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The Ethics of Content Labeling: Examining New Approaches for Social Media and Online Platforms

The primary aim of this project is to provide robust social and ethical analysis and evaluation of different approaches to online content labeling. The project’s central research question is: How can online social media platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, meet the needs and demands of society in terms of labeling informational content in an ethical and effective way? The project includes a focus on labeling to address scientific misinformation related to COVID-19, as well as a focus on how best to incorporate fact-checking into labeling efforts. The project draws on knowledge gained from current attempts at online content labeling in general, as well as from strong analogs to content labeling, such as in library sciences and food labeling. The project incorporates international, cross-cultural perspectives and the views of global researchers. Overall, this project will provide a framework for identifying best practices in online content labeling, as well as for identifying considerations that need to be addressed in order for different approaches to be successful from both ethical and efficacy perspectives. Support for this project comes from Northeastern’s Office of the Provost and Facebook, Inc.


Prof. John Wihbey, Lead Investigator, Associate Professor of Media Innovation

Prof. Don Fallis, Professor of Philosophy and Computer Science

Prof. Kay Mathiesen, Associate Professor of Philosophy

Prof. Ronald Sandler, Professor of Philosophy, Director, Ethics Institute

Dr. Briony Swire-Thompson, Research Scientist, Network Science Institute

Dania Alnahdi (BS in Computer Science & Design)

Gabriela Compagni (BS in Philosophy, Minor in Data Science)

Garrett Morrow (PhD in Political Science)

Jessica Montgomery Polny (MS in Media Advocacy)

Nicholas Miklaucic (BS in Data Science & Behavioral Neuroscience)

Roberto Patterson (MS in Media Advocacy)


Dr. Matthew Kopec, Associate Director, Ethics Institute


Gabriela Compagni

Analyzing how the news media cover the topic of content moderation and labeling, as well as how the public absorbs and spreads this coverage, can provide important insights into whether the interests and concerns of news producers line up with those of the public . In this study, we used the open-source analytical platform Media Cloud to filter thousands of news stories using targeted keywords relating to content moderation, and then searched for common links among articles, such as popular phrases, people, corporate entities, or themes. In tandem with this examination, we assessed the extent to which the news content was viewed by the public and shared on social media, and guaged the public’s interest in the topic over time. Our results should be of interest to corporate policy makers, researchers, and regulators along at least two dimensions. First there is a substantial difference between what aspects of content moderation and labeling seem important to news producers (measured by media  inlinks to articles) and what seems important to news consumers (measured by number of e.g., Facebook shares). Second, examining keywords that appear most often across content moderation news stories, such as “misinformation” and “removal,” provides further insights into what concerns are salient to the public. It’s possible that an over-reliance on news coverage has been causing stakeholders in the content moderation game to misjudge what really matters to the public, in which case our examination could help content moderators to better align their efforts with public concerns.

Dr. Briony Swire-Thomson & Nicholas Miklaucic

The backfire effect is when a correction increases an individual’s belief in the misconception and is often used as a reason not to correct misinformation. The current study aimed to test whether correcting misinformation backfires more than a no-correction control, and whether item-level differences in backfire rates were associated with (1) measurement error or (2) theoretically-meaningful attributes related to worldview and familiarity. In two near identical studies we conducted a longitudinal pre/post study with 920 participants from Prolific Academic. Participants rated 21 misinformation items and 21 facts and were assigned to either a correction condition or test-retest control. We found that no item backfired more in the correction condition compared to test-retest control or initial belief rating. Item backfire rates were strongly correlated with item reliability and did not correlate with importance/worldview. Familiarity and backfire rate were significantly negatively correlated, though familiarity was highly correlated with reliability.

Prof. John Wihbey, Garrett Morrow, Prof. Myojung Chung, Dr. Mike Peacey

Link to the report:

Social media companies have increasingly been using labeling strategies to identify, highlight, and mark content that may be problematic in some way but not sufficiently violating to justify removing it. Such labeling strategies, which are now being used by most major social platforms, present a host of new challenges and questions. This report, based on a national survey conducted in the U.S. in summer 2021 (N = 1,464), provides new insights into public preferences around social media company policy and interventions in the media environment. It is often assumed that there are highly polarized views about content moderation. However, we find relatively strong, bipartisan support for the basic strategy and general goals of labeling.

Prof. John P. Wihbey & Jessica Montgomery Polny

This archive presents a comprehensive overview of social media platform labeling strategies for moderating user-generated content. We examine how visual, textual, and user-interface elements have evolved as technology companies have attempted to inform users on misinformation, harmful content, and more. We study policy implementation across eight major social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, TikTok, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. This archive allows for comparison of different content labeling methods and strategies, starting when platforms first implemented labeling tactics, through the early months of 2021. We evaluate policy response to real-world events and the degree of friction labels have against user interaction with harmful content. This archive also serves as an appendix to other Ethics of Content Labeling publications.

