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UB, partners awarded $750,000 to fight online disinformation

Detail of hands holding and using a smartphone. .

By CORY NEALON

Published September 24, 2021

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headshot of Siwei Lyu.
“Just as a vaccine inoculates individuals from a virus, we want to inoculate media consumers from disinformation. Inoculated users form the first line of defense against the spread of corrupted and misleading information. ”
Siwei Lyu, Empire Innovation Professor
Department of Computer Science and Engineering

A multidisciplinary research team led by UB has been awarded $750,000 to develop digital literacy tools to curb the deleterious effects of online disinformation.

The grant is from the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator, a program launched in 2019 that builds upon basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal impact.

The research team includes experts in artificial intelligence, the humanities, information science and other fields. In addition to UB, they are affiliated with Clemson University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Lehigh University and Northeastern University.

The project — titled A Disinformation Range to Improve User Awareness and Resilience to Online Disinformation — centers on developing a suite of digital literacy tools, as well as advanced educational techniques, that aim to reduce the harmful effects of online disinformation. Researchers plan to have a prototype ready in June, which they will share with senior citizens and teenagers, two groups particularly susceptible to online disinformation, according to a growing body of research.

“Just as a vaccine inoculates individuals from a virus, we want to inoculate media consumers from disinformation. Inoculated users form the first line of defense against the spread of corrupted and misleading information,” says the grant’s principal investigator, Siwei Lyu, Empire Innovation Professor of computer science and engineering at UB.

Gamified platform includes social bots

Online disinformation erodes trust in legitimate sources of information and poses a vexing challenge to society, Lyu says.

Disinformation Range will include facilitated discussion sessions, gamified group activities that are interspersed with short lectures. It will also include quizzes and individual exercises.

“The aim of Disinformation Range, with its gamified and collaborative platform, is to increase media consumers’ awareness and resilience in a safe environment,” Lyu says.

Rohini Srihari, UB professor of computer science and engineering, and an adjunct professor of linguistics, is a co-investigator on the project.

“We will develop innovative conversational agents — also known as social bots — to engage participants in purposeful conversations that lead to timely interventions to prevent the spread of online disinformation,” she says. “These social bots will be modeled on social science research relating to trust-building, empathy and persuasion, as well as state-of-the-art technology in neural dialogue generation.”

Collaboration needed

Co-principal investigator David Castillo, professor of Romance languages and literatures and director of the UB Humanities Institute, says collaboration between computer scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars is necessary to develop effective solutions for combatting online disinformation.

“Unprecedented as the speed and reach of disinformation may be in the digital age, this existential challenge cannot be dissociated from the complex histories of our social, economic, political and cultural structures,” he says. “This is why social scientists, humanists and educators must be involved in any serious attempt to understand the root causes of disinformation and mitigate its harmful effects.”

A partner on the grant is Buffalo Prep, a nonprofit that helps talented underrepresented students prepare for, obtain entrance into and excel at demanding college preparatory high schools. The research team will share Disinformation Range with teenagers affiliated with the group, Castillo says.

The aim, he says, is “to develop contextual approaches to disinformation awareness for integration into school curricula.”

Older adults, fun learning modules

Co-principal investigator Darren Linvill, associate professor of communication and lead researcher at Clemson’s Media Forensics Hub, stresses the need for digital literacy skills among older adults.

“We have known for a long time that media literacy needs to not be taught just in our schools, but also in our retirement homes. One of the most vulnerable groups to disinformation is older Americans. Research shows they spread fake news at rates many times higher than college-aged adults,” he says.

The research team will share Disinformation Range with senior citizens at Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. 

Anita Nikolich, research scientist and director of research innovation at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne, is a co-principal investigator. Key to Disinformation Range’s success, she says, is creating entertaining learning modules.

“There is a lot of important academic work in this area, but our challenge lies in bringing real-world solutions to people affected by disinformation,” she says. “Creating a game that is fun and engaging but also makes an impact on society is our biggest goal.”

Laying groundwork for UB center

Disinformation Range was selected in the first phase of the NSF Convergence Accelerator’s 2021 cohort. It is one of 12 teams funded under the accelerator’s Trust and Authenticity in Communications Systems track.

It lays the foundation and platform for a UB Center on Information Integrity to accelerate multidisciplinary collaborative research that will involve a large group of faculty members who had been working on the theme of disinformation/misinformation from different disciplinary perspectives.

The planned center will target specific applications, such as voting rights, health disinformation, and climate change science, among others.