In today’s political climate, many people accuse online social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter of liberal bias, saying they intentionally favor and amplify liberal content and users while limiting other political content. But a new study from researchers at Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media finds that to not be the case. Political biases, they say, stem from the social interactions of each account. Users receive content closely aligned with whatever their online friends produce. And political biases on Twitter favor conservative content, they found. IU computer scientist Filippo Menczer says information Twitter users see in their news feed depends on the political leaning of their earliest connections. The researchers found no evidence of intentional interference by Twitter. Instead, Menczer says, bias can be explained by the use, and abuse, of the platform by its users. The study used 15 bots, called drifters, which can mimic human users but that were controlled by algorithms that activated them randomly to perform actions. After initializing each bot with one first friend from a popular news source aligned with the left, center-left, center, center-right, or right of the US political spectrum, the researchers let the drifters loose on Twitter. After five months of data collection, they examined the content consumed and generated by the drifters, analyzing the political alignment of the bots’ friends and followers and their exposure to information from low-credibility news and information sources. Menczer says early choices about which sources to follow impact the experiences of social media users, with the study revealing that the political alignment of an initial friend on social media can have a major impact on the structure of a person’s social network and their exposure to low-credibility sources. The study also found that drifters tended to be drawn to the political right. Menczer says online influence is affected by the echo-chamber characteristics of the social network. Drifters following more partisan news sources received more politically aligned followers, he says, allowing them to become embedded in even denser echo chambers.
In other news, STEM fields continue to be fast-growing, with many career opportunities available for students who pursue them. Thanks to a new grant from the U.S. Navy, a team of researchers from IUPUI’s School of Engineering and Technology will soon be training students in engineering and computing majors to be adept at innovation in Navy research and development priority areas. The Navy Engineering Innovation and Leadership Training Program for Diverse STEM Leadership is a partnership with the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Crane Division in Indiana. As part of the program, students will conduct Navy-priority research at IUPUI and will assist in teaching challenging engineering and computing subjects using the Peer-Led Team Learning approach. IUPUI will give special attention to female and underrepresented students, providing leadership coaching to high-achieving undergraduates. Razi Nalim, executive associate dean for research and global initiatives and leader of this project, says students will be trained to be effective peer leaders who not only take charge of their own learning through research experiences, but also share their learning with others. The students will become technology innovators and valuable potential employees in a variety of leadership roles for the Navy, Naliim says, and the skills they develop will be critical for the Navy to rapidly translate new technologies from the laboratory to the fleet.