University of Washington


There is a pressing need to understand how social media platforms are being leveraged to conduct information operations—efforts by state and nonstate actors to manipulate public opinion through methods such as the coordinated dissemination of disinformation, amplification of specific accounts or messages, and targeted messaging by agents who impersonate online political activists. In addition to being deployed to influence democratic processes, information operations are also utilized to complement kinetic warfare on a digital battlefield. In prior work we have developed a deep understanding of the Twitter-based information operations conducted against the White Helmets volunteer group in Syria, efforts that attempt to diminish sympathy and solidarity for both the White Helmets and the civilians living in the government-opposed areas of the country. Extending upon this work, our proposed research is concerned with how Facebook is leveraged within information operations against the White Helmets, and how a subsection of the “alternative” media ecosystem is integrated into those operations. We aim to understand the structure and dynamics of the “alternative” media ecosystem that is utilized by information operations to manipulate public opinion, and more about the audiences that engage with related content from these domains. Our research will provide insight into how Facebook features into a persistent, multiplatform information operations campaign. Complementing previous research, it will provide insight into how a subsection of the alternative media ecosystem is leveraged by political entities to microtarget participants in specific online communities with strategic messaging and disinformation.

Principal Investigator

Kate Starbird

Assistant Professor, University of Washington

Kate Starbird is an assistant professor at the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. Starbird’s research is situated within human-computer interaction and the emerging field of crisis informatics—the study of the how information-communication technologies are used during crisis events. One aspect of her research looks at how online rumors spread during natural disasters and man-made crisis events. More recently, she has begun to focus on the spread of disinformation and other forms of strategic information operations online. Starbird earned her PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder in technology, media, and society and holds a BS in computer science from Stanford University.


Ahmer Arif

Research Assistant & PhD Candidate, University of Washington

Ahmer Arif is a PhD candidate at the University of Washington’s department of Human Centered Design & Engineering. His research falls at the intersection of computer science and social science and is situated within the field of computer-supported cooperative work. He uses a combination of empirical methods—including qualitative, computational, and network analysis—to examine small group and large-scale interactions in online settings within contexts of mass disruption like terrorist attacks and civil wars. A major focus of his work has been to examine how different groups use communication technologies like social media to spread, shape, and confront problematically inaccurate or deceptive information in these settings. His work touches on broader questions about the intersection of technology and society—particularly around how we might use and shape our tools for cooperative civic purposes to reliably and effectively promote human flourishing. He is an international student from Pakistan with a background in computer science and English literature. Outside of academia, he’s had the good fortune to work as a researcher and consultant with several large organizations like Facebook, Yahoo!, the World Bank, and the United Nations Development Programme.

Andrew Beers

Research Assistant & PhD Student, University of Washington

Andrew Beers is a PhD student in the University of Washington's Human Centered Design & Engineering program, living in Seattle. Until the summer of 2019, Beers worked at the Quantitative Translational Imaging Lab (QTIM) at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging. His work at the QTIM particularly focused on machine learning as applied to medical imaging scans, as well as development for the imaging program 3D Slicer and the Python package DeepNeuro. Before that, Beers was an undergraduate at Brown University in the Environmental Studies Department researching historical records of climate change in the North Atlantic ocean.

Tom Wilson

Research Assistant & PhD Candidate, University of Washington

Tom Wilson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. Wilson’s research focus is online information operations—understanding how social media platforms are being leveraged by state and nonstate actors to distort public opinion. By combining quantitative methods—e.g., to identify patterns, networks, and anomalies—with in-depth qualitative analysis, Wilson’s research takes a human-centered approach, developing a comprehensive understanding of these sophisticated, nuanced activities, including collaborative (but not necessarily explicitly coordinated) activities.