Delving into Disinformation: Harvard students explore disinformation on online platforms during the Assembly Student Fellowship

By Zenzele Best

How do we build long-term solutions to disinformation when emerging technologies constantly change the way information is shared? What frameworks are most useful for describing, understanding, and analyzing disinformation? And who should ultimately be held accountable for the spread of disinformation campaigns on social media platforms?

This spring, the members of the 2020–21 Assembly Student Fellowship cohort continued to explore questions like these, examining how foreign influence operations have evolved since the Cold War, discussing the ways racialized disinformation campaigns can be weaponized as a voter suppression tactic, and learning about technical interventions to online disinformation.

Members of the 2020–21 Assembly Student Fellowship cohort

Assembly students sought to better understand the spread of disinformation on online platforms through small discussion-based “collaboration groups,” which gave Student Fellows the opportunity to engage with each other during the spring semester and pursue deeper work. The groups were loosely organized around three major subtopics: political disinformation, health misinformation, and disinformation frameworks. The array of topics reflected the broad spread of backgrounds and disciplines within the cohort: the nineteen students come from ten schools across Harvard University and study a wide range of subjects, including mathematics, Islamic studies, data science, international relations, and global health.

Seminar series sets the stage

Collaboration group work was informed by the program’s yearlong seminar series, including spring seminars that explored disinformation from sociopolitical, historical, and technical lenses. The sessions opened this spring with Jennifer Nilsen, a fellow for the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center and Naima Green-Riley, a PhD candidate in government at Harvard University leading discussions on media manipulation frameworks and racialized disinformation, respectively. Thomas Rid, Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies joined later in the semester to discuss the history of disinformation and how foreign influence operations have evolved with the emergence of new technologies. He stressed the difficulty of measuring the true impact of disinformation campaigns and the risks of creating “auto-immune responses’’ to disinformation: widely publicizing disinformation campaigns can overemphasize their potential impact, inadvertently amplifying the false information and contributing to the success of adversaries. James Mickens, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, led the cohort’s final seminar on the challenges of verifying the veracity of information online. His recent work aims to help users verify the origin of digital news stories, using technology to provide a tamper-resistant edit history of each digital object in a story.

“The seminar series helped reveal that the issue of disinformation is not exclusive to any one stakeholder alone,” said Assembly Student Fellow Mark Haidar, Kennedy School ’23 and Law School ’23, whose collaboration group focused on disinformation frameworks and solutions. “Rather, disinformation is a whole-of-society issue, and to meaningfully address it will require action and introspection by all of us.”

Sharing questions and learnings from collaboration groups

“Seeing my peers’ work during the final showcase…made me realize how special this fellowship has been and how much the purposeful mix of people across Harvard’s schools, backgrounds, and identities made our work possible. We all know that diversity of thought and experiences is vital to solving complex and difficult societal challenges. The Assembly Student Fellowship put this ideal into practice.” — Katherine Lou, College ’21 and Assembly Student Fellow

Throughout the semester, Assembly students worked in their collaboration groups to evaluate frameworks, analyze U.S. Supreme Court decisions, design educational simulations, and more. Their discussions culminated in a final session where collaboration groups shared the key questions and themes they explored over the semester.

