Project Review Meeting with the EU-Commission in Brussels

On June 4th the first project review meeting of our EU-funded project “TWON – Twin of Online Social Networks” took place in Brussels. This was a great opportunity to reflect the first year of work in the consortium. We received valuable and encouraging feedback by Prof. Kalina Bontcheva (University of Sheffield), José Manuel Gómez Pérez (Director Language Technology Research at expert.ai) and Ilona von Bethlenfalvy (European Commission), which we will use in the next steps of our project.

Jonas Fegert, Michael Mäs, Marko Grobelnik, Achim Rettinger and Damian Trilling (left to right)

Marko Grobelnik, Achim Rettinger, Michael Mäs, Damian Trilling, Alisa Kerschbaum
and Jonas Fegert (left to right)

Consortium Meeting in Trier in March 2024

After nearly a year and two consortium meetings in Amsterdam and Karlsruhe, the TWON team met again on March 11. to March 13. 2024 in Trier. University Trier (UT) planned two intensive days to collate previous developments and direct the project into the first simulation phase. However, before diving into the workshops and presentations, UT hosted an auxiliary welcome dinner where early arrivals could taste regional produce in a nostalgic setting beside the old-town cathedral.

The TWON consortium in Trier

Lifted by the ancient Roman spirits and their legacy, the team started the first day by providing updates about the work of each partner. The presentation showed that the team came a long way from their theoretical proposals defined in the last consortium meeting to the first experiments and insights. As planned, the team formed independent working groups to maximize their efficiency during the TWON implementation. Concerning the user simulation, Michael Heseltine presented the first analysis of the human-perceived authenticity of synthetic content across European languages as a joint work with Simon Münker. Michael Mäs and his team proposed a recommendation system, a global white-box approach as a baseline, and Sjoerd B. Stolwijk an initial definition to assess the discourse quality. The modules allow separate usage for fundamental research and utilization in similar scenarios. However, without a technical backbone, their usability is limited. Abdul Sittar presented a refined version of this backbone, almost ready for the first simulation.

Besides focusing on direct project progress, Achim Rettinger, the host of this meeting, invited the UT law department. To broaden the perspective of the team members, the law department discussed the upcoming regulations in the EU concerning AI and social media networks (OSN). While not having a direct influence, this interlude presented opportunities for TWON to possibly engage with OSN providers to request data. Dripping like soaked sponges full of impressions, the team stopped for some last nuggets, this time drinks and food, at a local winery.

Not only educated by yesterday’s presentations but also the numerous ingenious conversations between wine and dinner, the team gathered for the second day to plan the next steps. With a focus on the upcoming case study, the research group split into breakout sessions to decide the experiment’s boundary conditions and subsequent steps. Thus, in unanimous agreement, the team decides to conduct the controlled field study in a hybrid setup, with humans and agents, discussing the upcoming Ukrainian elections.

The meeting ended with a guided exploration of the historic city center and famous Roman architectural buildings. Trier, the oldest city in Germany, residuals reminiscent of its long-gone power as the capital of the Roman Empire, is now possibly a stone in the pathway toward human-centric AI. The next meeting will occur in Dubrovnik, a place equally historically impactful!

Refining Deliberative Standards for Online Political Communication: Introducing a Summative Approach to Designing Deliberative Recommender Systems

How can Social Media best foster democratic debates? In a new paper, TWON’s very own Sjoerd Stolwijk, Michael Heseltine, Corinna Oschatz, and Damian Trilling challenge the notion that a perfect debate on social media platforms is a desirable outcome.

Over the last few years, diagnoses that the democracies of post-industrial nations of the global north are in decline have spread like proverbial wildfire. Often times, the way that social media continues shaping our lives and interactions with one another is held at least partially accountable for its ostensible effect on larger societal structures.

Contrasting the established “additive” paradigm of deliberative democracy research, Stolwijk, Heseltine, Oschatz and Trilling “propose an alternative conception of debate quality for online platforms, based on the recently proposed systematic, summative approach to deliberative democracy”. Using this approach, the researchers shift the focus from singular factors of deliberation to more systemic interdependences of deliberative factors and their effects on society at large.

