Study finds content moderation may lead to more open exchange of ideas on social media

New research from a School of Engineering and Applied Science professor finds that mild content moderation on social media sites may encourage a broader marketplace of ideas.

The study, published Monday, seeks to quantify the impact of social media content regulation by comparing Twitter, a site with extensive terms of service and moderation, with Gab, an unregulated site that advertises its support for “free speech and individual liberty.” Researchers found that content on Gab, a site that ostensibly welcomes all ideologies, tends to represent exclusively far-right viewpoints, and a few elite participants monopolize engagement on the site.

David Broniatowski, an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering, said in a University release that the findings indicate that moderate regulation of social media sites may encourage diversity of thought on the platforms.

“Governments and social media platforms around the world are trying to figure out how they can promote a free exchange of ideas without censoring content,” he said. “When compared to Gab, our results suggest that adherence to even relatively mild terms of service, such as Twitter’s hateful conduct policy, may make a big difference in promoting the free exchange of ideas.”

The study – which appears in First Monday, a peer-reviewed journal covering topics related to the internet – analyzes almost 17 million posts on Gab and about 86.5 million tweets from August 2016 to February 2018. Researchers found that Gab posts are more likely to be state-sponsored than tweets and are more homogeneous as well, mainly focusing on politics, race and religion.

“Far from promoting ‘the free flow of information online,’ the Gab platform seems to exhibit features associated with less information sharing compared to Twitter,” the study states.

Researchers found that posts on Gab with links to news articles mostly linked to far-right websites and outlets associated with conspiracy theories. The study’s conclusion states that Gab’s lax attitude toward content moderation fosters an environment in which users parrot malicious speech and broadcast to one another, rather than engaging with one another.

“Unfortunately, Gab’s stated mission of totally free speech creates an environment in which significant hateful and divisive rhetoric flourishes and paradoxically impedes debate,” said William Adler, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University and a co-author of the study. “As a platform, it ultimately promotes the kind of hate which culminated in the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 shortly after the shooter posted on Gab.”

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