Digital Wildfire: (Mis)information flows, propagation and responsible governance

Research project November 2014-May 2016

Research Councils UK “Global Uncertainties” programme

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter are a popular feature of modern life which enable users to share content with others around the world. The increasing popularity of social media brings many benefits but also risks such as ‘digital wildfires’ in which provocative content spreads rapidly and can cause serious harm. This provocative content may take the form of a rumour, false information, hate speech, or a malicious campaign against others. When it spreads rapidly it can damage the reputation and well-being of individuals, groups and entire communities. The prevalence of digital wildfires in modern life has led to questions over how they — and the harms they cause — can be managed, prevented and limited. There is some scope for intervention through the law and the actions of social media companies. In addition there are opportunities for social media users to influence the posting and spread of content by monitoring their own online behaviours and the behaviours of others.

Our project seeks to address the important issues raised by the phenomenon of digital wildfires. The project is led by Professor Marina Jirotka at the University of Oxford and is run in collaboration with the Universities of Warwick, Cardiff and De Montfort. This is an interdisciplinary project that uses a variety of methods. We analyse social media datasets to assess how digital wildfires emerge and unfold. We identify the kinds of content that might spark a digital wildfire and the typical trajectories through which it spreads, accelerates and eventually abates. We examine the interactions between users that occur on social media during digital wildfires and identify practices of ‘self-governance’ through which social media users manage their own and others’ online behaviours. This includes practices such as countering hate speech, dismissing rumours and disagreeing with inflammatory posts etc. We further examine the impacts of these practices and how they may be encouraged, consolidated and enhanced to limit the damage caused by digital wildfires. In other project activities we engage the experiences and perspectives of key stakeholders such as social media companies, legislators, the police, civil liberties groups, anti-harassment organisations, and educators. We combine the findings from these different activities to explore potential regulatory tools and mechanisms on social media in relation to digital wildfires. You can find our more on our website and also read a recent article here.

In January 2016 we held a showcase workshop in which we presented some of our project findings and invited a series of speakers to explore issues relating to the spread of provocative content on social media and the responsible governance of digital social spaces. The workshop brought together researchers with stakeholders from policy, law enforcement, commerce, education and civil society. It also included a youth panel in which young people presented their reflections on social media and a keynote address by Baroness Beeban Kidron, founder of the iRights campaign. Full details of the day will be posted on this site soon. You can also read a blog post about the event and watch videos of some of the presentations on our You Tube Channel.

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