GW’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics Expands Its Global Reach

Digital rights activist Seyi Akiwowo is the latest addition to the one-year-old IDDP, where research is driving national and international responses to questions of digital media.

December 3, 2020

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(Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

Seyi Akiwowo was 26 when she came face to face—or face to faceless—with one of the Internet’s nastiest hazards. Three years into her tenure as the youngest Black woman ever elected by her borough of Newham to London’s city council, a riposte she’d delivered to anti-refugee hecklers at a European youth parliament event went viral. (“What do you think about…former empires ensuring there is economic and political stability in these former colonized countries?” Ms. Akiwowo inquires in the clip. “Then we won’t have to migrate here.”)

Initially, the response was positive. But the link found its way to a hive of anonymous trolls who subjected Ms. Akiwowo to a relentless wave of racist, misogynistic online abuse she now calls “horrific.” And the social media platforms on which they operated seemed either helpless or passively hostile when it came to stemming the tide.

“It was really clear to me as a woman in politics that online abuse and harassment was a massive barrier to entering politics and a massive threat to our democracy,” Ms. Akiwowo said. “And I was so frustrated with tech companies’ response to women in politics facing abuse because we’re the ones using the platform the way they originally intended. Right? We're the ones that are using it for conversation and debate and inclusion; we’re the ones bridging the information and access divide.”

Instead of relinquishing her online space to the trolls, Ms. Akiwowo channeled her frustration into the launch of Glitch, a British charity determined to make the online space safe for all by ending online violence. In collaboration with NGOs, campaigners and policymakers in the United Kingdom and across the world, she's worked to hold both platforms and governments accountable and push for systematic change.

Now, Ms. Akiwowo has brought her passion and expertise to the George Washington University as a Knight Fellow at the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics (IDDP). She’ll study the sources and effects of online abuse—particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, while drilling down particularly on risks to Black women and girls—and develop a toolkit for female politicians on how to protect themselves, their staff and their constituents while maintaining the robust online presence their careers necessitate.

“It’s no coincidence that we’ve brought Seyi on,” said IDDP Director Rebekah Tromble. Ms. Akiwowo’s lens is the latest of many through which the IDDP addresses its central questions: What is the effect of digital media on public dialogue and opinion? And what are the solutions to the ills digital media brings in its wake?

In the year since its inception, the institute has conducted investigations into militias and hate groups organized online, studied best practices for addressing online mis- and disinformation and analyzed how social media companies have implemented policy responses to COVID-19. Beyond research, the IDDP also works with policymakers and journalists to elucidate complicated digital media issues and to push back against misinformation and abuse.

“This is more than an interesting research topic,” GW President Thomas LeBlanc wrote of the IDDP’s focus when the institute launched in September 2019. “It is a moral responsibility.”

For Dr. Tromble, the marriage of research to concrete policy work is particularly satisfying. While she’s proud of everything the institute has accomplished, she cites among IDDP’s most exciting initiatives the NYU Ad Observatory, a current project in partnership with New York University Tandon School of Engineering and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies that helps journalists gather information on how ads are targeted to specific audiences, what messages they disseminate and who is paying for them.

Another achievement Dr. Tromble said she’s particularly proud of is the series of forums held this summer in partnership with the International Grand Committee on Disinformation, which hosted high-profile policymakers from around the world, including U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D). The forums covered topics like COVID-19 disinformation, election interference and—in an event featuring Ms. Akiwowo—online misogyny. Researchers, politicians and activists discussed the struggle to hold social media and tech companies accountable for abuse on their platforms.

“That’s an example of the way IDDP is making an impact not just in the national policy space but on those conversations internationally,” Dr. Tromble said.

But perhaps the most exciting development of the year is the way the IDDP continues to develop its interdisciplinary strengths, she said.

“I think it’s pretty amazing what IDDP has accomplished in just one year, and I’m very excited because we’re expanding,” Dr. Tromble said. “Just in the last two months, we’ve added affiliated researchers from the Milken Institute School of Public Health and  GW Law, and we’re bringing in exciting fellows like Seyi. That illustrates how we’re having this broader impact, not just locally, not just nationally, but really globally.”

And what excites her most looking forward? All the work IDDP has left to do.

“At the most basic level, I’m excited about continuing the work we’re doing and expanding in new directions,” Dr. Tromble said.