August 10, 2022

Meta Research PhD Fellowship Spotlight: Improving social media experiences using computational social science

By: Meta Research

Each year, PhD students from around the world apply for the Meta PhD Fellowship, a program designed to encourage and support doctoral students engaged in innovative and relevant research in areas related to computer science and engineering.

As a continuation of our Fellowship spotlight series, we’re highlighting Manoel Horta Ribeiro, a 2021 Meta PhD Fellow in computational social science.

Manoel is a PhD student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, working with Robert West. His research draws on a diverse methodological toolkit to characterize troublesome online phenomena and to assess how moderation policies and recommendation algorithms can be leveraged to improve online information ecosystems.

Manoel was drawn to computational social science because he believes it has the potential to produce positive change in the world. His goal is to conduct research that will make social media safer, healthier, and more kind. “Social media is changing our lives,” says Manoel. “And I believe that to improve it, we need to better understand how design decisions, recommender systems, and moderation practices shape the way we all behave there.”

As an avid social media user, Manoel himself would directly benefit from his research. When he was a teenager, he was an admin of a large Adobe Photoshop forum, which might have inspired the research he would eventually pursue.

Manoel applied for a summer internship with the Meta Core Data Science (CDS) team and the Meta Research PhD Fellowship at the same time and was accepted into both programs. For the CDS internship, he studied how post approvals change the way moderators manage online groups, and he found that whenever post approvals are turned on, there are fewer moderation-related events (e.g., reported or deleted posts). For the PhD Fellowship, Manoel developed a project alongside his mentor that examined the effects of deplatforming, or the act of removing an individual or a group from a platform to boycott them from sharing information or ideas. Being part of both programs empowered Manoel to think more holistically about his research and approach to problem-solving.

“I wondered if it was truly effective to ban people from communities and websites,” says Manoel. “When troublesome actors, communities, or websites get banned, they do not simply disappear. They may instead migrate somewhere else. That’s why I’m conducting observational studies to understand what happened after prominent communities and websites got banned. Hopefully, my analysis can inform stakeholders about the best ways to proceed in the future.”

Manoel also studies how different content creation platforms apply policies to reward creators and recommend content. By examining how groups are monitored to maintain community health, he hopes to provide actionable, evidence-based research that will help decision-makers in the industry and in government draft policies for social media and online spaces.

Manoel’s community involvement also expands beyond online spaces. He cares deeply about connecting researchers in Brazil, his home country, with institutions and fellowship opportunities.

“Applying for PhD programs abroad was daunting,” says Manoel. “So, I have started an initiative to support other Brazilians who wish to apply for positions abroad, giving them feedback about their application materials and overall guidance from Brazilian mentors. I got this opportunity by chance, so I want to give back and give others chances too.”

Following his fellowship and internship, Manoel hopes to collaborate more with Meta in the future. In the meantime, he will be studying social media communities, mentoring Brazilian researchers, and hiking in the Swiss Alps near his university.

Read more about Manoel and his research here.