Tackling the online world’s biggest challenges

A collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to analyzing social media and building digital democracy

The assumption that people prefer to associate with others who are similar, in network design leads to online “echo chambers.” As online communities become more homogeneous, internet platforms amplify gender and racial biases, and exacerbate social and economic inequalities.

Photo: Jihyun Park (courtesy of the Digital Democracies Institute)

Social media is a haven for abusive language, discriminatory algorithms, mis/disinformation and echo chambers—issues that persist because there’s not enough collaboration between disciplines that research how digital media are created and consumed. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media at Simon Fraser University (SFU), aims to change this by combining insights from the humanities with data science. She hopes to turn hostile exchanges into productive dialogues and create better ways for people to connect online.

“We’re bringing together people from many disciplines: humanities researchers, social scientists, computer and information scientists,” she explains. “The people who typically wouldn’t speak to each other are now working together to create innovative strategies to take on the hard issues facing the online world.”

Collaboration for digital democracy

Chun realized the need for interdisciplinary collaboration while working on a proposal for a big data initiative for Brown University in Rhode Island in the United States. She was the chair of the Department of Modern Culture and Media; her colleagues were from computer science and biostatistics.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Why are we here? What problems can’t we solve unless we work together?’”

That spirit of collaboration is at the heart of the Digital Democracies Institute (DDI), which Chun founded at SFU after returning to Canada in 2018. Alongside Chun and Associate Director Svitlana Matviyenko, the DDI team comprises 20 SFU faculty members, two postdoctoral researchers and more than a dozen graduate and undergraduate students, in addition to researchers and faculty from affiliated universities worldwide.

Members of the Digital Democracies Institute, summer 2022.

Photo: Digital Democracies Institute

The DDI’s research initially focused on four streams. Beyond Verification: Authenticity and the Spread of Mis/Disinformation investigated the centrality of authenticity and trust to the spread of “fake news.” From Hate to Agonism: Fostering Democratic Exchange Online explored how artificial intelligence can better foster democracy and commitments to human rights and multiculturalism. Desegregating Network Neighbourhoods identifies causes of echo chambers, while Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition reveals the centrality of race, gender and sexuality to data analytics and machine learning.

In summer 2022, the team began work on the Data Fluency Project, funded by the Mellon Foundation, which brings all four streams together in a project that will also involve partners in Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand.

Respect for social media users

One focus for the project will be to examine how social media platforms build models of user behaviour. Chun says the metrics social media companies use to build user profiles—such as tracking user clicks and likes—do not reflect the fullness of the users’ true selves. She adds that, on platforms like Instagram, users create curated images of themselves—so, to better understand how users engage on social media as characters and actors, her team will mix data science with theatre and performance studies.

The project will also look at how machine learning algorithms are trained, and how they can be improved for Black, Indigenous and 2SLGBTQ+ communities. Because these algorithms are trained with past, often biased, data, when applied to social media content moderation systems, they can reinforce the discrimination faced by these groups, or censor their voices.

“If we reduce the future to the past, we won’t learn from past mistakes,” says Chun. “We’ll just repeat and automate them.”

Learning together

Another aspect of the project emphasizes community engagement and co-research with the public. In collaboration with Kishonna Gray at the University of Kentucky, the DDI aims to bring more diverse voices to video games, through workshops on game development for disadvantaged groups in Appalachia. The games emerging from the workshops will be showcased at exhibitions in Vancouver, Boston and Kentucky, alongside a digital art performance.

In addition to her work with the DDI, Chun contributes to policy recommendations from the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression. She has also provided advice to the United Nations High Panel on Internet Governance. It’s part of her efforts to promote Canada as a global centre for media research.

“We’re helping to create the next generation. We’re giving our students tools and resources not previously available in Canada, so they can take on these important issues—and become world leaders in this work.”

Want to learn more?

Follow Wendy Hui Kyong Chun on Twitterand visit the Digital Democracies Institute.