Why is the panic around echo chambers, filter bubbles, and fake news?

A report we just completed for the Quello Center on ‘Search and Politics‘ concluded that most people are not fooled by fake news, or trapped by filter bubbles or echo chambers. For example, those interested in politics and with some ability in using the Internet and search, generally consult multiple sources for political information, and use search very often to check information they suspect to be wrong. It is a detailed report, so I hope you can read it to draw your own conclusions. But the responses I’ve received from readers are very appreciate of the report, yet then go on to suggest people remain in somewhat of a panic. Our findings have not assuaged their fears. 

Why?

First, these threats tied to the Internet and social media appeal to common fears about technology being out of control. Langdon Winner’s book comes to mind. This is an enduring theme of technology studies, and you can see it being played out in this area. And it is coupled with underestimating the role users actually play online. You really can’t fool most of Internet users most of the time, but most people worry that way too many are fooled.

This suggests that there might also be a role played by a third person effect, with many people believing that they themselves are not fooled by these threats, but that others are. I’m not fooled by fake news, for example, but others are. This may lead people to over-estimate the impact of these problems.

And, finally, there is a tendency for communication and technology scholars to believe that political conflicts can be solved simply by improving information and communication. I remember a quote from Ambassador Walter Annenberg at the Annenberg School, where I taught, to the effect that all problems can be solved by communication. However, many political conflicts result from real differences of opinions and interests, which will not be resolved by better communication. In fact, communication can sometimes clarify the deep differences and divisions that are at the heart of conflicts. So perhaps many of those focused on filter bubbles, echo chambers and fake news are from the communication and the technical communities rather than political science, for example. If only technologies of communication could be improved, we would all agree on …  That is the myth.

More information about our Quello Center report is available in a short post by Michigan State University, and a short essay for The Conversation.

Wonderful Student Team on Study of Whiteboards at MSU

I am working with two of my masters students on a study of the issues that arose over whiteboards in the dormitories at MSU. The students presented their conclusions yesterday, and today they finish their paper. I’ll then work with their paper to develop a working paper that we might blog or disseminate in various ways. It was a fascinating and fun project is several ways. It was for a course on media and information policy, so this led us to quickly see the whiteboard as a media for communication and information. It is simple – everyone understands it, but it raises many of the same issues that are raised by social media and the Internet on college campuses. It also fits into the rising debate over speech on college campuses. Can’t wait to share our findings, which I believe to demonstrate the value of research in contrast to journalistic coverage of events such as the whiteboard controversy at MSU. It also really does speak to the issues of freedom of communication and civility in the university context.

Most importantly, it was a delight working with Irem Gokce Yildirim, an international student from Turkey, and Bingzhe Li, an international student from China, on this study of communication on an American campus. This is the kind of experience that makes teaching so enjoyable and rewarding.

[We are all laughing about my clumsy efforts to take this with my selfie stick.]

Irem, Bill, and Bingzhe

Moving the Academic Needle at MSU: 28 New Faculty Join Communication Arts & Sciences

At a previous university, I called the university’s press officer with the exciting news that we had just hired a new chaired professor. She responded immediately, saying: “Bill. ‘University hires a new faculty member’ is not news.” Granted, that is indeed what we do.

But hiring twenty-eight to thirty new faculty – yes, 28-30, depending on whether some early hires are counted – is really news in my opinion. Certainly in my career. All are joining departments of the College of Communication Arts & Sciences at Michigan State University this Fall. This caps an incredible year of recruitment that is certain to move the College and its departments up the ranks of their respective fields.

And this is not simply a story about numbers. They are an amazingly diverse set of strong academics joining the College. I will list them below. But take just a few stellar examples of faculty joining my Department of Media and Information – major, senior faculty, who on their own terms will lift our department in stature and impact: Keith Hampton, Natascha Just, and David Ewoldsen.

Keith N. Hampton joined the Department of Media and Information from Rutgers University, where he was the Endowed Professor in Communication and Public Policy and Co-Chair of the Social Media & Society Cluster in the School of Communication and Information, and an affiliate member of the graduate faculty in the Department of Sociology. Keith received his Ph.D. and M.A. in sociology from the University of Toronto, and a B.A. in sociology from the University of Calgary. Before joining the faculty that Rutgers, he was an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and Assistant Professor of Technology, Urban and Community Sociology & Class of ’43 Chair in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From his doctoral thesis onward, he has done seminal work on the role of new communication technologies in shaping community.

Natascha Just, an economist, whose research centers on innovation-inducnatascha-just-new-verted media change, such as on changing governance structures, competition policy, market power control, algorithms and platforms in the communication sector. She will join us from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, where Mag. Dr. Natascha Just has been a Senior Research and Teaching Associate in the Division on Media Change & Innovation, Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research (IPMZ) at the University of Zurich. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication Science (2001) from the University of Vienna. She was the recipient of a three year Hertha Firnberg Grant from the Austrian National Science Fund and worked as Hertha Firnberg Scholar at the Department of Communication, University of Vienna, Austria (2005-2008). She has also held visiting appointments at a number of US institutions, including Stanford Law School (2007), the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California (2004-2005), among other appointments.

