Innovation Heroes: How IT can help stop the rise of disinformation
Using the power of data, AI, and machine learning to help crack one of today’s most vexing digital challenges

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The Information Age is starting to feel like it’s missing a prefix.

Disinformation seems to be proliferating at unprecedented rate, as social media captures more of our attention, media consumption, and democratic dialogue. What to do about it — and who is responsible for reigning it in — are just two of the essential questions being hashed out through policy makers, boardrooms, and whistleblowers.

So, what does this have to do with IT? And what lessons can SHI readers glean from the debate? Lots, it turns out.

On the latest episode of Innovation Heroes, podcast host Ed McNamara meets up with a pre-eminent researcher of online harassment, disinformation, and misinformation. Alexandra Pavliuc, a doctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, has gained a semi-viral reputation for her data visualizations and use of machine learning to make sense of an increasingly complex and murky topic. Notably, she’s uncovered how Russian bots are fueling pandemic chaos and how online trolls target female political figures, such as Kamala Harris.

Along the way she’s underscoring some of the unintended consequences of the largest, most popular innovations on the web — and using hard, analytical evidence to guide policy makers and private companies forward.

Her work couldn’t be more urgent, she says, as the rise of disinformation can have a devastating effect on our public sphere. She uses targeted online abuse of female politicians as an example:

“If people are targeted more with this type of disinformation abuse and they choose to, you know, decide it’s not worth continuing with. There’s been examples of that where members of parliament decide, “You know what? I’ve had enough of all of this abuse I get offline and online,” and they step away,” she says on the podcast.

But getting a handle on who is behind the abuse and what to do about it is another problem altogether. Pavliuc says her use of network analysis tools has enabled researchers to shed light on the origins of the problem.

“Network analysis and network visualization really helps study the relationships between things, the relationships between people, mapping out who’s talking to who, who’s interacting with who,”  she says. “The thing I really love about it is it lets you see the bird’s-eye view of an entire data set or situation that you’re trying to understand.”

That’s great advice for anyone in IT looking to wrangle increasingly large sets of data. But how to actually put a stop to online abuse is something that policy makers and private companies will need to take the lead on.

“To put it short and sweet, stop putting profit over safety. The focus needs to remain on making sure that these places are safe for everybody,” she says, reminding everyone in the digital business that design decisions and business models have real consequences on society at large.

To hear the full interview, click play on the player above or listen and subscribe on the podcast platform of your choice.

This episode of innovation Heroes is brought to you by Women in SHI. Visit shi.com/wish to learn more.

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