See the archive’s project page overview. Individual platform links:




Prof. John Wihbey, Dr. Matthew Kopec & Prof. Ronald Sandler

Social media platforms have been rapidly increasing the number of informational labels they are appending to user-generated content in order to indicate the disputed nature of messages or to provide context. The rise of this practice constitutes an important new chapter in social media governance, as companies are often choosing this new “middle way” between a laissez-faire approach and more drastic remedies such as removing or downranking content. Yet information labeling as a practice has, thus far, been mostly tactical, reactive, and without strategic underpinnings. In this paper, we argue against defining success as merely the curbing of misinformation spread. The key to thinking about labeling strategically is to consider it from an epistemic perspective and to take as a starting point the “social” dimension of online social networks. The strategy we articulate emphasizes how the moderation system needs to improve the epistemic position and relationships of platform users — i.e., their ability to make good judgements about the sources and quality of the information with which they interact on the platform — while also appropriately respecting sources, seekers, and subjects of information. A systematic and normatively grounded approach can improve content moderation efforts by providing clearer accounts of what the goals are, how success should be defined and measured, and where ethical considerations should be taken into consideration. We consider implications for the policies of social media companies, propose new potential metrics for success, and review research and innovation agendas in this regard.

Garrett Morrow, Dr. Briony Swire-Thomson,  Jessica Montgomery Polny, Dr. Matthew Kopec & Prof. John Wihbey

There is a toolbox of content moderation options available to online platforms such as labeling, algorithmic sorting, and removal. A content label is a visual and/or textual attachment to a piece of user-generated content intended to contextualize that content for the viewer. Examples of content labels are fact-checks or additional information. At their essence, content labels are simply information about information. If a social media platform decides to label a piece of content, how does the current body of social science inform the labeling practice? Academic research into content labeling is nascent, but growing quickly; researchers have already made strides toward understanding labeling best practices to deal with issues such as misinformation, conspiracy theories, and misleading content that may affect everything from voting to personal health. We set aside normative or ethical questions of labeling practice, and instead focus on surfacing the literature that can inform and contextualize labeling effects and consequences. This review of a kind of “emerging science” summarizes the labeling literature to date, highlights gaps for future research, and discusses important considerations for social media platforms. Specifically, this paper discusses the particulars of content labels, their presentation, and the effects of various label formats and characteristics. The current literature can help guide the usage and improvement of content labels on social media platforms and inform public debate and policy over platform moderation.


Roberto Patterson & Prof. John Wihbey

We conduct interviews with academics, journalists, fact checkers, and activists from countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Through this podcast series, we aim to add nuance to debates over social media content moderation that rarely appear in the mostly US-focused discourse on misinformation. We hope that by hearing from varied global voices, we can provide a deeper understanding of the problems and externalities associated with multinational companies that provide platforms for discourse.

Garrett Morrow & Gabriela Compagni

Local news sources in the United States have been dwindling for years. Although newsrooms are shrinking, the American public generally trust their local news sources. Crisis events like the COVID-19 pandemic are circumstances where people are actively searching for information and some of what they will find will inevitably be misinformation given the volume of misinformation being created and the affordances of social media services that encourage viral spread. It is critical to understand if local news is spreading misinformation or acting as a cross-cutting information source. This study uses local news data from a media aggregator and mixed methods to analyze the relationship between local news and misinformation. Findings suggest that local news sources are serving as cross-cutting information sources but occasionally reinforce misinformation. We also find a worrying increase of anti-mask stories and accompanying decrease of pro-mask stories after a mask mandate is enacted.

Prof. John Wihbey & Garrett Morrow

For over a century, the metaphor of the “Marketplace of Ideas” has been central to Americans’ conceptualization of the First Amendment. However, while the metaphor is an aspirational hope for how Americans want our freedom of expression to work and may have been more applicable to an earlier period in American history, the metaphor does not currently apply to our current environment of information exchange through the medium of the internet and social media. Technological affordances, network structure, and human behavior affect the social conditions online, and in turn, limit the usefulness of treating the interactions as a marketplace. Furthermore, the unsuitability of the marketplace metaphor poorly frames society’s discussion of how content should be moderated online. In this paper, we describe why Justice Holmes Jr.’s metaphor is out-of-date and argue for its replacement with a new model that reflects the contemporary online, networked informational environment. Additionally, we point to how better to conceptualize content moderation in light of the new model.

Tackling misinformation: What researchers could do with social media data

  • with Dr. Briony Swire-Thomson and Prof. John Wihbey as collaborators

Designing Solutions to Misinformation, CfD Conversations 03

  • Moderated by Prof. John Wihbey with Roberto Patterson as contributor

More Stories

The Evolution of Social Media Content Labeling: An Online Archive


Newsworthiness in Content Moderation: Using Media Cloud to Look at Patterns of Attention


Ethics Institute Study Finds Broad Bipartisan Support For Social Media ‘Labeling’ to Counter Misinformation, Problematic Speech