully understand how these spaces 'work' as channels of communication and so what constitutes appropriate and responsible behaviour may be unclear. The challenge then is to develop appropriate ways of governing these spaces and how to apply and use them responsibly.

This project will attempt to address this challenge by framing the study in a programme of work known as Responsible Innovation in ICT and by developing a methodology for the study and advancement of the responsible governance of social media. A key question is to what extent do people in these spaces 'self-regulate' their behaviour? If this is evident then there is a case for exploring how self-correction mechanisms may be amplified so that false rumours are identified more quickly. The legitimacy of new governance mechanisms may be enhanced if they respect and build on such existing self-governance techniques.

Drawing on a range of methods we will examine how social media are used, how people consume information they find there and what roles they play in its production; how (mis)information flows as they spread in real-time. We will draw on a selection of case studies of rumour and hate speech sourced from our recent and on-going research in social media. From the analyses we will produce a digital tool to detect and visualise rumour, misinformation and antagonistic content and how this relates to self-regulative behaviour such as counter speech, dispelling of rumours and verification practices, so that people are able to make better-informed decisions on how to manage emerging situations in response to real-world events. We will also conduct fieldwork at various sites (police, social media platforms, Google, civil rights organisations, news media) to investigate how stakeholders respond to challenges presented by events where misinformation, rumour and antagonistic content via social media may be a concern, for example, during sporting events, civil disturbance and electoral campaigns. From our analyses the project will develop an ethical security map for the practices of governing the use of social media. We will complement this ethical security map with a range of outputs for broader impact such as, engaging with secondary schools, where we will develop a reflection and training module on digital wildfire for young people - one of the largest age groups actively using social media and also a relatively vulnerable social group.

Planned Impact

The project will have three main categories of beneficiary: (1) UK policy makers who have formal responsibility for developing digital society initiatives; (2) a range of government agencies and those responsible for policy implementation and governance processes, and (3) voluntary sector organisations involved in combating discrimination and promoting social cohesion. Furthermore, the social research community will profit from new methodologies and tools for harnessing the potential of 'big data' for social research. The main activities to realising potential benefits are:
1.The recruitment of non-academic, proactive stakeholders for the project's steering committee.
2. Artwork that promotes a creative understanding of digital wildfires to a broader audience.
3. A 'reflection and training module' to be developed with secondary schools aiming at strengthening young people's ethical use of social media.
4. A workshop advancing interdisciplinary knowledge on 'big data'.
5. The recruitment of a broad range of academic and non-academic stakeholders for four Delphi panels. These participants will be encouraged to promote the research results more widely.
6. A collection of short videos on research results and digital wildfires, accessible via the Internet.
7. A final showcase event.
8. Making accessible all project deliverables, the social data analytics infrastructure and training modules about different computational techniques for analyzing social media (Internet).

Publications


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Webb H (2016) Digital wildfires in ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society
Webb H (2016) Digital Wildfires in ACM Transactions on Information Systems
 
Title Digital Wildfire artwork 
Description Digital Wildfire project artist in residence has produced two paintings based on the themes of the project. These were displayed at the project showcase workshop in Jan 2016. 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact The paintings are intended to creatively disseminate key project themes to a wide audience/ 
URL http://barbaragorayska.com/selected-exhibitions/multi-verse-digital-wilfire/
 
Title Take Care of Your Digital Self 
Description We worked with the digital company Scriberia to produce a short video animation on the safe use of social media. This is targeted at young people, especially those aged 11 to 14 i.e., those most vulnerable to harm from social media. The video was disseminated widely and used as part of our Safer Internet Day activities. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact We have received very positive feedback about the animation - in particular from schools, who have used it in their e-safety lessons. The video has been viewed over 500 times. 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nXaEctiVhs
 
Description 1. New knowledge - the projet has identified different levels of governance relating to the spread of content on social media - law, social media platform, institutional ,user self-governance - in particular developing the capacity for user self-governance to limit the spread of provocative content. The differing views and concerns of stakeholders in relation to the appropriate governance of social media - for instance social media platforms uphold freedom of speech and are reluctant to remove content. Police and law enforcement see their role in dealing with content as severely limited and anti-harassment organisations are frustrated by the high levels of abuse content reported to them and the lack of action they can offer to those who are affected by it.

2. New methods - we are developing new approaches to combine the detailed qualitative analysis of social media data with the computational analysis of large social media datasets. In particular, our work focuses on identifying practices of counter speech in response to unverified content and hate speech on social media. Fine grained qualitative analysis is used to support the development of modelling work and classifier tools - these identify the occurrence of provocative content and counter speech on social media and its effects, for instance in altering the flow of posts of social media.