David R. Ewoldsen joins the Department of Media and Information at MSU from The Ohio State University, where he was also a Professor in the School of Communication and Department of Psychology (courtesy appoint). He was serving as the Associate Director of the School of Communication and Director of Undergraduate Studies (since 2012). David received a joint Ph.D. in psycScreen Shot 2016-08-20 at 11.24.39hology and speech communication at Indiana University in 1990. After completing his Ph.D., he was a postdoctoral fellow in the cognitive sciences program at Vanderbilt University (1990-1991). He brings several research programs with him, including a long-standing program of research on ‘attitude accessibility’, for which he is clearly among the leading researchers. His work is focused primarily on the study of attitude and behavior change in the areas of health and race.

Also from OSU’s School of Communication, but joining the College’s Department of Advertising + Public Relations, is Associate Professor Nancy Rhodes. Nancy has a background in social psychology and is focused on health behavioral researchRhodes_Nancy-Photo1-938ef04ddea1266eeefd27af016d97e1-160x160, one of the College’s strategic areas for development. For example, she was the principal investigator on a recent large-scale ($700K plus) study of communication initiatives designed to reduce risky driving behavior.

Internationally, in addition to Professor Just, in the Department of Media and Information, as noted above, take Dr Tai-Quan (Winson) Peng, who has joined the Communication Department as an Associate Professor. I have frequently cited his work with Jonathan Zhu and others in the Web MininWinson_Peng_entryg Lab at the City University of Hong Kong, as being among the most insightful uses of data analytics to document the burgeoning growth of social science research on the Internet.

But please take a look at the full list (with apologies for anyone I’ve neglected to note):

Advertising and Public Relations

Bree Holtz coming from MSU; Nancy Rhodes coming from Ohio State University; Kjerstin Thorson coming from University of Southern California; Morgan Ellithorpe coming from University of Pennsylvania; Joseph Steinhardt coming from Cornell University; plus three Professors of Practice, focused on teaching roles, Ross Chowles, Louis Schiavone, and Gregory Taucher.

Department of Communication

Ralf Schmaelzle coming from University of Pennsylvania; Allison Eden coming from MSU; and Winson Peng coming from Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Department of Journalism

Brendan Watson coming from University of Minnesota; Esther Thorson coming from University of Missouri; Rachel Mourao coming from University of Texas at Austin; and three Professors of Practice, Amy Haimerl, Michael Castellucci, and Richard Epps.

Department of Media & Information

Keith Hampton coming from Rutgers University; Natascha Just coming from University of Zurich, Switzerland; Elizabeth LaPensée coming from University of Minnesota; David Ewoldsen coming from Ohio State University; and four Professors of Practice, Jeremy Bond, John Valadez, Carleen Hsu, Ricardo Guimares.

Also, in the Quello Center, which is a center within the Department of Media and Information, our Post-Doctoral Fellow, Dr Bianca Reisdorf, has been recruited to stay at MSU as the Assistant Director of the Quello Center and an Assistant Professor in the Department. More on Professor Reisdorf and all of our faculty in due course.

So, this caps a very remarkable year for recruitment in MSU’s College of Communication Arts & Sciences. Thanks to Dean Prabu David and the leadership within the departments, the College was able to create an initiative to make a step jump in its faculty ranks. In academia, this must be one of those developments that promises to move the needle for the College and our field and in my opinion, be newsworthy!

Ways of Being in the Digital Age: A New ESRC Project

Delighted to be on the Advisory Board of a new ESRC Project, entitled ‘Ways of Being in a Digital Age: A Systematic Review’.

The project is led by the Institute of Cultural Capital at the University of Liverpool in collaboration with 17 other partner Universities and organizations. It is a scoping review designed to inform potential future ESRC initiatives in this area.

This scoping review will focus on how digital technology mediates our lives, and of the way technological and social change co-evolve and impact on each other. The project will undertake: a Delphi review of expert opinion; a systematic literature review; and an overall synthesis to identify gaps in current research. The project will also run a programme of events to build and extend networks among the academic community, other stakeholders and potential funding partners. The project pulls together an impressive interdisciplinary research team with experience in running digital projects with partners across the social sciences, arts and humanities, engineering, physical sciences and health, representing 16 universities from the UK, EU, USA and Singapore. The core team of co-investigators from eight UK universities will provide expertise across a range of social science, arts, engineering and science backgrounds. The team also includes a broader international steering group, of which I am a member.  th-1

Its initial plans are to focus on seven domains:

  1. Citizenship and politics
  2. Communities and identities
  3. Communication and relationships
  4. Health and wellbeing
  5. Economy and sustainability
  6. Data and representation
  7. Governance and securityth

For each domain the project will undertake:

  • A Delphi panel review of international experts’ opinions on the state of the art in digital facing social research.
  • A ‘concept mapping’ of identified literature using digital humanities tools
  • A systematic review of a sample of the literature
  • Engagement events with non-academic stakeholders from the public and private sectors
  • An assessment of the theory and methods applied in each domain

The project will also conduct a feedback questionnaire on the findings, run workshops throughout, and hold sessions at a number of international conferences. The project will conclude with a symposium to feedback the findings and to discuss the future of digital research in the social sciences.

