UMSI team encouraging variety in online news

For online news consumers who feel they are stuck in a rut, consistently absorbing the same views and commentary from the same sources over and over again, UMSI Professor Paul Resnick and his research team may have found a solution. In order to broaden a reader’s exposure to more diverse resources and perspectives, the researchers have developed an application that will provide users with links to other articles on the same topic they are reading about, written by alternate news sources. 

The application, called ManyAngles, is currently available as a free Google Chrome extension and is intended to provide greater balance and more thorough coverage than a reader would typically receive through his or her own news consumption habits. The extension detects the topic of the article that the user is reading and then produces recommendations for that topic.

“It is designed to help people explore and go deeper into a story,” said Souneil Park, a UMSI post-doctoral research fellow who worked on the project to develop ManyAngles. “It will give different perspectives, context and background on the story that the user is reading.”

When a user visits a news website, the extension queries a giant news topic data server and presents different accounts of the story gathered from approximately 20,000 news sites and blogs ranging from large publications like the New York Times and Washington Post to many other sites with international, local or niche focuses.

Park said the research group is currently targeting a field study to determine if using ManyAngles does in fact help people to increase the diversity of their news sources. Although the team doesn’t have a control group, the application allows them to gather information on a user’s previous visits to the news sites contained in the server’s database. 

The application collects readers’ browsing visits to only the designated news sites found on the server in order to provide more accurate suggestions and allow users to keep track of their coverage; it does not collect any personal information or outside browsing history. The results gathered after the user installs the application and is exposed to the suggestions will allow the researchers to determine the application’s effectiveness in encouraging people to seek more diverse sources.

ManyAngles was developed through research from Resnick’s BALANCE project, which focuses on measuring diversity in news and opinion aggregators and finding ways to encourage people to expose themselves to different perspectives. The project previously developed the Balancer application, which analyzed web browsing to show users the political slant of their reading history. 

ManyAngles expands this idea beyond political affiliations by offering suggestions on a wide range of topics that include technology, health, business and other areas in order to give readers well-rounded viewpoints on a myriad of subjects. Park said that ManyAngles doesn’t classify stories as “conservative” or “liberal,” nor does it apply any other political or social labels. The computer algorithm that is responsible for making the suggestions is designed to merely provide stories that it thinks are different.

“We’re not pushing people to come to the middle, nor do we mind if people change their positions or not, but being able to communicate with other people about ideas they weren’t previously exposed to would be valuable,” Park said. “It helps people to find common ground and do more outside-the-box thinking.”

Resnick and his team are currently gathering data and usage statistics from roughly 90 ManyAngles users. In order to obtain more comprehensive research results and further develop the application, they are seeking a few hundred more participants to install the browser extension through the Chrome Web Store. 

 Posted on Wednesday, November 6, 2013