  • Who are the different stakeholders in the information ecosystem, and what steps can they take to help curb disinformation? Inspired by the broad scope of the seminar series, Student Fellows Mark Haidar (HKS ’23 and HLS ‘23), Katherine Lou (College ‘21), and Arushi Saxena (GSD ’21) explored specific actions that institutions across society can take to limit the spread of disinformation and concluded that mitigation requires a whole-of-society response. The group used a framework developed by All Tech is Human that emphasizes preventing negative media impacts, intervening after disinformation has been detected, and reinventing models to mitigate the problem in the future, to evaluate higher-educational and other institutions across society and determine what action steps they could take to better address the spread of disinformation on online platforms. The students outlined how colleges, universities, and other research institutions could take steps to emphasize digital literacy and critical thinking skills to prevent disinformation narratives from taking root, better conduct research on the harms of social media and evaluating solutions, and support long-term research initiatives looking to build new solutions.
  • How have political and mass texting campaigns emerged as a potential vector to spread disinformation? Peer-to-peer messaging has become an increasingly popular way for political campaigns to connect with voters; Student Fellows Nicholas Anway (HKS ’23 and HLS ‘23), Leonie Bolte (HKS ‘22), and Randle Steinbeck (College ’21) explored how political texting was used to share disinformation during the 2020 election to mislead voters and how recent court rulings could impact its use in future elections. The group focused on Facebook v. Duguid, a 2021 U.S. Supreme Court decision that narrowed the definition of the automatic dialing systems that are employed by many political campaigns to send peer-to-peer messages and has effectively lifted restrictions on automated texting.
  • What are some leading frameworks and key pieces of scholarship in mis- and disinformation studies, and how can they be collected and contextualized to serve as an entry point for students into the field? Student Fellows Teresa Datta (SEAS ‘22), Emily Dich (College ‘21), Olivia Graham (College ‘22), and Abtsam Saleh (GSAS ’26) curated a collection of resources that outlines major subtopics and leading frameworks for studying mis- and disinformation. “In an intense, difficult year where disinformation was a key topic in the news, we were able to distill difficult questions down through an incredibly engaging seminar series, as well as our collaboration group work,” said Dich. “As an Assembly Student Fellow, I was encouraged to learn, grow, and use the tools we acquired during the seminar series to further dig into information disorder.” The group further explored topics that had been discussed during the seminar series, and also expanded their research to include areas that had not been covered as extensively during the program, including video misinformation, research methodologies, and international disinformation, with the goal of ultimately producing a syllabus that can be used by future Assembly cohorts.
Image from a disinformation-focused syllabus developed by Assembly students
  • How can we envision new conceptualizations of constitutionalism in the digital sphere? Student Fellows Isabella Berkley (HLS ‘23), Jin Park (HMS ‘28), and Daniel Wilson (HBS ‘22), examined how American constitutional thinking — such as an emphasis on free speech as conceptualized by First Amendment jurisprudence — have influenced the design and policies of digital platforms and inadvertently contributed to the spread of online disinformation.
  • How do new forms of platform policy and governance (e.g. the Facebook Oversight Board) have the potential to impact the flow of disinformation on social media? In May 2020, Facebook announced the formation of an independent Oversight Board. The Board, which is empowered to render final decisions on content takedown requests, was described by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as “an advocate for our community — supporting people’s right to free expression, and making sure we fulfill our responsibility to keep people safe.” However, in a conversation with a small group of Student Fellows, evelyn douek, Lecturer on Law and SJD candidate at the Law School, tempered expectations around the Oversight Board and argued that its jurisdiction is currently too narrow to have a substantial impact on Facebook’s content moderation policies. Student Fellows Rachel Gibian (HDS ‘22), David Stansbury (HKS ‘21), and Paul Tembo (SEAS ’21) expanded on the ideas and questions discussed by douek and developed a Model Facebook Oversight Board simulation for high school students. Their case study describes a hypothetical Facebook user who shared a video with misleading information about the coronavirus; students are then asked to evaluate whether or not the content should be removed from the site. In addition to highlighting open questions around platform policy and regulations, the group also emphasized the potential for digital literacy initiatives as a means to mitigate the impact of online disinformation.
  • What additional coursework should medical and public health curriculums adopt about health misinformation, vaccine hesitancy, and effective public health communication in the digital age? Student Fellows Samuel Doernberg (HMS ‘22), Valentina Vargas (HSPH ‘21), and David Xiang (HMS ’24) explored how targeted misinformation campaigns have exacerbated vaccine hesitancy in the United States and how the medical community could be better equipped to counter and correct health misinformation around the coronavirus vaccine. To inform their work, the students also explored groups that are responsible for creating and propagating these misinformation campaigns, their motivations, and who they aim to target.

During the Q&A that followed, Student Fellows underscored the cascading, tangible impact disinformation has on individuals, communities, and institutions across society and emphasized that any solution to the spread of online disinformation must draw on expertise from multiple disciplines.

“Through Assembly, I learned from people with expertise in fields totally different from my own” said David Stansbury, Kennedy School ’21 and Assembly Student Fellow. “It was the exact interdisciplinary, engaging, and focused look at the space I was hoping to get.”

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Assembly at the Berkman Klein Center

Assembly @BKCHarvard brings together students, technology professionals, and experts drawn to explore disinformation in the digital public sphere.