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Fixing the Negativity of Social Media

Fixing the Negativity of Social Media


In the Winter 2022 issue of the Duke Mag, I read an interesting article written by Corbie Hill about Duke sociology professor Chris Bail and his initiatives to reset the partisan digital divide. Bail is the author of Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms less Polarizing and is also the co-founder of the Summer Institutes in Computational Social Science (SICSS).

The SICSS was founded by Bail and Princeton University sociology professor Matt Salganik to expand the computational social science field. Bail states that it’s not “crazy to call it a paradigmatic shift in the way social science is done.” Preconceptions about sociology are that researchers talk to a few people and share their stories, but that it’s not science. Computational social science backs up social science findings with massive data sets and machine learning. Since the SICSS was first offered at Princeton in 2017, the program has grown and is now offered at 53 sites around the world in addition to virtually.

Bail’s philosophy is that every new site is owned and directed by the people at that location. For example, the site at Howard University focuses on research about anti-Black racism and inequity using computational social science. So far, each of the 53 SICSS sites is a discrete node serving a distinct population. Bail notes that the growth in data collected around the world has been exponential. For example, more data was collected in 2012 than in all previous years of human history combined.

Bail believes that the creation of SICSS is the biggest deal in his career. At the same time, the biggest problem yet to be solved is the partisan divide created and accentuated by social media platforms. Bail notes that anthropologists have determined that people can maintain meaningful relationships with approximately 150 people. Social media, on the other hand, can connect people with hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people and more. Bail states that humans “may not be wired to handle a crowd of that size.” He posits “what if the structure of social media is wrong and we need to be seeing society instead of a string of messages?”

According to Dr. Bail, angry people produce almost all the social media posts – 98 percent on Twitter alone. Social scientists know how to create cohesive communities and what creates conflict. What if their knowledge was utilized to redesign social media platforms and enable users to turn features off and on as well as build environments not yet available? Dr. Bail runs a Polarization Lab at Duke with a professor of political science and public policy and an assistant professor of statistical science and computer science. The lab is building an environment where any researcher can create a social media network and run experiments using it. He believes that the relative “newness” of social media provides researchers with the opportunity to suggest changes that could reduce polarizing issues. I hope he’s right and the corporate owners of these platforms adopt the recommendations from his research.

Dr. Bail considers his role in the SICSS community as community builder, not leader. Many of the members of the various communities founded thus far have interests different than his.

I have never been a fan of qualitative research. I am a bigger believer in the value of reproducible quantitative research but acknowledge that there’s room for both fields. I wasn’t aware that there was a burgeoning group of scholars dedicated to computational social science until I read this article. I’ll have to dig around to see if there is anything in the education field as organized as SICSS. The more scholars that are available to sift through the ever-increasing quantity of data that we’re collecting, the better.

I also ordered a copy of Breaking the Social Media Prism. Stay tuned for my review in a week or two.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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