About the Observatory on Social Media

The Observatory on Social Media (OSoMe, pronounced awe•some) is a joint project of the Network Science Institute (IUNI), the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research (CNetS) at the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, and the Media School at Indiana University. The OSoMe mission:

Transform the study of coupled media and technology networks that drive the diffusion of information. Offer access to data and tools to investigate the diffusion of (mis)information, uncover the vulnerabilities of the media ecosystem, and develop methods for increasing the resilience of citizens and democratic systems to manipulation. Train a generation of media professionals, enabling them to employ computational skills for fulfilling the traditional watchdog function of journalism. Our ambition is to position future reporters to uncover newsworthy information that is otherwise invisible to public scrutiny and empower citizens to navigate their way to informed participatory behavior.

Core OSoMe activities

  1. Employ social media data and analytics resources to empower researchers, journalists, and citizens to understand information diffusion, detect misinformation, and evaluate the trustworthiness of new influentials. These resources include a 100+ billion tweet collection and several public data, visualization, machine learning, and literacy tools to study information pollution and manipulation.

  2. Conduct research to understand the cognitive, social, network, and algorithmic factors that make the media landscape vulnerable to manipulation, and design interventions and incentives to mitigate these vulnerabilities. Our research will help news consumers detect coordinated manipulation campaigns and determine the trustworthiness of information and sources, in the absence of reliable intermediaries. The interdisciplinary nature of these efforts is illustrated by collaborations among computer scientists, journalists, physicists, cognitive scientists, political scientists, and sociologists.

  3. Develop new training in support of the journalistic mission, serving the information needs of a democracy in the era of social media. These educational effortswill include new master and certificate programs in data journalism.

Impact

Our research and tools have major societal impact. We were among the first research groups to show how social media can be abused to manipulate public opinion. For example, our work uncovered early evidence of systematic, orchestrated, and widely spread misinformation campaigns based on fake news, astroturf (fake grassroots movements), and social bots. We developed the first widely used bot detection system (BotOrNot, later renamed Botometer). Our work on social bots was featured on the covers of the two top computing publications: IEEE Computer and Communications of the ACM.

Our tools have been used to uncover the roots of political misinformation in investigative pieces on the White Helmets and the pizzagate conspiracy. They have been leveraged in studies of misinformation spreading mechanisms (e.g., studies by Pew and in Science), and disinformation campaigns (e.g., voter suppression bots).

In terms of public policy, our reseach on social bots has been quoted during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with Facebook, Google and Twitter. It is also cited in a bill on bot disclosure introduced in the US Congress by Sen. Feinstein, and in a similar California state law enacted in 2019.

Using computational simulations of agent-based models in conjunction with large scale social media analytics, we have made significant contributions to the understanding of the factors that facilitate the viral spread of information and misinformation in social media: network structure, competition for finite attention, and manipulation by inauthentic accounts such as bots and trolls.

Recognition includes a best paper award at the Web Science Conference, a best poster award at the Conference on Complex Systems, and a best presentation award at the World Wide Web Conference. Our findings are disseminated through prestigious journals including Science (cover), Nature Communications, CACM, Computer, Nature Physics, Neuron, PRL, Nature Scientific Reports; and top international conferences including KDD, WWW, and ICWSM.

Research from this project receives worldwide coverage in hundreds of articles in popular media, including Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, USA Today, CNN, BBC, NPR, The Economist, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Politico, New Scientist, Wired, Science, and Nature.

Our work was featured in episodes of the popular TV shows The Good Wife (deception by social bots) and Homeland (diffusion networks with manipulation by bots).

Our software and data are used in courses on network science and social media. The project has resulted in several open-source software libraries, including Hoaxy and BotSlayer, a mobile app (Fakey), and two patents. IU is licensing our Botometer software. Our visualization software won the WICI Data Challenge from the University of Waterloo.

We train undergraduate students from underrepresented minorities in STEM, as well as many graduate and postdoctoral students. Several former students are now employees at Facebook, Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn.

Support

Lilly logo NSF logo JSMF logo DARPA logo Democracy Fund logo Craig Newmark Philanthropies logo Knight Foundationlogo

The Observatory on Social Media is a joint project of the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, the Media School, and the Network Science Institute at Indiana University. In addition to IU funding, OSoMe is supported by a generous grant by Knight Foundation.

Work on Hoaxy and computational fact-checking is supported by Democracy Fund and Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

Research on social bot detection and computational simulation of online social behavior has been supported in part by DARPA under the SMISC and SocialSim programs.

We gratefully acknowledge support from National Science Foundation award CCF-1101743 (ICES proposal on Meme Diffusion Through Mass Social Media) and James S. McDonnell Foundation complex systems grant on Contagion of Ideas in Online Social Networks, as well as a seed Data to Insight grant from the Lilly Endowment.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agencies.

Team

Filippo Menczer and Alessandro Flammini coordinate this research project at Indiana University and are the Principal Investigators on the Knight Foundation, NSF, JSMF, and Lilly grants.

We acknowledge the collaboration of many researchers. Alessandro Vespignani and Johan Bollen were Co-PIs on the NSF grant. Betsi Grabe, Elaine Monaghan, John Paolillo, and James Shanahan are Co-PIs on the Knight Foundation grant.

The project contributed to the support and training of postdoctoral fellows Diego Fregolente, Ruby Wang, Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia, and Diogo Pacheco; and of many graduate students who were involved in various aspects of the research: Clayton A Davis, Karissa McKelvey, Mark Meiss, Jacob Ratkiewicz, Michael Conover, Lilian Weng, Qian Zhang, Huina Mao, Onur Varol, Azadeh Nematzadeh, Pablo Moriano, Alex Rudnick, Jiayi Zhu, Rachael Filper, Jasleen Kaur, Prashant Shiralkar, Xiaoming Gao, Andrew Younge, Tak-Lon Wu, Pik-Mai Hui, Zeyao Yang, Mihai Avram, Chengcheng Shao, Lei Wang, and Kaicheng Yang as well as undergraduate students Bryce Lewis, Kehontas Rowe, Keychul Chung, Alex Hong, Katreen Boustani, Madison Horvath, and Kyle Yohler.

Several other key collaborators at IU and other institutions contributed to various research thrusts of this project: Emilio Ferrara, Bruno Gonçalves, Przemyslaw Grabowicz, and Luca Aiello. We are greatful to Judy Qiu and Geoffrey Fox for the software and hardware cyberinfrastructure supporting OSoMe. Other collaborators include Nicola Perra, Marton Karsai, Fabio Rojas, Joseph DiGrazia, Chato Castillo, Francesco Bonchi, Rossano Schifanella, Snehal Patil, Emily Metzgar, Luis Rocha, YY Ahn, and Chris Ogan.

Finally, we wish to acknowledge the support of the technical staff of the IU Network Science Instutute: Valentin Pentchev is the OSoMe IT director. Chathuri Peli Kankanamalage, Marc McCarty, Scott McCaulay, Matt Hutchinson, and Ben Serrette contribute to the design, development, deployment, and maintenance of OSoMe infrastructure and tools.