Wendy Hui Kyong Chun joins SFU to hold the Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media.


SFU celebrates arrival of new media expert and Canada 150 Research Chair

January 10, 2019

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has just arrived at Simon Fraser University as a prestigious Canada 150 Research Chair. She will hold the Chair in New Media, in the School of Communication.

Chun plans to create methods for addressing abusive language online by generating counter speech and creating opportunities for engagement. She will lead and work with the Digital Democracies Group—a new group at SFU—to integrate research in the humanities and data sciences to address questions of equality and social justice. One of Chun’s many research goals is to build unusual coalitions across disciplines, schools, industry and the public in order to create vibrant democratic technologies and cultures.

SFU News spoke with Chun about her research and how she feels about officially being a Canada 150 Research Chair at SFU.

How does it feel to arrive at SFU as one of two Canada 150 Research Chairs?

I’m excited to be joining SFU as a Canada 150 Research Chair. The university has an excellent tradition in the field of communication, especially in terms of social justice and critical engagement, and I am honoured to be able to help shape its future.

How was your experience attending the Canada 150 Research Chair ceremony in Ottawa?

The ceremony captured the enthusiasm and support for the C150 program in Ottawa, and meeting the Minister and all the other chairs registered the scope of the program. My parents came to the announcement ceremony, which made the experience even more memorable. In the talk I gave at the ceremony, I relayed both my personal and professional journey. When my parents first arrived in Canada in the 1970s, they worked constantly to support us. To keep me busy, they gave me a bicycle and a library card, and those two things influenced my life profoundly. From the bicycle, I learned to love machines, movement and engineering; from reading, I gained new worlds and perspectives. In my speech I also talked about how the Montreal Massacre—which took place during my time as an undergraduate—convinced me to embark on a double major in engineering and English literature. I turned to the humanities for answers that engineering could not give me. Increasingly now, working in the field of new media, my work explores how the Internet is changing society, politics and culture. I’ve been looking back to engineering to solve the hard problems that face us now. From bias in artificial intelligence, to the angry echo chambers that threaten our democracy, we need vibrant and unusual connections across all disciplines, across all sectors.

What do you hope to accomplish at the university during your first year?

My main priority is to get the Digital Democracies Group going and to start the following three projects:

1.     To redress the proliferation of dis-information. Many studies show that verification is important, but not enough—corrections don’t often reach the same audience as the initial incorrect story and people often don’t believe or trust the corrections. To investigate why and how people find certain stories true and compelling, our group will explore how social media is threaded into our lives; how our actions are authenticated and channelled; how we groom our online persona; and how online advertising models foster outrage.

2.     To create new network structures that respect differences and democratic exchange. Currently, recommendation engines and network science assume that connections stem from similarity that is homophily—love as love of the same. Although homophily does account for some phenomena, it also inadvertently creates and amplifies echo chambers by clustering users into neighborhoods based on their intense likes and dislikes. To rectify this situation, the Digital Democracy Group will prototype models that are built on heterophily (love of the different), less affectively charged similarities, and mutual indifference.

3.     To combat abusive language online by fostering counter speech and creating opportunities for engagement.

I have also already started recruiting post-docs and post-graduate assistants.

What does being a Canada 150 Research Chair mean to you?

Returning to Canada and doing this research means the world to me. In 1992, I went to Princeton to get a PhD in English Literature because I was told that if I wanted to be a professor in Canada, I had to leave. I have enjoyed my time in the U.S. and in the Ivy Leagues. I was a professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown for 19 years, and I have also taught at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. I am thrilled to finally be returning to Canada, and I hope—given these chairs and the other ways Canada is supporting higher education—that Canadian students won’t have to go abroad in order to come home.

Learn more about Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and the Digital Democracies Group at www.sfu.ca/digital-democracies.