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 Transactions on Information Systems
Webb H (2016) Digital wildfires in ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society
 
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
Results and Impact Members of the project team attended the WebSci2015 conference and presented a poster based on some initial project findings. Marina Jirotka also participated in a panel session on ethical web science. This is an international conference attended by over 200 researchers, professionals and policy makers from across the world.
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
Results and Impact Project member Adam Edwards gave a presentation on the Digital Wildfire project at the Citizens Online workshop in February 2016 in London.

The event was funded by the ESRC Integrator for Ethics and Rights in a Security Context and organised by the Interdisciplinary Ethics Research Group at Warwick University. The workshop brought together researchers to discuss these central questions:
- A significant amount of online activity involves anti-social, offensive, or harmful behaviour, involving rumours, insults, or outright defamation. How can governance of conduct in digital social spaces be realised in a way that is both ethical and effective in practice? How far is this a matter for full-blown government involvement?
- It is often said that functioning democratic systems require some collective commitment or identity on the part of citizens. Information technology increasingly facilitates the formation of trans-national communities. What challenges does this technological trend pose to the way that we traditionally conceive of citizenship and statehood? If the 'common good' is one of our aims, how do we delineate membership of the relevant group(s)? Are governance structures keeping up?
- What counts as private is partly conventional and cultural, and internet culture is in flux. Given the arc of technological development, is there any future for privacy online? What special consideration ought we to give to political speech and activism? How do attitudes to privacy and democracy interact with new security measures and technologies?

The workshop was attended by around 20 people and streamed online. Over 100 peopled viewed footage of the event in the week after it was posted.
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
Results and Impact Project team member Rob Procter gave a TedX talk about social media and the Digital Wildfire project in February 2016. The talk was attended by over 100 members of the public and video footage will be posted online in due course.
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
Results and Impact We have set up a You Tube Channel to host various videos relating to the project. This includes footage of our Jan 12th Showcase workshop, the #TakeCareOfYourDigitalSelf animation, an video based on our youth panel work and mini interviews with different stakeholders. The channel is advertised over our dissemination networks and the videos in it were accessed over 700 times in its first two months. We have received positive feedback from viewers - in particular teachers at schools - on the usefulness of the videos in prompting discussion about social media governance and e-safety.
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
Results and Impact Project member Helena Webb has given various talks on Digital Wildfire to school groups as part of the University of Oxford's outreach programme. Groups from across the country have had the opportunity to learn about the project and engage with some of its core themes. This has raised discussion and debate as well as requests for further information about the project. These are regular activities; so far around 200 students have been addressed from schools around the country.
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
Results and Impact To coincide with Safer Internet Day we prepared a set of e-safety teaching and learning materials. These were designed to promote digital resilience and maturity amongst young people and were made available to secondary schools across the country. The materials consisted lesson plans and assembly plans for students aged 11 to 14 and 14+
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
Results and Impact We published an article outlining the project aims and activities in 'Inspired Research' . This is the regular outreach magazine produced by the Department of Computer Science at the University of Oxford.
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
Results and Impact Our showcase workshop was held on Jan 12 2015. It brought together around 70 researchers and key stakeholders to foster debate around important questions arising from the prevalence of digital wildfires in modern life
- How can we understand social media content and its impacts?
- How can we gather and use social media data in a responsible manner?
- Which organisations, groups and individuals are responsible for managing the spread of provocative content?
- How can we balance out concerns over the harms caused by social media posts with rights to freedom of speech?
The one day event was attended by representatives from academia, government, law enforcement, online platforms, commerce, education and civil society. It involved speaker presentations, a discussion roundtable, a youth panel and a keynote address by Baroness Beeban Kidron, founder of the iRights campaign for children and young people.

Around 70 people attended the day and we received very positive feedback - especially stating that the event raised important debates and brought together different relevant stakeholders. Over 70 people attended and more have had an opportunity to watch some of the presentations on our Digital Wildfire project You Tube channel.
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
Results and Impact Members of the project team attended the ETHICOMP 2015 conference and presented some of the initial study findings. This is an international conference attended by researchers, policy makers and professionals from around the world. The presentation abstract states:

The last 5-10 years have seen a massive rise in the popularity of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr etc. These platforms enable users to post and share their own content instantly, meaning that material can be seen by multiple others in a short period of time. The growing use of social media has been accompanied by concerns that these platforms enable the rapid and global spread of harmful content. A report by the World Economic Forum puts forward the global risk factor of 'digital wildfires' - social media events in which provocative content spreads rapidly and broadly, causing significant harm. This provocative content may take the form of rumour, hate speech or inflammatory messages etc. and the harms caused may affect individuals, groups, organisations or populations. In this paper we draw on the World Economic Forum report to ask a central question: does the risk of digital wildfires necessitate new forms of social media governance? We discuss the results of a scoping exercise that examined this central question. Focusing on the UK context, we present short case studies of digital wildfire scenarios



and describe four key mechanisms that currently govern social media content. As these mechanisms tend to be retrospective and individual in focus, it is possible that further governance practices could be introduced to deal with the propagation of content proactively and as a form of collective behaviour. However ethical concerns arise over any restrictions to freedom of speech brought about by further governance. Empirical investigation of social media practices and perspectives is needed before it is possible to determine whether new governance practices are necessary or ethically justifiable
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
Results and Impact Helena Webb talked about the Digital Wildfire project at a workshop on 'Ethics and Engineering' held as part of the Oxford Internet Institute's Ethics in Networked Systems research project. This was attended by around 30 researchers from the UK, Europe and the USA.
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
Results and Impact Organised by Tristram Riley-Smith of the Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research, on behalf of Dstl this workshop explored the ethical and legal challenges facing policy-makers and practitioners working in the defence and security sectors as they manage the development and application of new technological capabilities. The starting-point was the "Science and Security" Programme. It specifically looked at research on three topics: Social Media, Drones and Data Collection and Exploitation.
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
Results and Impact Members of the project team ran a panel on Social Media and Civil Society: Participation, Regulation and Governance at the 2015 WISERD conference.

The abstract is as follows:

Technological innovation in digital communications, epitomised in the shift from the informational web
(Web1.0) to the interactional web (Web2.0), is transforming traditional social configurations and relations.
Web2.0 technologies, particularly the new social media (e.g. social networking, blogging and microblogging),
enable users to share information with multiple others quickly and easily. This can be seen to
reinvigorate civil society via new forms of digital participation through networked debate, deliberation and
information sharing. This can have positive impacts, for instance promoting social cohesion and supporting
civil society actions. However, social media interactions can also become 'digital wildfires' in which
misleading or provocative content - e.g., in the form of rumour or hate speech - spreads rapidly with very
negative impact. Society thus faces a major challenge in establishing appropriate regulatory frameworks
for the governance of new digital spaces. This panel will discuss the development of these governance
frameworks. We will reflect upon current research on how 'digital wildfire events' emerge and unfold. We
will explore the evidence for self-governance through which social media users manage their own and
others' online behaviours and examine how these practices may be consolidated and enhanced. Finally,
we will consider matters relating to wider issues of governance, regulation and freedom of expression.
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)
Results and Impact Project member Bernd Stahl took part in a discussion panel on Facebook censorship on Al Jazeera television.
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
Results and Impact Members of the project team presented study findings at the Social media, Activism and Organisation symposium in November 2015. This was a 1 day event attended by researchers and PG students. We were subsequently invited to submit a full paper for a special issue of Sociological Review based on the themes of the symposium. This was submitted in Feb 2016 and is undergoing reviews.

The abstract states:

The increasing use and popularity of social media platforms creates new digital social networks in which individuals can interact and share information, news and opinion. The use of these technologies appears to have the capacity to transform current social configurations and relations, not least within the public and civic spheres. Within the social sciences, much emphasis has been placed on conceptualising social media's role in modern society, and the interrelationships between online and offline actors and events. In contrast, little attention has been paid to exploring user practices on social media and how individual posts respond to each other. To demonstrate the value of an interactional approach towards social media analysis, we performed a detailed analysis of Twitter-based online campaigns. After categorising social media posts based on action, we developed a typology for studying user exchanges. We found these social media campaigns to be highly heterogeneous in content, with a wide range of actions performed and substantial numbers of tweets not engaged with the substance of the campaign. We argue that this interactional approach to analysis can form the basis for further work conceptualising the broader impact of activist campaigns.
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
Results and Impact We invited a small number of schools and youth groups across the country to take part in our youth panel. Young people aged 16-18 were invited to submit pieces of work that answered the question: what makes a good digital citizen on social media? We received essays, poems, artwork, narratives, research and videos. A judging panel selected the top 5 entries and the students who produced them attended our workshop in Jan 2016 to talk about their work and receive a £100 prize voucher.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015
URL https://sites.google.com/site/digitalwildfireesrc/youth-panel