Assembly 2019–20: Disinformation

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This fall, the Berkman Klein Center is launching the Assembly: Disinformation program. This program represents the evolution of three prior programs at the Center: the Berklett Cybersecurity project, Techtopia, and the Assembly program, a joint initiative with the MIT Media Lab.

A Reimagined Program

Berklett, Assembly, and Techtopia were originally developed as new models for exploring some of the Internet’s most difficult issues. Previously, the programs addressed cybersecurity, privacy, and AI ethics and governance. Assembly: Disinformation builds on the history of these three programs — both substantively and methodologically — to offer a fully-integrated pilot focused on a problem that demands interdisciplinary and public-private collaboration.

This year, Assembly will take up disinformation in the digital public sphere from a cybersecurity perspective, exploring the challenges and possibilities of innovative public and private sector responses to disinformation and related problems of foreign interference.

The program will be organized around three tracks with a common thematic focus: the Assembly Forum, the Assembly Fellowship, and the Assembly Student Fellowship. The three tracks are designed to draw upon each other’s expertise, work, and communities — in disinformation, media policy, intermediaries and platforms, cybersecurity, and other relevant areas — bringing together students, experts from across disciplines, and technologists to better understand, and make progress on, the complex issues of disinformation and foreign interference.

Here’s some more detail on each track.

Assembly Forum

The Assembly Forum will serve as a unique discussion forum for senior leadership from industry, the US national security community, the academic field, and civil society. The Forum will build on the work and track record of its predecessor, the Berklett Cybersecurity project, which was founded in 2015 to regularly convene an unprecedentedly diverse group of experts to thoughtfully discuss cybersecurity topics core to government, foreign intelligence, law enforcement, civil society, and industry.

In 2016, the project published its first report — “Don’t Panic: Making Progress on the ‘Going Dark’ Debate” — which took on questions around the claim that digital products and services are “going dark” to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which previously relied on data from such sources, due to new forms of encryption introduced into mainstream products by the companies who offer them. The New York Times’ national security correspondent, David Sanger, described Don’t Panic as “among the sharpest counterpoints yet” in the encryption debate. In a speech at MIT in March 2016, Robert Hannigan, then Director of the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), recounted the report as one of “the key contributions of the last few years in my area.”

Taking up the mantle of the Berklett approach, the Forum will host candid high-level briefings and conversations, covering the unique challenges that government and industry must address as they approach disinformation and cybersecurity.

Assembly Fellowship

The Assembly Fellowship provides an intensive non-residential four-month fellowship for technologists, managers, policymakers, and other professionals. The program includes team-building, ideation, discussion and seminars, and a project development period. This structure allows participants to step back from day-to-day goals and to explore novel solutions to deep problems. The Assembly Fellowship was co-developed with the MIT Media Lab; this year, it’s hosted by the Berkman Klein Center.

Launched in 2017 as simply Assembly, the program was designed to encourage interdisciplinary learning, collaboration across sectors, and the conversion of ideas into tools and actionable policies. The predecessor Assembly program had three iterations, starting in January 2017, in which cohorts tackled digital security problems and artificial intelligence and its governance. Read more about what these prior cohorts accomplished on their people and project pages.

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The 2019 Assembly Cohort (Photo credit: Lorrie Lejeune)

2019–2020 Assembly Fellows will confront problems related to disinformation by creating collaborative provocations or prototypes that offer tangible ways to better understand, counter, and draw attention to disinformation campaigns. Previous Fellows have described the experience of structured, yet experimental, collaborative learning as “life-changing.” Their participation allowed them to approach their work with new perspectives, or as one participant shared “I never could’ve made so much progress so quickly without Assembly,” and spurred new initiatives within their organizations.

Are you a professional with disinformation expertise? Learn more and apply for the Assembly Fellowship here. Applications are open from August 14th to September 15th, 2019.

Assembly Student Fellowship

The Assembly Student Fellowship aims to bring together a cohort of Harvard students from a range of disciplines and schools, who will convene for problem-solving seminars and collaborate on student-led projects that tackle real-world disinformation problems. Students will be supported by Harvard faculty and staff. Launched in 2018 as the Techtopia program, the Student Fellowship is a multidisciplinary research and teaching initiative that brings together Harvard students and faculty around the biggest issues in tech today.

The 2019–2020 Assembly Student Fellowship will provide a space for undergraduate and graduate students interested in the challenges of disinformation to build community across disciplines, to engage with faculty working on the cutting edge of these issues, and to integrate skills and knowledge from different fields to tackle the complex problems of tackling disinformation as part of a diverse team. Last year’s students shared that the program was “one of the highlights of my year” and “completely shaped my Harvard experience,” as it helped them “find a community of like-minded individuals” and was a great complement to their coursework.

Are you a Harvard student interested in collaboratively learning about disinformation? Learn more and apply for the Assembly Student Fellowship here. Applications are open from August 14th to September 15th, 2019.

Why disinformation?

Foreign interference in the 2016 US general election made “fake news” and “disinformation” household terms overnight. The anxiety and uproar in the wake of the election were soon followed by significant civil society and academic efforts around disinformation. Within the past two years, many new projects have considered disinformation from almost every conceivable angle, from journalistic best practices and fact-checking to algorithmic monitoring, variously drawing on cognitive psychology, econometrics, metadata analysis, and even blockchain.

The Berkman Klein Center has itself contributed significantly to this growing field. Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris, and Hal Roberts’s essential work on Network Propaganda has been hailed by many in the research community and beyond as one of the most rigorous studies of our information ecosystem published to this point. Our colleagues at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media are building tools aimed at reconfiguring our relationship with social media at the expense of would-be propagandists.

The range and urgency of activity is heartening. It reflects the fact that disinformation is being treated as a truly interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral problem, and there’s clearly no shortage of talent to be engaged. Yet, it’s not entirely clear that a unified operational agenda is emerging from a sea of disparate efforts, not by any fault of those working in the field.

The lack of a unified agenda in part reflects the complexity of disinformation and the vibrancy of debate around the topic. Several scholars have contributed significant insights; yet different researchers and disciplines have competing conceptualizations of the problems of disinformation, and significantly varying proposals about what to do and who should do it.

We’re jumping in now because when we take the long view on the internet’s growth and development, the digital realm’s inability to cope with disinformation starts to look less like a niche problem and more like symptoms of long-deferred reckonings around intermediary responsibility and the connections between cybersecurity and our information ecosystem.

Disinformation has the potential to serve as a forcing function for a conversation — and some resolution — that will be as uncomfortable as it is important.

Assembly won’t be the first program to bring academia’s methodologies and convening power to bear on disinformation, nor will it be the last. We offer decades of perspective on the problems and promise of the internet, cybersecurity expertise, deep connections in the public and private sectors, and innovative approaches to cross-sectoral partnership. What we’re aiming for is not a technical hack, an overbroad legislative proposal, or a set of high-level principles, but rather a platform for honest and outcome-oriented conversation and co-building between experts, students, and entities in the disinformation space. Through this process of dialogue and collaboration, we hope to get a few steps closer to understanding what a meaningful alignment of incentives would look like — and how, if at all, it might best be embodied in some form of institutional innovation.

Learn more about this year’s Assembly program here.

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Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how…

Berkman Klein Center

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The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University was founded to explore cyberspace, share in its study, and help pioneer its development.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

Berkman Klein Center

Written by

The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University was founded to explore cyberspace, share in its study, and help pioneer its development.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

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