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I am an Associate Professor at the University of Washington (UW) in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE). I completed a BS in Computer Science from Stanford in 1997 and a PhD in Technology, Media, and Society from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2012.


Crisis Informatics

The foundations for my research lie in the fields of computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) and crisis informatics — the study of how information-communication technologies are used during crisis events, including natural disasters (like earthquakes and hurricanes) and man-made disasters (such as shooting events and acts of terrorism). Primarily, my work has examined how people use social media platforms during crises and other “mass disruption” events. Initially, my research focused on the pro-social activities that social media platforms facilitate — for example, how people come together after crisis events to help themselves, their neighbors, and even people halfway around the world. I completed my dissertation on digital volunteerism (a form of online activism) during mass disruption events. My advisor on that research was Professor Leysia Palen, one of the founders of the crisis informatics field.


Collective Sensemaking and Rumoring during Crisis Events

At the University of Washington, I continued studying how people use social media during crisis events. Over time, my work shifted from digital volunteerism (and intersections between informal and formal response activities) to rumoring during crisis events. Rumoring is a byproduct of the “collective sensemaking” process that occurs when people come together during crisis events to try to make sense of what is happening. Collective sensemaking is thought to be a natural response to the uncertainty and anxiety that accompany crisis events. Researchers theorize that sensemaking serves both informational and psychological benefits. Some rumors turn out to be true. But many do not. And so collective sensemaking can lead to misinformation. 

Through a collaboration with Robert Mason (2013-2015) and Emma Spiro (2014-present), and with a team of students (including undergraduate, master’s, and PhD), we have completed dozens of studies of rumoring during crises. Among other findings, our work has documented how false rumors take shape on social media, how misinformation tends to spread faster and farther than corrections, how “breaking news” accounts help to amplify false rumors, and how people correct themselves and others after spreading misinformation online. 

More of our publications are available here.


Methods

Our research relies on digital trace data — created by people as they use online tools and platforms. Using methods adapted from crisis informatics, our work integrates qualitative, quantitative, and visual analyses to understand the structure and dynamics of online information flows and the human behaviors that shape them. We move back and forth from high level views (“30,000 feet”) that allow us to identify patterns and anomalies to close investigations of content and users (“tweet by tweet”) that help us understand what those patterns and anomalies really mean. Often, they don’t mean what we initially think they do!


The Structure and Dynamics of Online Disinformation

In 2015, as we grappled with data collected about a series of mass shooting events around the globe, our research team began to recognize that we were not just seeing accidental misinformation, but that we were witnessing pervasive disinformation that seemed to be perpetrated by increasingly dense and often oddly connected networks of accounts. In 2016-2017, we began to focus more intently on online disinformation — the intentional spread of false or misleading information for political or financial objectives. Our work seeks to understand the tactics, objectives, and impacts of specific disinformation campaigns as well as the long-term effects of pervasive disinformation in our society.

We have completed three case studies revealing the structure and dynamics online disinformation. The first investigated how conspiracy theorizing about shooting events (e.g. ones that claim the events are “hoaxes” enacted by “crisis actors”) intersects with state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. The second demonstrated how paid agents (aka “trolls”) working within Russia’s Internet Research Agency infiltrated both sides of the #BlackLivesMatter/#BlueLivesMatter discourse on Twitter in the months leading up to the 2016 election. And the third is a longitudinal study of the disinformation campaign targeting the White Helmets, a humanitarian response organization that provides rescue and medical aid in rebel held areas of Syria during the civil war there (see Paper1, Paper2, Paper3). Across the breadth of these studies, we note the “participatory” nature of disinformation campaigns and the challenge of distinguishing between the orchestrated activity of paid agents and the organic actions of sincere online activists. We show how disinformation campaigns infiltrate, cultivate, and leverage online activism and theorize that online disinformation often takes shape as collaborative “work” between knowing agents and unwitting members of the online crowd.

Please read the following Medium articles if you’re looking for more information about our work on online disinformation:

The Surprising Nuance Behind the Russian Troll Strategy

Information Wars: A Window into the Alternative Media Ecosystem

Content Sharing within the Alternative Media Echo-System: The Case of the White Helmets


The Center for an Informed Public

In 2019, with grants from the Knight Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, my colleagues (Ryan Calo, Chris Coward, Emma Spiro, Jevin West) and I co-founded the Center for an Informed Public (CiP) at UW. The Center’s mission is to "marshal the collective resources of a world-class research university, embedded within local communities, to resist strategic misinformation, promote an informed society, and strengthen democratic discourse. 


Research on Online Discourse around Covid-19

Our work has been somewhat reshaped by the Covid-19 pandemic. We have been collecting data on online discourse around the novel coronavirus since January 23, 2020. Due to our expertise in misinformation in science (Jevin West) and rumoring and disinformation in the context of crisis events (Emma Spiro and myself), we have initiated an NSF-funded research project <link> to better understand how science is mobilized (and politicized) in conversations about Covid-19 and how that plays a role in the spread of misinformation about the pandemic. As Covid-19 blends into Election2020, we expect to see (and are collecting data to study) increasing efforts to seed and spread disinformation for political gain. We have a growing team (three postdoctoral scholars and a number of PhD and undergraduate students) and enough data and research questions to keep us all busy for the next few years. Hopefully, we can contribute to understanding and finding solutions to reduce the spread of mis- and disinformation during these difficult times.


Advising

I am currently advising seven amazing PhD students (Dharma Dailey, Ahmer Arif, Tom Wilson, Himanshu Zade, Sam Kolovson, Melinda McClure Haughey, and Andrew Beers) and two undergraduate students. I am also loosely supervising several other students who are working on our many projects. 


Contact

Email: kstarbi at uw dot edu
Twitter: @katestarbird

My CV




© Kate Starbird 2019