Multi-institutional team receives NSF grant to fight online disinformation

Anita Nikolich
Anita Nikolich, Director of Research and Technology Innovation and Research Scientist
Rachel Magee
Rachel M. Magee, Assistant Professor
Dan Cermak
Dan Cermak, Games Studies Coordinator

The iSchool at Illinois is part of a multidisciplinary research team that 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, led by the University of Buffalo (UB), includes experts in artificial intelligence, the humanities, information science and other fields. In addition to Illinois and UB, partners include Clemson University, Lehigh University, and Northeastern University.

The project—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, when they will share it 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," said the grant's principal investigator Siwei Lyu, Empire Innovation Professor of computer science and engineering at UB. 

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

Anita Nikolich, research scientist and director of research and technology innovation at the iSchool, is a co-principal investigator. Assistant Professor Rachel M. Magee and Adjunct Lecturer Dan Cermak are also involved with the project. 

"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," said Nikolich. "Creating a game that is fun and engaging but also makes an impact on society is our biggest goal."

A partner on the grant is Buffalo Prep, 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, said co-principal investigator David Castillo, a professor of romance languages and literatures and director of the UB Humanities Institute.

Co-principal investigator Darren Linvill, associate professor of communication and lead researcher at Clemson's Media Forensics Hub, stressed 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 said.

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

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.

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