An Interdisciplinary Approach to Technology and Democracy

With an interdisciplinary background in engineering and English literature, Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication professor and Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is breaking down barriers across disciplines to solve some the most pressing communication issues of our time—hostile online interactions, fake news and echo chambers. Her research at SFU investigates and develops alternative network models, creating methods for addressing abusive language online by generating counter speech and creating opportunities for engagement.

Chun’s research focuses on developing algorithms to determine how to create effective counter speech to conflict and dissent—a key part of the democratic process. Drawing from the work of natural language processing researchers, political theorists, and anti-cyber-bullying advocates, Chun’s team creates methods to turn hostile speech into more productive discussions. “Rethinking the basis for connection is also central to combating the spread of fake news,” says Chun. “Instead of focusing on extreme moments, our research will analyze and engage the complexity and majority of human expression to build alternate models of interactivity and engagement.”

Chun believes the Internet doesn’t have to be polarizing and adversarial. Her research is helping to answer questions about equality and justice, how to create methods to address abusive language and cyber bullying online, and how data analysis can combat the spread of fake news.

"Increasingly, in order to understand the impact of new media—and to help imagine a different future—I have also been turning back to engineering and trying to create bridges between STEM and the humanities. In order to address the pressing problems before us, we need unusual and vibrant coalitions".

Chun's work spans the fields of media archaeology, digital humanities, and critical race theory, as well as new media, gender and sexuality, science & technology, critical data & science, and technology studies.

Seeking to bring together concepts in the humanities and STEM, Chun applied for PhD programs in English during her final year in engineering. “When I started as an undergraduate in systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo, I always intended to take courses in English literature as well,” says Chun. “The Montreal Massacre, which occurred in my second year, convinced me to start taking courses in the humanities because I needed answers to questions about the world around me that engineering could not provide.” In graduate school, Chun decided to research the Internet and began to think about the similarities and differences between key concepts in the humanities and engineering, such as “control,” “freedom” and “program.”

The Digital Democracies Institute

In addition, Chun leads the Digital Democracies Institute at SFU, which serves as an innovation hub for collaborative research projects that foster critical, democratic uses of data analyses and machine learning. The group consists of a diverse range of scholars and stakeholders from around the world who collaborate across disciplines, schools, industry, and public sectors to research and create vibrant democratic technologies and cultures.

The evolution of technology has altered how information is processed, with globalization enabling education and technological advancement. However, we are also falling prey to negative issues associated with technology, including privacy violation, disinformation, radicalization, echo chambers, and abusive language. This makes the interdisciplinary study of online polarization and abuse, discriminatory algorithms, and mis/disinformation increasingly important. The Digital Democracies Institute aims to bridge divides through interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge mobilization.

“Working with the many centers of excellence at SFU in the areas of big data and engaging communities and civil society, we will help develop the coalitions necessary for producing innovative approaches to digital democracy,” says Chun. The institute aims to support SFU as a global leader in the field of humanities and data sciences, create new opportunities for faculties to build connections with not-for-profit organizations and expand global collaborations.

Housed at SFU’s School of Communication, the Digital Democracies Institute is a hub for data collaboration on social media research, hosting and maintaining an advanced research computing infrastructure that can accommodate the shared needs of SFU’s affiliates and international collaborators, and provide a stable and reliable environment for digital social sciences research.

“We want to rethink the relationship between technology and democracy and work towards how technology can be part of a holistic solution to combat polarization,” says Chun. “Our long-term goal is to combat the proliferation of online polarization, abusive language, and discriminatory algorithms by producing alternative data literacies and paradigms for connection.”

“We need to build unusual coalitions across disciplines, schools, industry and the public in order to create vibrant democratic technologies and cultures.”

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