Scanning Social Networks to Understand Political Polarisation and Fake News


The outcomes of the EPO-WG project, funded by CIVICA Research, do not end with the study of political polarisation in Europe; a new network of computational social scientists is also emerging.

Computational social science is a discipline aimed at taking advantage of the wealth of data available in the digital world to study social phenomena through cutting-edge methods of data science, statistics and theoretical computer science. 

Along with the scholars from Bocconi, Sciences Po and CEU who are developing CIVICA Research's European Polarisation Observatory Working Group (EPO-WG) research project, a multidisciplinary network of European researchers is blooming, bringing new life to the young discipline. “Two important steps forward were taken in February,” says Nicolò Cavalli, an assistant professor at Bocconi's Department of Social and Political Sciences who is among the promoters of EPO-WG. “In a seminar organized by the Data Science section of CIVICA Research, Aniko Hannak of the University of Zurich spoke about the critical aspects of algorithms and showed how their use can disadvantage women on job search platforms online, but the group's finest achievement was the first Conference on European Polarisation, on February 15. Only a fraction of the 18 speakers are already part of EPO-WG, a testament to the fact that we are achieving our goal of creating a new multidisciplinary network.” 

“The conference was a success exceeding our expectations. We received many high-quality contributions from all over Europe and the United States. More than 250 participants registered for the event, and the day was packed with riveting presentations and discussions. There is definitely a lot of interest and a new scientific community is emerging around this topic,” says Pedro Ramaciotti Morales of Sciences Po, Principal Investigator of EPO-WG, speaking on behalf of the entire organizing committee. 

Among the important papers presented at the conference were works by Bocconi researchers, particularly regarding public opinion during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among them, Duilio Balsamo presented an analysis of the pro- and anti-vax debates on the popular social media Reddit (with Alessia Melegaro and Jakob Schlierf), while Vytenis Deimantas showed the results of an exploration, conducted together with Yuxi Wang, on the success of conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 originating from YouTube. These valuable contributions in the first Conference on European Polarisation stood alongside many projects analyzing political and opinion polarisation as an emerging and specifically European phenomenon, also exploiting the wealth of possibilities offered by digital data. 

EPO-WG's method of analysis, developed by Pablo Barberà for the United States, allows for estimating citizens' political positioning based on the politicians they follow on social networks – Twitter alone in the case of EPO-WG. “The method has been extended to Europe, although it is more complex to apply there because of the multiple dimensions along which political systems in Europe polarise, with a plurality of parties and greater ideological heterogeneity. However, the project has already collected data from several countries, including France, Italy and the United Kingdom, and we are beginning to study ideological patterns and trajectories over time,” Prof. Cavalli explains. 

One of the key fields of observation of the project is the political polarization through different generations. Early data collected on Twitter suggest that political polarisation is slightly higher among young adults (the 24-35 age group) as they begin to consume political information more regularly. 

“Using this data,” Prof. Cavalli continues, “we can also study the ideological profile of those who most often share news that has been shown to be fake. We have noticed that the tendency to share on Twitter links to articles classified as fake news is greater for those at the farther ends of both the right/left and pro-elite/anti-elite dimensions. In Italy, the situation is slightly different due to the presence of an anti-elite but ideologically median quadrant, associated with 5 Star Movement voters.” 

The work is ongoing, not only to continue with the analysis of the data already collected, but more importantly to establish a solid methodological basis. The study of social problems in this age involves a great amount of data available to scholars that must be turned into a research opportunity rather than an obstacle to their interpretation. 

CIVICA Research brings together researchers from eight leading European social science universities in the to contribute knowledge and solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. The project aims to strengthen the research & innovation pillar of CIVICA, the European University alliance. CIVICA Research is co-funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. To stay up to date with CIVICA Research developments and opportunities, subscribe to the newsletter.  

Written by Fabio Todesco (Bocconi University). 

Photo source: istock images.