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SFU researchers receive over $6 million to tackle online disinformation, foster data fluencies

June 23, 2022

Simon Fraser University has received $6.22 million (CAD) from the Mellon Foundation to support an effort to counter the impacts of discriminatory online misinformation and algorithms, and foster more just and equitable futures.

The funding from the U.S.-based foundation will go towards a multi-faceted, multi-institutional three-year Data Fluencies Project aimed at exploring, analyzing and taking action against mis- and disinformation that threaten democracy, and undermine our ability to form complete and accurate narratives about our shared humanity. 

“This is really impactful and wonderful, because it allows us to fund graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and other early researchers—to give them the time and space to work on these problems,” says Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, the Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media, director of SFU’s Digital Democracy Institute and principal investigator.

“One of the reasons I took up the Canada 150 Research Chair at SFU was because it was a wonderful opportunity to make a difference," says Chun, a professor in SFU's School of Communication in the Faculty of Communication, Arts and Technology (FCAT). "The goal was to make Canada a center for this kind of research so that Canadians don’t have to go abroad—in fact, people come to Canada in order to take on the hard problems that face us. The Mellon Foundation grant makes this possible, and we’re thrilled and grateful to be part of the many projects they are funding to create more just futures.”

In addition to researching the impacts of misinformation and the way social media algorithms currently influence discourse and what is “true” on the internet, the project will also focus on public engagement and education, with free night school courses on data fluency, art exhibits, performances, and technology and media development projects planned to expand whose voices matter and how they do.

“A lot of social media analysis right now is being done by the social media companies—it’s basically surveillance. They’re tracking behaviours and focusing on getting you to click more,” says Chun. “So, if we don’t want that kind of world, this destruction of our common world into agitated clusters of comforting rage, everyone needs to be involved in deciding what we’re going to do about it.

“We need to do this because, as many people have noted, the world is a bit of a trash fire right now. It’s too easy to either blame the internet for everything or seek technical solutions to our political problems—what’s important is for us to all work together towards a world that we want.”

According to the project’s overview, discriminatory mis- and disinformation make many social media feeds and much of the Internet “deep fake” versions of reality, therefore threatening our ability to tell truthful, nuanced and complex stories about our past, present and future.

Chun says left unchecked, mis- and disinformation and the current algorithmic solutions to them—which reduce the future to the past and thus often automate, rather than learn from, past mistakes—make it impossible for us to form complete and accurate narratives about our shared humanity, and undermine the dialogue necessary for a robust democracy.

The aim of developing data fluencies

The SFU team—which also includes SFU professors Gillian Russell and Karrmen Crey and researchers at the University of Canterbury, York University, Emerson College, the University of Kentucky, the University of Southern California and the Social Science Research Council—proposes to explore, analyze and counter the impacts of mis- and disinformation on cultural diversity by developing expansive and interdisciplinary data fluencies.

Moving beyond literacy, data fluencies combine the interpretative traditions of the arts and humanities with critical work in the data sciences to express, imagine and create innovative engagements with, and resistances to, our data-filled world.

This will involve bringing together groups largely working in parallel, non-intersecting tracks: social-justice-oriented research and pedagogy in the arts and humanities and similarly focused computational work; Indigenous media studies researchers and intersectional technology developers; arts-based data literacy efforts and data science curricular development.

The project will cultivate the next generation of end-users, innovators, humanists and critical thinkers so that they might create technologies that tell more diverse stories, increase equitable access and allow for more just and equitable futures.

Researchers also hope to inspire new modes of civic engagement fit for the contemporary moment through college-level courses and graduate fellowships, and by working with and through contemporary media that are having outsized impacts on public knowledge, such as content moderation systems, and gaming and video platforms.

“The point isn’t to simply get to a place where algorithms are more just and more fair but rather to the point where the way we use algorithms and think about technology in our lives are because we’re part of civically engaged and diverse publics—where multivocality is both privileged and protected—an essential bedrock for a truly democratic future,” says Chun.

The Digital Democracies Institute at Simon Fraser University houses diverse 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.

Established in 1969, the Mellon Foundation seeks to build just communities through grants in arts and culture, higher learning, humanities in place and public knowledge.