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CDT Research, Free Expression, Privacy & Data

CDT Research Workshop: First Steps in Developing a Research Agenda to Address Disinformation, Race, and Gender

Citizens, policy makers, and researchers across the country and around the world are increasingly focused on the harms flowing from disinformation, misinformation, and the growing undermining of facts about key topics in our society, particularly concerning the COVID-19 pandemic and our upcoming elections. CDT has undertaken a new research effort on these issues, focusing first on the critical problem of disinformation — the distribution of information that is intentionally designed to be false or misleading. This distribution can be done in an organized way, often for broad political and economic goals, including undermining trust in democratic institutions and processes.

Much of the recent and current relevant research has focused on the mechanisms through which disinformation is distributed online. Researchers have looked, for example, at how algorithms can facilitate attention hacking and the sharing of disinformation, and how approaches to content moderation may contribute to the problem. In response, some have advanced a range of recommendations such as promoting more diverse content, adding friction when sharing content, labeling content, identifying authoritative information sources, and improving user awareness, etc.

However, research (and subsequent policy-discourse) often falls short by not focusing enough attention on the impacts of disinformation on those voices less prominent in mainstream political discourse (e.g., people of color, women, LGBTQ communities, and others), particularly in the U.S. and Europe. As disinformation campaigns have become common in online political discourse and during elections in particular, we now have preliminary evidence of the unique ways in which it can have a disproportionately negative impact, for example, on African-Americans or women politicians.

In fact, many disinformation campaigns are specifically designed with race and/or gender components, which suggests that we need to acknowledge the phenomenon is partly rooted in the problems of white supremacy and patriarchy. This is important in understanding the context in which disinformation takes place and points to the need for interdisciplinary research and policy-solutions.

As a starting point to help address this gap, CDT last week held an online research workshop focused on disinformation and its effects in terms of race and gender. The workshop featured presentations and discussions on current and ongoing research around the impacts of disinformation in terms of race and gender. It included a multi-disciplinary set of over 30 experts in public policy, political science, gender studies, and technologists among others, based in the U.S. and internationally. Several short presentations of current research on these topics were shared by:

  • Gabrielle Bardell, Principal, Herizon Democracy; and Research Fellow, Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS), University of Ottawa
  • Deen Freelon, Associate Professor, School of Media and Journalism, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Lucina Di Meco, Women’s Political Participation Expert
  • Mutale Nkonde, Founder AI for the People: Faculty Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study, University of Notre Dame
  • Saiph Savage, Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, West Virginia University
  • Kristina Wilfore, Lecturer, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

The objective of the workshop was to examine how research can improve our understanding of the impacts of disinformation in terms of race and gender. Participants also shared ideas on how to center the issues of race and gender in research and policy discussions on disinformation.

As a next step, CDT will complete a public report on the workshop, summarizing the workshop discussions, and most importantly identifying the policy and research opportunities that need to be addressed. This report will help CDT to develop our own research agenda around this topic, and collaborate with other researchers in this area.