Twitter is taking part in a study designed to reduce online abuse

Online abuse in all its forms is a problem, but particularly on social media and particularly on Twitter. So what can be done?

Mark Serrels Editorial Director
Mark Serrels is an award-winning Senior Editorial Director focused on all things culture. He covers TV, movies, anime, video games and whatever weird things are happening on the internet. He especially likes to write about the hardships of being a parent in the age of memes, Minecraft and Fortnite. Definitely don't follow him on Twitter.
Mark Serrels
2 min read
Currency and Social Media

Online abuse is a real problem, and it's an issue many critics have long accused Twitter of failing to adequately address. 

But right now Twitter is planning to help academics test a simple premise: If publications or social media outlets make an effort to make their rules more visible, will this result in less online abuse? 

Susan Benesch, an associate professor at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University believes it will. Previous research states that people are more likely to follow rules if they're visibly and clearly published. 

Seems like common sense, right? But starting from Sunday Twitter is working with Benesch and a team of researchers to test the hypothesis that this might work on Twitter.

Benesch announced the study in a Medium post Sunday:

Social norms, which are people's beliefs about what institutions and other people consider acceptable behavior, powerfully influence what people do and don't do. Research has shown that when institutions publish rules clearly, people are more likely to follow them. We also have early evidence from Nathan's research with reddit communities that making policies visible can improve online behavior. In an experiment starting today, Twitter is publicizing its rules, to test whether this improves civility.  

Twitter will provide what Benesch calls "anonymized, aggregated information" to her team of researchers. She decided against explaining the nuts and bolts of how that data will be processed and analysed, but did say the project was approved by two separate university ethics committees. An open analysis plan was also filed with a neutral third party called the Open Science Framework to ensure that Benesch and her team of researchers could be held accountable for what they are doing with the study. 

Jack Dorsey tweeted about the study.

Twitter provided CNET with the following statement: "We're collaborating with a group of academic researchers and scholars led by Susan Benesch, J. Nathan Matias, and Derek Ruths on an initiative to remind people of the Twitter Rules, to evaluate whether increased awareness of our policies results in improved behavior and more respect on Twitter."
The study will run for 60 days with a 90 day lookback on users behaviour and the plan is to study new users, normal users, and users who have been reported for abuse in the past 90 days. The research will be submitted to peer-reviewed academic journals, but Benesch plans to make the results of her study available to everyone.

"We hope that this project will supply practical knowledge about preventing abuse online," she wrote, "and that our process will inspire further transparent, independent evaluations of many other ideas for reducing online abuse."  

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