With the emergence of advanced digital technology – including artificial intelligence and social media – information can be manipulated and spread quickly without fact-checking. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic escalated the threat of misinformation globally and increased the importance of fact-checking.
Prerna Juneja, a doctoral student from the Information School, has seen firsthand the effects of false information. As a social computing researcher, she studies the phenomenon of online misinformation, recognizing its multifaceted complexity. She focuses on studying the issue’s algorithmic, policy, fact-checking and design aspects.
“It was always important, but I think these past five years have highlighted how important it is to study and tackle this problem globally,” Prerna says.
Prerna was recently awarded the 2023 Graduate School Medal, which recognizes one scholar-citizen graduate student whose academic expertise and commitment to their community promotes social change.
“It feels great being recognized for your work,” Prerna says. “Especially when this award is all about social impact.”
With the help of her advisor, Prerna has spent the last few years researching the problem of search-enabled misinformation. She focused her thesis around understanding how algorithms play a role in surfacing misinformation to users. However, a profound sense of responsibility drove Prerna to direct her efforts toward developing defenses against misinformation online.
In her search for designing defenses, she realized that most of the research in this space is isolated and doesn’t involve the people working at fact-checking organizations.
“I wanted to interview people working at these fact-checking organizations to understand better the methods they use, problems, and any challenges they’re facing so that we can build designs that cater to their needs,” Prerna says.
She interviewed individuals from 16 fact-checking organizations across four continents to get a global perspective on misinformation and better understand the needs of fact-checking organizations.
Prerna highlights the invisible fact-checking work involving policy, advocacy, and long-term investigative work. Through the second part of her thesis, she brings attention to the information infrastructure challenges prevalent in the Global South region and how it differs from the Western world. “Some fact-checkers told us that even the census information in their country is not the most current,” Prerna says.
One point highlighted through the interviews and the overall findings was that the technological solutions alone could not enhance fact-checking quality. There must be advocating for holistic change through systematic improvements in the countries’ civic and political infrastructure and policies.
After conducting interviews and identifying a key issue, Prerna directed her attention toward YouTube, a platform that had been relatively under-researched in the context of misinformation. Her goal was to assist fact-checkers by developing a system specifically designed to discover misinformation and credibility assessments on YouTube.
“I wanted to design the system with the fact-checkers incorporating their knowledge and insights to ensure the system’s applicability in the real world,” Prerna says.
Prerna collaborated with a fact-checking organization in South Africa, PesaCheck, for two years to develop YouCred, a fact-checking system for YouTube that automatically generates search queries related to important events and topics of interest to fact-checkers. The fact-checkers actively participated in all aspects of the project, from system design to deployment and evaluation.
“YouCred is the culmination of over two years of continuous collaboration with PesaCheck, and it represents a significant step forward in combating online misinformation on video search engines,” Prerna says.
Through this tool, fact-checkers can generate search queries about topics of interest that could lead them to misinformation on YouTube. The tool provides an intuitive interface to help fact-checkers analyze the videos for problematic claims. Fact-checkers use YouCred to monitor several topics about health and global events such as COVID, Ebola, cancer, the World Cup and the Kenyan elections. “The outcome was that the fact-checkers consistently embraced and utilized the tool, signifying its value and potential impact,” Prerna says.
By continuously engaging with fact-checkers, Prerna demonstrates the need to build long-term effective solutions against online misinformation.
Currently, Prerna is working with Hayoung Jung, an undergraduate student, to examine the disparity in the quality of COVID-19 search results on YouTube between the United States and South Africa. Preliminary findings reveal a higher prevalence of misinformation in search results in South Africa, underscoring the need for platforms to implement fair content moderation practices and consistent algorithmic behavior for problematic topics across regions.
By Tatiana Rodriguez, UW Graduate School
Published on July 20, 2023