A 2011 study from researchers at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering has received the Test of Time Award from the 2021 International Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Conference on Web and Social Media.
The paper, “Political Polarization on Twitter,” studied more than a quarter-million tweets from the six weeks leading up to the 2010 United States congressional midterm election and demonstrated that the network of political retweets exhibited a highly segregated partisan structure. Then-Ph.D. student Mike Conover, who is now Director of Machine Learning Engineering at Workday, served as first author of the paper. Other authors included then-student Jacob Ratkiewicz (now a Tech Lead at Google), then-postdoctoral researchers Bruno Gonçalves (now VP at JPMorgan Chase) and Matt Francisco (now a lecturer at the Luddy School), and Professor of Informatics Alessandro Flammini and Distinguished Professor of Informatics and Computer Science Filippo Menczer.
“We are honored and proud of this award as it recognizes one of our earliest studies in analyzing data from social media over 10 years ago,” Menczer said. “It was the beginning of a long line of fruitful research that led to the recent establishment of our Observatory on Social Media. These efforts have brought to light a host of vulnerabilities that afflict social media and their users. The award also recognizes the great work of my amazing students and colleagues. It was a ‘dream team,’ and I have been so lucky to work with such great people, not only the coauthors of this paper but all the brilliant students and researchers who followed their steps in the lab.”
The study produced the first evidence of strong structural echo chambers in which conservatives mainly retweeted other conservatives and liberals mainly retweeted other liberals. That trend has continued and been confirmed by multiple other studies. The paper has been cited nearly 1,700 times, a number that is growing by the year as the challenge of echo chambers on social media becomes a larger focus for researchers.
“Ove the last 10 years, a lot of attention has been devoted to this problem by researchers, journalists, and the general public,” Menczer said. “We now also know that online polarization makes people vulnerable to misinformation and that bad actors exploit these vulnerabilities by targeting and manipulating partisan communities to gain influence and to amplify false claims. This structure distorts the information to which we are exposed.”
Conover accepted the award at the virtual award ceremony at the end of ICWSM, which was held June 7-10.
“Identifying the challenges of tomorrow has long been a focus of researchers at our school,” said Kay Connelly, the associate dean for research at the Luddy School. “The 2011 study was a warning light for the kind of issues that we could face in the future, and this award is tangible proof of the impact Luddy researchers make in their respective fields.”