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Dr. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun founded the Digital Democracies Institute at Simon Fraser University to address issues of concern in online spaces.SUPPLIED

In March 2020, British Columbia’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner asked a network of researchers, including the Digital Democracies Institute at Simon Fraser University (SFU) to help answer an important question: Had online hate speech increased during the pandemic, and if so, how? The goal was to gain an understanding of public sentiment to better shape communications around public health.

Data scientist Matt Canute, an SFU graduate and tech team manager at the Institute, led the analysis for this project. The team used an algorithm developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology called the GaTech hate speech/counterspeech model to categorize tweets as hate speech or counterspeech (that is, an alternate, positive narrative intended to neutralize the impact of hate speech). Then, the Institute’s team analyzed the results. They found there had been an increase in anti-Asian hate from accounts based in B.C., and that this preceded a real-world increase in violent attacks.

That finding proved research like this is necessary.

“It’s a bit of a canary in the coal mine situation,” Canute says. “As difficult as it is to determine this, I think it’s worth trying to understand how people are becoming scapegoated and what misinformation-based tactics are spreading, because if you can notice that early, you can perhaps put out a campaign to try to counter that.”

It’s this type of work the Institute aims to do. Founded in 2020 by Dr. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun as part of the Canadian government’s Canada 150 Research Chair program, which brought scholars to Canada to set up research programs and centres of excellence in various fields, its goal is to understand and address what is happening in online social spaces.

“We bring together people in the humanities, social sciences, science, technology, engineering and data sciences and the arts to take on some of the hard problems that face us, such as disinformation, conflict, polarization and discriminatory algorithms,” Dr. Chun says.

Past projects have included work on investigating and halting the spread of misinformation, which is incorrect or misleading, and disinformation, which are messages that are deliberately deceptive. She has also delved into understanding how digital platforms encourage echo chambers and even how to foster truly imaginative thinking. Now, the Institute is embarking on its biggest venture to date: the Data Fluencies Project, which will allow Dr. Chun and her team to “work with humanists, data scientists and artists to come up with creative ways to both analyze and counter the effects of disinformation on cultural diversity,” she says. This project includes partners from York University, University of Kentucky, University of Southern California, Emerson College, University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and the Social Science Research Council.

The three-year venture is being funded by a $6.22-million grant from the U.S.-based Mellon Foundation and will include four research streams. The first focuses on developing respectful research methods to deliver a qualitative and quantitative look at what is happening online. Another looks at creating alternative methods for developing, implementing, and validating machine learning. As Dr. Chun points out, “one fundamental problem with predictive machine learning programs as they exist now is that they make predictions for the future based on past data, which may be not only incomplete, but also biased. If that past data is biased or discriminatory, then what we’ve done is automate past mistakes, rather than using programs like this to fix past mistakes.” The third stream engages local communities to expand whose voices matter. To that end, the Institute will launch a free public night school in Vancouver and exhibitions in Vancouver, Boston, Massachusetts and Lexington, Kentucky. And the last stream will focus on expanding the Data Fluencies network through research development workshops and by developing post-secondary curricula around data fluency for educational institutions in Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand.

According to Dr. Chun, this type of research is particularly important because disinformation, polarization and online hate do not stay online.

“You could argue that the line [between online and offline social spaces] is non-existent,” she says. “I don’t mean that just in terms of cases of violence and suicide linked to cyberbullying and harassment, but also all the constant posturing that happens on Instagram, or the very specialized ways people think about their LinkedIn profiles. There is an intimate intertwining between our representations of ourselves in our interactions online, and our real lives.”

Dr. Chun’s work at the Digital Democracies Institute is just one way SFU is helping to address some of the biggest challenges faced by Canada today. The work done by the university’s researchers, staff and students is focused on driving innovation, improving public health, fighting climate change, promoting democracy and creating new economic opportunities. Click here to learn more about SFU’s economic contributions.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Simon Fraser University. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.