3. New networks - We have developed strong working relationships with other research and engagement groups working on social media and computing - for instance the CaSMa group at the University of Nottingham and the Go Girl initiative at the University of Oxford. We have also built strong links with St Peter's RC Secondary School, Solihull - which has considerably assisted our school based activities and benefitted their own e-safety work.

4. New research resources - We have developed a video animation that promotes digital maturity in social media. This has helped us to reach a wider audience of users affected by social media content - in particular vulnerable young people. The video creatively engages with their understandings and concerns over social media and promotes the idea of responsible social media use by looking after the 'digital self'
Exploitation Route We are in the process of pitting the research findings into an ehical secuity map. This will be used by different stakeholders such as schools, educationalists, police and law enforcement, NGOs and social media users./ The map will help them to navigate through social media use and policy.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Government, Democracy and Justice
 
Description The 'Digital Wildfire' project explores the spread of provocative and antagonistic content on social media and identifies opportunities for the responsible governance of digital social spaces. We have conducted a range of activities to engage with relevant stakeholders including social media users, platforms, law enforcement, educationalists and civil society groups. Through this we have generated significant impact. Our instrumental impact has been achieved through work conducted with schools, youth groups and young people to enhance digital resilience amongst 11 to 18 year olds. We launched a set of teaching and learning materials to coincide with Safer Internet Day in February 2016. So far these have been used by around 30 schools and we have received very positive feedback about their value in promoting e-safety. We also ran a successful youth panel and produced a video animation for young people that has been viewed over 500 times in 2 months. We have created opportunities for stakeholders to put forward and debate their views on the appropriate governance of social media; this has achieved conceptual impact by widening the scope of current debate around digital social spaces and will form part of the intellectual legacy of the project. This has been done through our project workshop held in February 2016 and data collection activities such as a Delphi survey. We also engage a range of non academic stakeholders through our project Steering Committee. We have engaged in capacity building by contributing to initiatives that widen participation and develop skillsets amongst key group - for example young people and women interested in computing and universities.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education
Impact Types Societal
 
Description Co-producing Understandings of Digital Responsibility: 'Digital Wildfires', Social Media and Responsible Citizenship
Amount £9,997 (GBP)
Organisation British Academy 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 09/2015 
End 08/2017
 
Description Digital Wildfire and CaSMa collaboration 
Organisation University of Nottingham
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The project team (led by the University of Oxford) have established strong links with the CaSMa group at the University of Nottingham. This has led to shared workshops and the joint preparation of a showcase workshop on Jan 12 2016. We have also collaborated on a joint funding bid and members of the CaSMa team helped to judge our youth panel entries.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners contributed to the planning of the Jan 2016 showcase workshop and paid half the cost. This has led to shared workshops and the joint preparation of a showcase workshop on Jan 12 2016. We have also collaborated on a joint funding bid and members of the CaSMa team helped to judge our youth panel entries.
Impact Showcase workshop: Digital Wildfires - respond now at the Digital Catapult! Digital Wildfire youth panel This collaboration involves social science, computer science and psychology.
Start Year 2015
 
Description 'Digital Wildfires': a challenge to the governance of social media? WebSci 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://websci15.org/accepted-submissions
 
Description Citizens Online workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/pais/research/researchcentres/ierg/multimedia
 
Description Digital Wildfire TedX 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.tedxmanchester.com/speakers/rob-procter
 
Description Digital Wildfire You Tube Channel 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGspO-4WN_VlF5hyh7vp28Q
 
Description Digital Wildfire schools outreach activities 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016
 
Description Digital Wildfire teaching and learning materials 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Digital Wildfire: Inspired Research article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.cs.ox.ac.uk/innovation/inspiredresearch/IRwinter2015.pdf
 
Description Digital Wildfires: respond now at the Digital Catapult! Showcase workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.publicengagement.ac.uk/blog/digital-wildfire
 
Description ETHICOMP 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.dmu.ac.uk/documents/research-documents/technology/ccsr/ethicomp-2015-programme-september....
 
Description Ethics in networked engineering workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://ensr.oii.ox.ac.uk/2015/03/09/gtc-ethics-in-internet-engineering-participative-workshop-at-5-3...
 
Description Science and Security: Governance, Ethics and the Law A PaCCS Science and Security Policy Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.paccsresearch.org.uk/research/research-portfolio/science-and-security/).
 
Description Social Media and Civil Society: Participation, Regulation and Governance: WISERD panel 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.wiserd.ac.uk/files/5314/3530/8346/Abstract_Booklet_.pdf
 
Description Social media television debate 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcChvUmVuWc
 
Description Social media, Activism and Organisation 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.social--media.org/programme/
 
Description Youth panel 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015
URL https://sites.google.com/site/digitalwildfireesrc/youth-panel