Researchers find that fake news on controversial issues contributes to political polarization
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It’s been a year since America had one of the most divisive elections in decades. Although President Joe Biden has called for unity, recent data from a new measurement, the USC Polarization Index, has shown that political polarization is as bad today as it was a year ago.
If left unaddressed, the rift can expand into a canyon. USC researchers are increasingly focusing on studying polarization from multiple perspectives – including behavior – and helping students change their own rhetoric and attitudes to fill the gap.
The USC Polarization Index, published earlier this month, is the latest contribution to polarization research at the university, made possible through a collaboration with private company Zignal Labs and PR firm Golin.
The index leverages Zignal Lab’s real-time natural language processing capabilities and mathematically calculates the degree of disagreement across 10 key topics. It is designed to help C-suite executives better understand public opinion and inform their corporate strategies, including whether to take a position on controversial issues that may affect customers, employees, and shareholders.
The innovative tool for measuring discord was developed under the direction of Fred Cook, who heads the USC Center for Public Relations at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and is Golin’s Chairman Emeritus.
“We believe polarization is a communication problem,” he said. “That’s why we worked with Golin and Zignal over the past year to offer business and government leaders a unique perspective on polarization in America and the forces that drive it.”
America divided: In search of the causes
USC researchers are working on a number of specific initiatives to understand and overcome polarization, counteract misinformation, and combat cyberattacks on elections. They also want to equip tomorrow’s leaders – USC students – to peacefully engage in controversial issues.
For example, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences launched the Center for the Political Future in 2018 under the direction of director and Democratic strategist Robert Shrum and co-director and Republican strategist Mike Murphy. The centre’s executive director, Kambiz Akhavan, is an expert on polarization.
“Our goal is to model and drive a policy in which we respect one another and respect the truth,” said Shrum. “Too often today in America we are trapped in an angry public square, where others are viewed not as opponents but as enemies, and the loser of affect tries to burn the stadium down. This is a fateful threat to democracy and” Focus here at USC we look forward to doing our part to address and remedy it. “
The threats of destabilization come from inside and outside the country. Computer scientists Kristina Lerman and Emilio Ferrara from the USC Information Sciences Institute are the detectives who find out who is behind it and why.
Fake news is an “infodemy”
Some of the fake news was spread by other countries such as Russia, while social media users – sometimes unknowingly – contributed to its spread. Examples include fake messages and tweets questioning Hillary Clinton’s health in the run-up to the 2016 election. Days before election day, Russian accounts cast doubt on the integrity of the elections.
These are the behaviors and trends that Lerman and Ferrara, lead researchers at ISI, are tracking and researching on social media sites. Recently, the pair, along with a team from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, received special federal funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to further investigate geopolitical efforts to manipulate certain populations through social media.
Lerman and Ferrara recognize and measure how widespread misinformation is and who is responsible for spreading false information that could influence an election – or in the case of the pandemic, kill people who contract COVID, in part because they didn’t think it was real. They develop tools to track user accounts that sometimes appear innocuous on platforms like Twitter, only to find on closer inspection that they are overseas-operated automated accounts that spread fake news via fake videos, fake graphics, and political conspiracy theories.
Lerman said the game of cat and mouse between malicious actors and investigators like her and Ferrara, who is also with USC Annenberg, has escalated over the years.
“We are becoming increasingly aware of how this ‘infodemic’ has reorganized itself as one of the biggest public health threats,” said Lerman, whose research found that social media activity can reveal where the next big COVID is. Outbreak could occur. “These malicious actors have figured out how to disguise them. They can open other accounts without being detected.”
Ferrara has watched bots sow conspiracies on Twitter. In 2016, he warned the nation that overseas operated fake accounts were trying to influence the US presidential election. Similar activity was seen ahead of the 2020 elections.
Ferrara told Nature earlier this year that fake news remains a threat, although at least the retweets of content from bots have decreased significantly.
“One explanation is that companies like Twitter can better recognize and block bots,” said Ferrara. “Another explanation is that people have gotten better at recognizing bot-derived content so they become less engaged. But another possibility is that we can’t identify the more complex bots, so we can’t tell when they are being retweeted by human users. “
Amid the rise of conspiracy theories and violence, the country has seen an unprecedented number of lawsuits and legal proceedings that challenged election results. State and local election officials were threatened with dismissal because of their confirmed results – and received death threats.
The role of social media in political polarization
Last year, Google sponsored one of Adam Powell III’s United States.
“USC’s Election Cybersecurity Initiative has completed 59 bipartisan workshops and reached more than 5,000 election officials, campaign workers and civic leaders in all 50 states,” said Powell. “In addition to the USC faculty, speakers included members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, governors, Department of Homeland Security experts, university partners across the country, and most – yes, most – US state secretaries in the 50 states.”
Participants were given tips on how to protect their accounts and systems from potential hackers and how to react if critics or opponents claim that voting systems have been tampered with.
Polarization may seem like a new phenomenon to America, but Jeffery Jenkins, Provost Professor of Public Order, Public Order, Political Science, and Law notes that it has been festering for years. Because of slavery and Jim Crow, there have long been cracks in the nation’s foundations. The partisan gaps have widened over time – also because people have been sorting better and better according to ideologies. Liberals are now firmly in the Democratic camp, while Conservatives associate almost exclusively with the Republicans.
“Political scientists in the mid-20th century believed that there was really no difference between Republicans and Democrats,” said Jenkins of the USC Price School for Public Policy and director of the Bedrosian Center. “In 1950 they asked the parties to take different positions on certain issues so that citizens could get different perspectives. Jump into today and it will be clear that you have a real choice between the two parties.
“We look back now and wish we might not have asked for that,” said Jenkins, who has been studying polarization for more than 20 years.
Jenkins has written two books examining the most critical historical periods that led to polarization as we know it today: Republican Party Politics and the American South, 1865-1968, with Boris Heersink, and Congress and the First Civil Rights Era, 1861-1918 “with Justin Peck. He is currently working on additional books and publications on the changing politics of the country and the widening divide.
“I don’t realize that moderation is necessarily natural as a result,” he said. “We assume that if we could just find a centrist policy or candidacy, we would be drawn to it and things will get better. But ideologically different policies and candidates are the most popular.”
“It’s hard to imagine the polarization getting worse – and yet it does,” he said.
Chatter about the 2020 elections on Twitter with bots, conspiracy theorists and study results
Quote: Researchers Find Fake News on Controversial Issues Contribute to Political Polarization (2021, November 23), accessed December 25, 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-11-fake-news-controversial-topics -contributes.html
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