Today, the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security (Pitt Cyber) announced the launch of the Pitt Disinformation Lab (PDL).
PDL, directed by political science professor Michael Colaresi, aims to leverage Pitt’s interdisciplinary strengths to develop a community-focused system of detection, understanding and response to malicious influences online.
“It’s not just the federal government and social media platforms that have a role to play in combating disinformation,” said Pitt Cyber founding director David Hickton. “The animating vision of PDL is to build local resilience to disinformation right here, right now.”
Dis-, mis- and malinformation have become increasingly problematic in the United States and beyond. Campaigns that weave together false and misleading messages have played a prominent role in driving vaccine hesitancy, the Jan. 6 events at the Capitol and what some Pitt researchers identify as a dangerous erosion of public support for democracy.
“There is this illusion that social media is somehow separate and disconnected from reality and our prepandemic communities,” said Colaresi. “If we buy into that illusion and keep our heads in the cloud, we become trapped in a not-so-funhouse of mirrors where facts and truth are difficult or even impossible to discern. Facebook’s algorithms cannot tell fact from fiction by design. Our best chance to fight the centrifugal forces spinning disinformation is to make sure we have our feet on the ground in Western Pennsylvania. PDL’s approach is to project messages and perceptions back into our shared reality, experiences and community before it is too late.”
The lab’s mission is to create and leverage a new hybrid, multiscale understanding of disinformation ecosystems to drive actions that will effectively counter these disruptive trends. The lab’s founding principle is that the circuits and messages of social media are not disconnected from the relationships that define real-world communities.
PDL’s innovative approach will develop open-source tools to track the scale and propagation of disinformation on social media across Western Pennsylvania, create a dashboard for public reporting of disinformation and invest in partnerships with diverse communities to craft community-centered conversations that open new avenues for shared facts and trust—even when opinions differ.
Colaresi, who is the William S. Dietrich II Professor of Political Science and research and academic director for Pitt Cyber, emphasized that while he hopes that PDL’s model will eventually be adopted by more communities around the country, the lab’s vision is inspired and supported by the unique resources in Pittsburgh and the region.
“We have an exceptional cadre of researchers here at Pitt already involved in studying and fighting disinformation from multiple perspectives, including public health and the social sciences, the humanities, the information and computer sciences and engineering,” said Colaresi. “But our city is also unique because it is home to both strong neighborhood groups and identities and a vibrant technology sector. This allows us to forge dense and diverse partnerships with policy leaders, community organizations and industry.”
The ability to work closely with Pitt’s Institute of Politics, researchers at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University’s new Collaboratory Against Hate, Carnegie Mellon’s IDeaS center and others across Western Pennsylvania also is a draw for PDL researchers.
Those involved in the lab include history professor Lara Putnam. With Colaresi, she is leading a signature effort to create a network of social media moderators and experts to build community resilience to dis- and misinformation. The group will share effective practices with their own networks, creating an important connection from the “ground to the cloud.”
PDL also anticipates working closely with community organizations across the region. The director of Pitt’s Community Engagement Center (CEC) in Homewood, Daren Ellerbee, is one person looking forward to the new lab.
“Disinformation creates distrust in our communities and harms all of us. The Homewood CEC is excited to collaborate with PDL and leverage the unique resiliencies and strengths of Homewood,” Ellerbee said.
Other Pitt Cyber affiliate scholars conducting research in this area include Malihe Alikhani, Dimitriy Babichenko, Adriana Kovashka, Prashant Krishnamurthy and Yu-Ru Lin from the School of Computing and Information; Michael Kenney, Sera Linardi and Lisa Nelson from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs; Amin Rahimian from the Swanson School of Engineering; Jaime Sidani from the School of Medicine; and Chris Deluzio and Beth Schwanke from Pitt Cyber.
Founded in 2017, Pitt Cyber, led by Hickton, has been at the forefront of tackling cyber challenges at the nexus of law, policy and technology. Its efforts range from The Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security to the ongoing Pittsburgh Task Force on Public Algorithms to an annual cybersecurity camp serving high school students.