Portland’s Bletchley Park

Courtesy of Pacific Northwest College of Art

A specialist arts school is the venue of an ambitious project to stop the spread of disinformation over social media.

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As a university math instructor, Nandini Ranganathan felt the method of teaching in higher education was often siloed and lacking in diversity. She resolved to come up with a solution. Three years ago, she launched a lab at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, where she teaches, to increase people’s access to technology and research.

The lab, called Make+Think+Code, is a place where people in the creative design, technology, civic and educational fields can come together to work on solutions to complex problems. It aims to foster a culture of inclusion and equity, focusing on convening people across industry, government and academia.

The research studio is now a venue for an ambitious new project to find a solution to one of the most pressing problems of our time: the dissemination of misinformation over social media, which has become an increasingly pervasive problem over the past few years.

On August 6 the lab will host the first meeting of the “Disinformation Project.” Open to the community, the initiative is a gathering of a diverse group of mathematicians, technologists, designers, lawyers, gamers, epidemiologists, artists and more, who will collaborate on ideas for solving the conundrum.

Ranganathan’s inspiration is Bletchley Park, the site in England where the UK government convened a team of people in the late 1930s and 1940s to work on breaking codes the German military encrypted to send strategic messages before and during World War II.

The UK government brought together a diverse set of codebreakers. A large portion of them were women, partly out of necessity since many men were off fighting in the war. The team included linguists, poets and chess players.

The codebreakers, led by British mathematician Alan Turing, developed a computer which eventually cracked the German codes, greatly helping the Allied war effort.

“We will create a human-powered, inclusive Bletchley Park,” said Ranganathan during a TEDx talk in Portland this spring.

Facebook and other social media networks, such as WhatsApp and YouTube, have come under pressure to solve the viral spread of disinformation after fake news and hate speech disseminated over their platforms have led to civil unrest and the violent death of innocent people. In the U.S., fake news influenced the most recent presidential election.

Ranganathan says it is wrong to assume that technologists are the only ones who can solve a problem caused by technology. “Why is it we assume only experts can solve problems? They do not necessarily come up with ideas,” she says.

About 250 people have signed up to the Disinformation Project, with 100 expected to attend the first gathering next week. Ranganathan envisions the participants will identify, design and prototype strategies to fight disinformation.

She hopes the one-year project, which is entirely volunteer-led, will attract sponsors and funders. She says she wanted to launch it first without ownership control so that the community can have free rein in designing the project.

This collaborative approach to finding solutions could become the prototype of the future in the increasingly knowledge-based economy.

“I would love this to be a model to solving big problems,” says Ranganathan. “This is the first step. Our goal is not to stop, but to continue to find strategies.”

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