Cornell Tech teamed up with five other New York City universities this past academic year to “defend independent media and journalism” in a new project, according to a press release.
Cornell Tech, Columbia University, City University of New York, New York University, Pratt and The New School collaborated to create the project “Tech, Media and Democracy.” Led in part by Prof. Mor Naaman, information science, the program consisted of a four-part panel series in fall 2017 and a course in the spring.
The project focused on issues including using technology to support investigative journalism, addressing media credibility and misinformation, protecting media and journalists from attacks and utilizing business models that can support media.
Naaman said the course was inspired by recent events.
“We felt that the challenges to our democracy have been rising, especially in the sense of how the media is being attacked,” he told The Sun, calling a free press the “watchdog of democracy.”
According to Naaman, the course brought together over 100 students across 14 different academic programs from the six institutions. Students met twice per week, once as a large group and once within their university. They also participated in two hackathons, working on solutions to the problems highlighted by the course.
“We wanted to gather a room full of people with different expertise, experiences, backgrounds and interests to think about these problems together,” Naaman said. “It was great for the students to inform each other and be creative.”
Will Davis grad, who is pursuing a master’s degree in information systems, focused his hackathon projects on Twitter.
“It’s such an interesting platform,” he said. “It’s become a way for people to get real time information from their policymakers.”
In the wake of the Parkland high school shooting in February, Davis helped develop a twitterbot with information about how much money a user’s member of Congress received from pro- or anti-gun rights groups.
“In an age where disinformation is so rampant, we wanted to create a tool that, in a non-biased way, could make people as informed as possible,” he said.
For his second hackathon, Kiro Morkos grad, and his team developed The Secret Club, a system that would monitor specific news websites and store backups of all new articles. If an article was removed by government censorship, it would send a link with access to the backup to a Telegram messenger group.
“Most likely, if the government wants something to be taken down, it’s something that the public needs to see,” Morkos said. “People can subscribe to this group and see everything the government is trying to hide from them.”
Morkos added that he was originally from Egypt, where government censorship is an important issue.
“We’re kind of shielded here in the U.S.,” he said.
Rongxin Zhang grad, who is pursuing a master’s degree in information science, also worked on The Secret Club. “There is definitely risk, and not just in countries that are not democratic,” he said of developing tools to protect journalism against governments.
The topic was also highly personal for Zhang, who told The Sun that his grandfather was “someone who raised suggestions to the government, but came victim of a political witch hunt during the cultural revolution.”
However, he said that his youth helps him continue his work despite the potential consequences.
“I’m naïve enough and young enough to be ignorant about the real potential downsides,” Zhang said. “It’s almost in my genes to try and change the things that I think are wrong and need to be made better.”
The students appreciated the collaborative aspect of the course. Morkos explained what it was like to work with journalists and designers.
“It was really interesting to see how others looked at the problems we were dealing with, and even things I didn’t even know about,” he said.
Davis said a key takeaway was “learning how to tackle problems from other perspectives.”
Zhang said he hoped there would be more courses like this one. He wants the technology sector to not only advance their field but to “develop real systems with serious impacts that could change the trajectories of countries.”
Naaman hopes to offer the course again in the future.
“Students eventually end up working in companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times and other such companies, where they can now bring in more informed thinking having been exposed to some of the ideas and challenges in this domain,” he said.