For the past few years, NYU Tandon Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Dr. Damon McCoy and Ph.D. candidate Laura Edelson have been peering behind the curtain of social media to reveal the sources behind political ads and content, and to use data analysis to expose possible disinformation campaigns. Through the Online Political Advertising Transparency project, they have helped equip journalists and researchers with the tools to access and understand not only who is behind such ads, but also how these ads are being targeted to specific audience. Now, McCoy and Edelson, along with several others, have decided to expand their focus. In rebranding their work as the Cybersecurity for Democracy Initiative, the researchers pivot to address online issues other than transparency that could potentially undermine the principles of democracy. These include the real-world consequences of conspiracy theories and extremist online content, and misinformation about Covid 19 and other public health issues, such as campaigns against all forms of vaccination. The new initiative will also expand its political advertising transparency programs to include Spanish language political ads.
One of the first projects of the newly named institute was to engage in a study of the role that dissemination of misinformation through social media played in the events at the Capitol Building on January 6, as well as the way news sources engaged with their audiences following that event. As Edelson explained on National Public Radio’s program “All Things Considered” on March 6, she “expected to see a spike in Facebook users engaging with the day’s news, similar to Election Day.” But, “most of that spike was concentrated among the partisan extremes and misinformation providers,” she observed. “when I really sit back and think about that, I think the idea that on a day like that, which was so scary and so uncertain, that the most extreme and least reputable sources were the ones Facebook users were engaging with, is pretty troubling.”