Faculty Recruiting Support CICS

Zuckerman, O’Connor, Colleagues to Study Racially Targeted Misinformation

Brendan O'Connor, Ethan Zuckerman
Brendan O'Connor, Ethan Zuckerman

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at UMass Amherst, including College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) Associate Professors Ethan Zuckerman and Brendan O’Connor, has received a $129,000 National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator grant for their work on a multi-institutional project that will investigate racially targeted misinformation and develop culturally appropriate interventions alongside Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community organizations.

The UMass Amherst team, led by Jonathan Corpus Ong of the Department of Communication, will lead the ethnography and customer discovery aspects of the project, which aims to build capacity of AAPI organizations in response to the networked harassment and hate crimes that their communities have experienced over the past year.

The project, “Fact-checker, Academic, and Community Collaboration Tools: Combating Hate, Abuse, and Misinformation with Minority-led Partnerships (FACT CHAMP),” will streamline and facilitate collaboration of fact-checkers, NGOs, researchers, and community leaders. FACT CHAMP will allow practitioners and community leaders to share misinformation data and research challenges securely with academics, while at the same time allowing academic solutions to be more easily used in practice.

Technology nonprofit Meedan will lead the project which, in addition to the team from UMass Amherst, is composed of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Connecticut, FactCheck.org, and AuCoDe, a company battling online disinformation that was founded by researchers from CICS.

“This project reflects deeply on how Asian-American communities are attracted to right-wing ideology and might be prone to radicalization,” Ong said. “I find it essential to conduct more interdisciplinary research into how AAPI community members navigate the diverse threats of the contemporary digital environment, from racist conspiracy theories to an extremist right-wing ideology that preys on the AAPI community’s current state of fear and anxiety. What are new memetic expressions of the model minority myth on the internet? What are the popular vernaculars, ethnolinguistic codes, and cultural humor that right-wing influencers use to appeal to their followers while evading platforms' content moderation? These are challenging questions that require more data, more deliberation, and more community-engaged research.”

Joining Ong on the UMass Amherst FACT CHAMP team are Zuckerman, jointly appointed by CICS and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, O’Connor of CICS, and Wayne Xu from the Department of Communication.

“Computational methods tell us where to dig to understand misinformation and hate speech, but we need ethnographic methods to understand what we dig up,” said Zuckerman, who will lead community engagement and outreach initiatives, including interfacing with community leaders, technology specialists and journalists. “Our ability to bring both quantitative and ethnographic methods to the table makes our UMass team unusually qualified to make progress on these issues alongside our colleagues on this grant.”

Xu and O’Connor will contribute their computational social science expertise to developing algorithms useful for researchers, activists, and community leaders in detecting hate speech. They will work closely with the team at AuCoDe to craft innovative detection methods that are also sufficiently grounded in communities’ own needs and priorities.

“Fact-checking should begin with listening and understanding why people believe in mis/disinformation,” Xu said. “I hope this project will improve our current fact-checking effort by treating fact-checking not as an arbitrator of truth but as a humble opportunity to explore various cultural, political, and spiritual origins of mis/disinformation, which are unique to communities of ethnic minorities.”

“I look forward to seeing how important recent advances in computational social science and natural language processing could be used to better understand and improve the human-centric methods that our partners use to address these problems,” O’Connor added.

“For me, this project feels very urgent, as it is really an intervention that engages with the tragedies that have spurred the #StopAsianHate movement,” Ong said. “It is important to know the histories of dangerous racist stereotypes and how they are expressed and exchanged in new platforms to advance an insidious agenda.”

Launched in 2019, the NSF Convergence Accelerator builds upon basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal impact. Using convergence research fundamentals and integration of innovation processes, the program brings together multiple disciplines, expertise, and cross-cutting partnerships to solve national-scale societal challenges.

Originally published by the UMass Amherst News Office.