Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics Hosts Panel on Digital Discourse

Researchers and experts discussed how misinformation spreads and who benefits by it in final Colonials Weekend event.

From left: Steven Livingston, Adam Conner, Rebekah Tromble, Neil Johnson and Jack Nassetta.
From left: Steven Livingston, Adam Conner, Rebekah Tromble, Neil Johnson and Jack Nassetta discuss how digital interactions affect political discourse. (William Atkins/GW Today)
September 23, 2019

By Ruth Steinhardt

Technology experts hosted by the George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics (IDDP) said at a panel Sunday that digital behavior has transformative real-world effects requiring careful interdisciplinary study.

 “You build something virtual and something real crumbles: a democracy, a media, interactions between family members, all sorts of things,” said panelist Adam Conner, B.A. ’06, vice president of technology policy at the Center for American Progress. “That’s something that the sciences alone can’t solve and the social sciences alone can’t solve, and it’s important that we have both of those tools available to us.”

The panel, “Political Discourse,” investigated where online disinformation comes from and how it impacts digital media and enters the national dialogue. It was one of the first events hosted by the IDDP, which was founded this summer by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Introducing the panel, President Thomas J. LeBlanc said the IDDP’s existence—and its team of researchers, who hail from political communication, journalism, physics, international affairs, computer science and engineering—exemplify GW’s commitment to integrating STEM across every field.

“By integrating our expertise across disciplines, we add value to our traditional strengths,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “Our ability to prepare students to succeed in an increasingly complex world hinges on our ability to convene interdisciplinary teams and use data and research to solve our nation’s, and our world’s, biggest challenges.”

IDDP Director Steven Livingston, who moderated the panel, said the ready availability of data from personal tech devices and social media is a window to vast fields of study.

“We are awash in various ways of recording things,” Dr. Livingston said after polling the audience to confirm nearly all had smartphones and social media accounts. “There are data being produced that help us understand parts of our life that, before, would not have been available to a political scientist. So what the IDDP is interested in doing is finding ways of tapping into all of that data for us to understand something about our world.”

Panelist Rebekah Tromble, an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs, emphasized that the IDDP takes seriously the ethical concerns of its vast data collection—even against the academic instinct of “wide-eyed wonder” that comes with access to so much information.

“I think one of the most important things that the IDDP can do going forward is to lead by example and show that these are the responsible and ethical ways to get access to data and then to actually use that data,” Dr. Tromble said. “If we’re not doing it in a way that honors our ethical responsibility to each and every one of the human beings that generate that data, we as researchers are doing a major disservice.”

Panelist Neil Johnson, a professor of physics in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, studies the ways individual actors “cluster” on virtual platforms. When it comes to the impact of social media, it’s not just that researchers don’t know all the answers, he said. They are still struggling to develop the right questions.

“How can we even address the issue of what a [social media] platform should do?” Dr. Johnson asked, pointing out that most public debates and hearings center on how individual platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google should behave. “Is that even the right question? Clearly, it’s not, because you’re all on more than one platform.”

Breaking down walls between fields of study, he said, would go a long way toward getting those questions and answers right.

Jack Nassetta, a senior in the School of Media and Public Affairs, has already done some of the research. He studied hundreds of thousands of Tweets related to a war crime in Syria, breaking down the tactics used by various accounts to spread disinformation about who had perpetrated it. He and his fellow researchers found that disinformation “clusters” most dangerously in the replies to Tweets by influential actors like politicians and verified journalists.

“There’s a new way of conducting foreign policy now where you can take it directly to civilians in your opposing countries and try and create a bottom-up approach to convince governments to do what you want,” Mr. Nassetta said. “You create mass civilian confusion, and when you create confusion you’re less likely to have government action.”

Politics and Society