Assembly Fellows team up to combat disinformation
By Zenzele Best
“The Assembly Fellowship has been an incredible space to learn, share, and build with disinformation experts from across all sectors,” said Assembly Fellow Michaela Lee, Tech and Human Rights Manager at Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). “In a time of chaos and uncertainty, it’s been encouraging to be a part of this truly collaborative community.”
The fourth iteration of the Berkman Klein Center’s Assembly Fellowship kicked-off just as the number of COVID-19 cases across the United States was beginning to spike, prompting — among countless other changes across the globe — a significant shift in the scope and design of the program. The Assembly Fellowship brings together a cohort of policymakers, developers, technologists, and other professionals to develop projects designed to combat the spread and consumption of disinformation in a tangible way. In late February, Assembly Fellows traveled to Cambridge from as near as Somerville, MA and as far as Melbourne, Australia. The cohort spent the first two weeks of the program in-residence, meeting each other and connecting as a cohort, learning together, identifying problem spaces in the disinformation sphere, and forming project teams.
The fellows spent much of the first week hearing from leading experts in the field, including from the program’s lead Professor Jonathan Zittrain, Maria Barsallo Lynch, Professor Yochai Benkler, Dr. Joan Donovan, Nathan Frietas, Professor James Mickens, and evelyn douek. Their discussions covered a broad array of topics and delved into internet governance frameworks, election security, measuring the impact of disinformation campaigns, technical interventions, and the role of memes in media manipulation.
“The intensive two-week period on-campus was wonderful for stepping back from the more practical or technical problems of my daily work to the broader, structural challenges of disinformation,” said Assembly Fellow Maggie Engler, Lead Scientist at the Global Disinformation Index. “It allowed me to think more abstractly and creatively and exposed me to many perspectives I haven’t previously considered.”
The cohort also spent the first week participating in ideation sessions led by Senior metaLAB Researcher and BKC Fellow Sarah Newman, with the goal of identifying questions and subtopics that would ultimately serve as the basis for their projects. “Personally, the best part of the . . . ideation period was having time to consider different perspectives,” said Assembly Fellow Rhona Tarrant, US Editor for Storyful. “While disinformation is a cross-society problem, it’s rare that people working on the issue from different angles actually get together to talk about and work on real solutions that can be implemented.”
The Assembly Fellowship is intentionally interdisciplinary in nature to foster this type of collaboration: the 2020 fellows bring extensive expertise in journalism, data science, human rights, and much more; they work across industry, government, and civil society at organizations including Google, Facebook, Internews, and The Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Foreign Influence Task Force.
Using whiteboards, guided brainstorm sessions, and a plethora of post-it notes, the cohort mapped disinformation and delineated an array of causes, effects, and problem spaces within the field. Fellows explored disinformation through vectors spanning from political and financial incentives to human and societal vulnerabilities to tech bubbles and amplification, before narrowing down to four major subtopics and being split into project teams.
“Between our intense . . . design workshops and informative lectures,” noted Assembly Fellow Dylan Moses, a Policy Manager at YouTube, “the ideation phase provided our team with a sharp focus on the problem we were trying to solve.”
Currently, the four projects are developing papers, database prototypes, and other technical tools to:
- Index publicly available information on disinformation campaigns and draft a framework that helps to contextualizes the role of similar tools within the broader landscape of the field;
- Collect and analyze cases of successfully mitigated disinformation campaigns where the impact was lessened through a series of coordinated actions;
- Develop an evaluation framework to categorize and prioritize the risks and harms associated with data voids, and;
- Catalog and analyze incentives for disseminating disinformation and explore concrete interventions to help mitigate its spread.
Fellows spent the last half of the ideation period working closely in their teams to further scope their project ideas, develop a workflow for the remaining eight weeks of the fellowship, and start to outline their goals for a final output. As has been the case in previous years of Assembly, the fellows were set to travel back to Cambridge several times throughout the duration of the program for intensive in-person project work with their teams. Instead, during a moment in which travel — and in-person group work — are untenable, Assembly Fellows and staff have been exploring ways to ensure the cohort connects, learns from, and builds with each other, as the program shifts to be fully remote.
Since the fellows returned home, the group participates in weekly cohort-wide Zoom calls to share project updates and expertise. In addition, the fellows met over Zoom with the Advisory Board — a group of senior leaders across academia, industry, and civil society, with technical, legal, product, and creative expertise. In addition to Professor Zittrain, the 2020 Advisory Board consists of Nathan Frietas, Dr. Jonas Kaiser, Dr. Rachel Kalmar, Professor James Mickens, Dean Martha Minow, Sarah Newman, and Jordi Weinstock, as well as Dr. Joan Donovan — who in particular, has contributed extensively not only to the Assembly Fellowship, but also to the program’s other core tracks: the Assembly Forum and the Assembly Student Fellowship.
In addition to structured weekly sessions, individual project teams are connecting with experts in both disinformation and project design, including Joanne Cheung of IDEO, who hosted pro-bono brainstorming sessions with several projects. Many of the fellows also tuned in for New Ideas to Deal with Online Disinformation, an event hosted by Assembly that featured brief presentations by Dr. Joan Donovan, Professor Jill Lepore, and Professor Marshall Van Alstyne on potential legal, policy, or technical interventions to mitigate disinformation. In an otherwise sobering time, the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment that the cohort has sustained since the ideation period in Cambridge is both refreshing and astonishing.
As Assembly Fellow John Hess, a Technical Program Manager at Google — and also an alumnus of Assembly’s inaugural 2017 cohort — put it, “Assembly . . . has been a supercollider of interesting people working to solve daunting (impossible?) challenges and interesting ideas. Every day, from every direction, you’re finding a new way to see the problem or the possibilities.”