More details on the project are available online at: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/files/funding/funding-opportunities/ways-of-being-in-a-digital-age-scoping-review-specification/  But as time passes, just search for Ways of Being in the Digital Age, as we do.

 

 

All-Star Class: A Record for this Professor

Attending an awards ceremony at MSU I discovered to my surprise and delight that every member of my class this semester was a recipient for an award for their academic achievements. True, I have a small seminar, of 5 students, three MA and 2 PhD students in a seminar on Media and Information Policy. But all five had received awards, along with other students of mine from the past semester.

Needless to say, of course, I had nothing to do with their accomplishments, as my course is still in progress. Nevertheless I feel very proud of ‘my’ students.

Doctoral students, Ruth Shillair and Whisnu Triwibowo, received graduate student fellowships, with only three being awarded. Ruth was chosen as well for the Outstanding Doctoral Student ‘Triple-Threat’ award, for her achievements in research, teaching, and citizenship.

MA students, Menglei Cheng and Shenzi Su, received Academic Merit Awards, for their performance in course work, along with my student from last semester, Michael Nelson, who also received the Thomas F. Baldwin Endowed Fellowship. Along with these A students, Thomas Potron, received recognition in being chosen as one of our Academic Exchange Semester Students, visiting us from France.

It is little wonder that I have been enjoying discussions over the semester. I should add that in a university of 50,000 students, with hundreds in our Department of Media and Information, it is a seriously remarkable accomplishment to be among the top. Congratulations to all of the students who received awards, and to my all-star class. I must add that for all of my students to receive such recognition, it goes down as a record for me as well!

Here is a photo of me along with my students and a Visiting Professor, Jingwei Cheng, Communication University of China.

L-R: Bill, Menglei Cheng, Chenzi Su, Prof Cheng, Whisnu Triwibowo, Ruth Shillair, and Thomas Potron
L-R: Bill, Menglei Cheng, Chenzi Su, Prof Cheng, Whisnu Triwibowo, Ruth Shillair, and Thomas Potron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is another photograph of some of the students, along with faculty, at the awards ceremony set in the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.

IMG_0927

New MSU Course: Social Dynamics of the Internet

This fall semester at MSU, I’ll be teaching a new course MI 401, which is right at the center of my work over the last decade, if not my entire career. It is entitled ‘Social Dynamics of the Internet’ – the latest incarnation of a course I designed in 1980 on the social dynamics of communication technology. The course is anchored around my edited book, with Mark Graham, entitled Society and the Internet (OUP 2014). I hope to get students discussing, tweeting, writing and worrying about one of the central issues of our digital age.

Society & the Internet
Society & the Internet

The draft syllabus is at Social Dynamics of the Internet, but I will keep refining it, so comments are invited. The course is designed for upper-division undergraduates, and graduate students.

Honoring Mark Levy: A Special Session at ICA 2015

ICA 2015, Jan Juan, Puerto Rico
Colleagues Remember Mark R. Levy
Sat, May 23, 18:00 to 19:15, Caribe Hilton, Salon Del Mar

Sponsored by:
The Journal of Communication
Michigan State University College of Communication Arts and Sciences
Nanyang Technological University Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information
University of Maryland Department of Communication
University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

Please join a special session at the ICA conference in San Juan honoring Professor Mark Levy, who died on Saturday, February 7, 2015. Levy served on the faculty at Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences for more than 15 years. Prior to coming to MSU, he served as Associate Dean and Professor of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He also had taught at the State University of New York in Albany, Columbia University in New York City, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Levy’s research focused on the use and impact of communication technologies on individuals and on economic and social development. He was the author, co-author, or editor of 10 books and more than 100 refereed journal articles and conference presentations. From 1991 to 1996, he was Editor of the Journal of Communication.

Chair and Speaker: Edward L. Fink, University of Maryland, USA

Speakers:
Akiba A. Cohen, The Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, ISRAEL
Johannes M. Bauer, Michigan State University, USA
Frank Biocca, Syracuse University, USA
Maurine Beasley , University of Maryland, USA
Ang Peng Hwa, Nanyang Technological University, SINGAPORE
Benjamin H. Detenber, Nanyang Technological University, SINGAPORE