Starting with an outline of critiques of the additive approach and its unitary implications, Stolwijk et al. inquire into the effects of deliberation indicators on one another as opposed to their effects on a monolithic deliberation. Continuing, they pose the question of exactly where online platforms fit into the larger system of deliberative democracy and whether they can be placed within a ‘micro-meso-macro’-layer approach.

On the base of this contextualisation, the authors move on to propose the ‘summative approach’ to deliberative democracy and online platforms’ role within it, arriving at the proposition that online communication should be viewed as complementary to existing forms of deliberation rather than a replacement.

“when facilitating debate between citizens, instead of aiming for civil conversation, it might be better for (macro) deliberative democracy, if in some cases people are allowed some incivility to make suppressed voices heard or to create a communicative environment where some might feel more at home, where they feel they don’t need to be eloquent and highly educated to be allowed to speak up”

The authors included a comparative table containing both ‘additive’ and ‘summative’ indicators for successful deliberation, both as an overview and an invitation for other researchers to contribute and improve. Concluding remarks reiterate the paper’s findings and summarise the scientific value of the ‘summative’ approach.

In an effort to promote inclusivity and accessibility, papers published by the TWON consortium are published as open-source. So check out our paper for free, published here.

Consortium Meeting in Karlsruhe in October 2023

Six months after our project kick-off in Amsterdam, the TWON consortium gathered for its second consortium meeting in Karlsruhe on October 5th and October 6th of 2023. The hosts, FZI and KIT, planned two jam-packed days of workshops, presentations and activities to catch each other up-to-speed on the different developing pieces and work packages comprising TWON.

The TWON consortium in Karlsruhe

We spent the majority of the day on Thursday learning from each other about the progress and challenges of each work package. Thursday morning, Prof. Michael Mäs (KIT) presented his progress on the modelling of TWON based on social network theory and computational sociology, and Simon Münker (University of Trier) layed out his preceding and upcoming work regarding the data collection to estimate our TWON. Krisztian Buza and Abdul Sittar (both JSI) then presented to us their progress on actually building the digital twin of an online social network (OSN), which will be the backbone of the project.

In the afternoon, Sjoerd Stolwijk and Michael Heseltine from the University of Amsterdam presented the metrics they are developing for the evaluation of democratic debates in OSNs. They also gave their insights on how they will be examining the impact of filter bubbles and disinformation campaigns on opinion dynamics and the spread of disinformation. Collectively, we then brainstormed ideas on how to best implement the case studies. We ended the day with a delicious dinner at Il Caminetto in Karlsruhe.

The consortium brainstorms case study implementation

On Friday, our work mostly revolved around the question of how to communicate our results with the public and specific stakeholders, and how to disseminate findings effectively in the scientific community. Jonas Fegert (FZI) kicked us off with a presentation of the strategies developed by the FZI-led work package on dissemination activities, and presented strategies for reaching citizens, social actors, stakeholders and politicians at different levels and through different channels. We subsequently broke out into groups to garner feedback from the consortium members – each contributing to the workshop by providing their own unique scholarly, regional, and personal perspectives.

Dr. Jonas Fegert presents the dissemination strategy

The consortium meeting ended on a high note, namely the Renaissance 3.0 exhibition at Karlsruhe’s Center for Art and Media (ZKM). The exhibition – all about the interconnectivity of research, artistry, and their social impacts – was an inspiration to the consortium, and we left Karlsruhe ready to hit new milestones in our work packages. The next consortium meeting will take place in Trier in March of 2023 – until then, make sure to follow us on Twitter and Mastodon and check our blog for updates on the progress of the project.

The consortium at ZKM Karlsruhe

We got started!

In April of 2023, our international consortium – comprised of eight partner institutions from various European countries – gathered to mark the launch of TWON in Amsterdam. The project will use digital twins of social networks to explore the impact of social media platform mechanisms, such as content filtering or personalization, on democratic debates.

Hosted by the University of Amsterdam, we were able to get a productive head start on the project. Over the course of three days, we begun mapping out the work in various work packages, identified potential challenges and tapped into our collective wisdom in beginning this highly complex research undertaking.

The members of our consortium returned to their respective countries with lifted spirits, and are looking forward to reunite for our second consortial meeting in Karlsruhe in October of 2023. Check out our press release for more details on TWON and the people behind it.