Researchers find fake news about controversial topics contributes to political polarization

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It's been a year since America experienced one of its most divisive elections in decades. Although President Joe Biden has called for unity, recent data from a new measurement, the USC Polarization Index, has shown political polarization remains as bad today as it was a year ago.

Unaddressed, the rift may well widen into a canyon. USC researchers are increasingly focused on studying polarization from multiple perspectives—including behavioral—and are mentoring students to shift their own rhetoric and attitudes with an aim toward closing the gap.

The USC Polarization Index released earlier this month is the latest contribution to polarization research at the university, made possible through a collaboration with private companies Zignal Labs and PR firm Golin.

The index leverages Zignal Lab's real-time natural language processing capabilities and mathematically calculates the degree of discord overall and across 10 key issues. It is designed to help C-suite executives better understand and inform their corporate strategies, including whether to take a stand on controversial topics that may impact customers, employees and shareholders.

The innovative tool that measures discord was created at the direction of Fred Cook who directs the USC Center for Public Relations at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the chairman emeritus of Golin.

"We believe that polarization is a communications problem," he said. "That's why we have been collaborating with Golin and Zignal for the past year to provide business and government leaders with a unique perspective on polarization in America and the forces that are driving it."

America divided: Exploring the root causes

USC researchers are working on a number of specific initiatives to understand and overcome polarization, counter misinformation and fight cyber attacks on elections. They also want to equip tomorrow's leaders—USC students—to engage peacefully on controversial topics.

For example, the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 2018 launched the Center for the Political Future led by director and Democratic strategist Robert Shrum and co-director and Republican strategist Mike Murphy. The center's executive director, Kambiz Akhavan, is an expert on polarization.

"We aim to model and advance a politics where we respect each other and we respect the truth," said Shrum. "Too often in America today, we are trapped in an angry public square where those on the other side are seen not as opponents but as enemies, and the loser in affect tries to burn down the stadium. This is a fateful danger to democracy and here at USC, we are focused on doing our part to confront and redress it."

The threats of destabilization are coming from within and outside of the country. Computer scientists Kristina Lerman and Emilio Ferrara from the USC Information Sciences Institute are the detectives hunting down who may be behind them and why.

Fake news is an 'infodemic'

Some of the has been propagated by foreign countries such as Russia, while social media users have aided—at times unwittingly—in its spread. Examples include fake news stories and tweets questioning Hillary Clinton's health in the runup to the 2016 election. Days before Election Day, Russian-run accounts were sowing doubt about election integrity.

These are the behaviors and trends that Lerman and Ferrara, leading researchers at ISI, track and study on social media sites. Recently, the two, along with a team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, received special federal funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to further study geopolitical efforts to to manipulate certain populations via social media.

Lerman and Ferrara detect and measure how widespread misinformation is and who is responsible for spreading incorrect information that could sway an election—or in the case of the pandemic, kill people who become sick with COVID in part because they did not believe it was real. They develop tools to track what sometimes appear to be innocuous user accounts on platforms such as Twitter, only to find on closer examination that they are foreign-operated automated accounts propagating fake news via falsified videos, fake graphics and political conspiracy theories.

Lerman said that the cat-and-mouse game between malicious actors and investigators such as herself and Ferrara, who is also with USC Annenberg, has escalated over the years.

"We are increasingly aware how this 'infodemic' has reorganized as one of the top threats to public health right now," said Lerman, whose research revealed social media activity can flag where the next major COVID outbreak may occur. "These malicious actors have figured out how to obfuscate. They can open up other accounts without being detected."

Ferrara has been tracking how bots sow conspiracy on Twitter. In 2016, he forewarned the nation that foreign-operated fake accounts were trying to influence the U.S. presidential election. Similar activity was seen ahead of the 2020 elections.

Ferrara told Nature this year that fake news remains a threat, though at least retweets of content from bots have decreased significantly.

"One explanation is that companies such as Twitter have gotten better at detecting bots and suspending them," Ferrara said. "Another explanation is that people have got better at spotting content originated by bots, so they engage less. But another possibility is that we can't identify the more sophisticated bots, so we can't detect when they are retweeted by human users."

Amid the rise of conspiracy theories and violence, the country has seen an unprecedented number of claims and court challenges questioning election outcomes. State and local elections officials have been threatened with ouster—and received death threats—for their verified results.

Social media's role in political polarization

Last year, Google backed an effort led by Adam Powell III of USC Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership and Policy to educate elections and campaign officials about cyber-attacks, the spread of misinformation, and the importance of communication to protect the integrity of elections across the United States.

"USC's Election Cybersecurity Initiative has completed 59 bipartisan workshops, reaching more than 5,000 election officials, campaign workers and civic leaders in all 50 states," said Powell. "In addition to USC faculty, speakers have included members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, governors, experts from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, university partners across the country, and most—yes, most—of the Secretaries of State of the 50 states."

Attendees walked away with tips on protecting their accounts and systems from potential hackers, as well as how to respond when critics or opponents claim voting systems were rigged.

Polarization may seem like a recent phenomenon for America, but Jeffery Jenkins, Provost Professor of Public Policy, Public Policy, Political Science, and Law, notes that it has been festering for years. Fissures have long existed in the nation's foundation because of slavery and Jim Crow. The partisan divisions worsened over time– in part because people have sorted increasingly well by ideology. Liberals are now firmly in the Democratic camp, while conservatives associate almost exclusively with the Republicans.

"Political scientists had opined in the middle of the 20th century that there was really no difference between the Republicans and Democrats," said Jenkins of the USC Price School for Public Policy and director of the Bedrosian Center. "In 1950, they urged the parties to stake out distinct positions on issues so that citizens would get different perspectives. Jump ahead to today, and it's clear that you have a real choice between the two parties.

"We look back now and wish that maybe we hadn't asked for that," said Jenkins, who has been studying polarization for more than 20 years.

Jenkins has written two books examining the most critical historic periods that gave rise to polarization as we now know it: "Republican Party Politics and the American South, 1865–1968," with Boris Heersink, and "Congress and the First Civil Rights Era, 1861–1918" with Justin Peck. He is now working on additional books and publications about the nation's shifting politics and widening divide.

"It's not clear to me that moderation as an outcome is necessarily the natural one," he said. "We kind of assume that if we could just find a centrist policy or candidacy then we would be attracted to it, and things will get better. But ideological distinct policies and candidates are the popular ones."

"It's hard to imagine polarization getting worse—and yet it does," he said.

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