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Twitter working with academics to spur 'healthy conversation'

One of the goals is to increase civility -- not a word normally associated with Twitter users.

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Twitter is working with scholars to foster healthier conversations on its platform. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Jaap Arriens/Getty Images

Twitter knows it has problems, and it's turning to scholars for help.

Twitter is partnering with researchers from several universities to better understand how to foster "healthy conversation" based on "openness and civility," the company said Monday in a blog post.

The effort comes as Twitter and Facebook face backlash over their impact on politics and culture in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Twitter has been cleaning up its platform, such as removing fake accounts and bots.

"The bot problem is one of several problems for Twitter. It's not promoting civil discourse. It's creating angst and chaos," Brian Solis, an analyst at Altimeter Group, said in February after Twitter purged accounts if users couldn't prove they were human. 

Twitter has started its new project with academia "to measure conversational health," according to its blog post. The project mainly explores two aspects: how groups form based on political views on Twitter and whether exposure to diversity and various views can help decrease prejudice and discrimination.

Scholars from Leiden University, Syracuse University, Delft University of Technology and Bocconi University will measure how groups form on Twitter through political discussions and possible challenges as these groups develop. The focus points include echo chambers, uncivil discourse, incivility and intolerance.

"It is clear that if we are going to effectively evaluate and address some of the most difficult challenges arising on social media, academic researchers and tech companies will need to work together much more closely," Rebekah Tromble, assistant professor of political science at Leiden University, said in the blog post.

Researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam will look at how people use the social media platform and the effects of exposure to different backgrounds, beliefs and experiences.

"Evidence from social psychology has shown how communication between people from different backgrounds is one of the best ways to decrease prejudice and discrimination," Miles Hewstone, professor of social psychology at Oxford University, said in the blog post. "We're aiming to investigate how this understanding can be used to measure the health of conversations on Twitter, and whether the effects of positive online interaction carry across to the offline world."

"This is in an effort to improve the experience of our customers, and evaluate how we can ensure the health of conversation on Twitter," said a Twitter spokesperson in an email statement. "Researchers will have access to public Twitter content, working closely with a cross-functional team at Twitter to address this top concern."

First published on July 30, 10:49 a.m. PT.

Updates, 11:59 a.m. PT: Adds Twitter spokesperson statement.

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