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“The challenge for news readers was to sort through the morass of true and false news that surrounded them.”
--Lindsay O’Neill; from “Early Modern Friend Requests,” a 2016 USC Dornsife podcast
“[Bots] can sometimes be harmful, for example when they contribute to the spread of unverified information or rumors.”
--Emilio Ferrara; from “The Rise of Social Bots,” in Communications of the ACM, 2016
Two quotes, from two scholars, writing on a similar topic three centuries apart. That is, the concern about the dissemination of [mis]information and influence through social media networks. Professor Emilio Ferrara’s research focuses on social networking of 21st century bots and their powerful role in news, financial, and political influencing. “Social bots,” writes Ferrara, “have been used to infiltrate political discourse, manipulate the stock market,…and spread misinformation.” Professor Lindsay O’Neill looks at much the same in 18th century social networks of letter writing that served as both a solution to the problem of suspect information and a purveyor of it. When explored together, an unexpected intersection appears between bots and letters: they are two species of the same genus—both exist within network economies and share information technology lineages. Professors O’Neill and Ferrara ask comparable questions of their subjects, which overlap in curious and imaginative ways. “Our social networks today,” O’Neill argues, “might not be as different from the social networks of the past as we might think.” Yet social networks of today include bots, which have exponential capacity for malevolence and influence that far exceeds what was happening three centuries ago. Still, similar issues are present in both the early modern and our contemporary era. How you detect, trust, and discern what is true was as important to the early modern letter writer as it is to the social media user today. Trust, both scholars agree, comes from existing human relations. So let’s flesh this all out. To think that folks three centuries ago dealt with similar issues we face today is oddly comforting...or maybe not?
Lindsay O'Neill, Associate Professor (Teaching) of History
My book The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsyvania Press, 2015) explores the way networks formed through letter writing helped bind together an increasing vast British world during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. During this period it became both easier to send a letter, as the postal system expanded, and more necessary, as the British settled across the globe. Understanding how the British used their letters illuminates how they thought about their society and how they navigated their changing geographic and communicative worlds.
Beyond letters, I am also interested in how news flowed and how the British thought about and used the information that surround them. This interest informed my article, “Dealing with Newsmongers: News, Trust, and Letters in the British World, c. 1670-1730,” which came out in the Hunting Library Quarterly in the summer of 2013.
My second project, “Barbarous Country: Delagoan Princes and the British Empire, 1715-1725,” traces the journey of two princes from south east Africa who are sold into slavery, free themselves, end up in London, and manage to manufacture a voyage home. Besides simply being a thrilling tale, the story of these two men and those who become involved with them allow us to question the way we see British global power in the early eighteenth century.
At USC I teach courses on British History ranging from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. I also lead courses that explore the Early Modern World, global expansion and the print revolution. Finally I enjoy teaching a course on historical methodology and the history of history.
Emilio Ferrara, Associate Professor of Communication and Computer Science
Emilio Ferrara is an associate professor of communication and computer science at USC Annenberg and at the USC Viterbi Department of Computer Science. His research focus has been at the intersection between developing theory and methods for network analysis and applying them to study socio-technical systems and information networks. He is concerned with understanding the implications of technology and communication networks on human behavior, and their effects on society at large. His work spans from studying the web and social networks, to collaboration systems and academic networks, from team science to online crowds.
Ferrara has published more than 150 articles on social networks, machine learning and network science that have appeared on venues like the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences and Communications of the ACM. His research is supported by DARPA, IARPA, the Air Force and the Office of Naval Research.