Overcoming polarization and misinformation: An overview of mass social dynamics online

Fabiana Zollo - Italy

Fabiana Zollo received her PhD in Computer, Decision, and Systems Science from IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca in 2016. Since 2018 she is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, Informatics, and Statistics at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, where she works in the Laboratory of Data & Complexity and is fellow member of the Center for Humanities and Social Change. Dr. Zollo’s research interests are focused on the dynamics of information diffusion and production online. Her results have been published on renowned international journals, widely covered by national and international media, and largely disseminated.


Session introduction

This session will provide an overview of the socio-cognitive factors behind content consumption and diffusion on online social media. Empirical results will be shown, as well as novel insights on the development of tailored communication strategies to deal with controversial topics and promote civil public debate.

Session in-depth

The advent of the Internet and web technologies have radically changed the paradigm of news consumption, leading up to the formation of a new scenario where people actively participate not only in the diffusion of content, but also its production. In this context, social media have become central not only to our social lives, but also to the political and civic world, rapidly establishing as the main information source for many of their users- However, social media are riddled with unsubstantiated and often untruthful rumors that can influence public opinion negatively. Since 2013 the World Economic Forum has been placing the global danger of massive digital misinformation at the core of other technological and geopolitical risks, ranging from terrorism to cyber-attacks. The phenomenon is alarming. When people are misinformed, they hold beliefs neglecting factual evidence. Moreover, in general people tend to resist facts, and corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions, instead producing a backfire effect. Thus, understanding the main determinants behind content consumption and the emergence of narratives on social media is crucial. In this session, we address such a challenge by introducing a cross-methodological, interdisciplinary approach that accounts for the socio-cognitive factors underlying the phenomenon. We analyze massive data from online social media and provide the empirical existence of the so-called echo chambers, polarized groups of like-minded people where users reinforce and polarize their pre-existing opinions. We show that confirmation bias is the main driver behind content consumption, address the emotional dynamics inside and between different narratives, and investigate users’ response to both confirmatory and contrasting information. Our findings reveal that similar patterns also hold for political (the Brexit, the Italian Constitutional Referendum) and public (Climate Change, Vaccines) debates, where we observe the spontaneous emergence of well-segregated groups of users around news sources and the natural tendency of users to focus on a limited set of pages (selective exposure) eliciting a sharp and polarized community structure. Our results provide interesting insights about the determinants of polarization and the evolution of core narratives on online debating, highlighting the crucial role of data science techniques to map the information space on social media. Moreover, we present novel results on possible communication strategies that can help to improve users’ trust, smooth extreme polarisation and promote civil debate around controversial topics, such as the migration phenomenon. Finally, we provide insights on quality and effectiveness of science communication on social media in Europe, focusing on different platforms (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) and on a variety of actors (e.g., scientists, journalists, institutions, etc..).