Information School Ph.D. candidate Prerna Juneja, advised by Assistant Professor Tanu Mitra, is the recipient of this year’s University of Washington Graduate School Medal for her research on misinformation.
The Graduate School Medal is awarded to one doctoral candidate at the university each year to recognize a scholar-citizen who is tackling a challenge of significant social importance through rigorous scholarship. The winner is then selected through a highly competitive process. Juneja was honored at a ceremony in early June and recognized with a $5,000 award.
“I feel immensely happy and humbled to receive this award, especially considering the exceptional pool of candidates I was competing with,” said Juneja. “Everyone in this year's cohort is doing remarkable work, so even being nominated amongst such talented individuals is an honor.”
Juneja's research focuses on exploring how social computing platforms contribute to the dissemination of misinformation through algorithmic auditing. Specifically, she investigates the role of algorithms on platforms like Amazon and YouTube in amplifying misleading information. She poses critical questions such as, “When users engage with problematic content, like watching a misinformative video on YouTube or adding an anti-vaccine book to their Amazon cart, how does that action impact their future searches and recommendations?”
After conducting misinformation audits on different platforms, Juneja set out to design defenses against it. But before thinking about the solutions, she spoke with fact-checking organizations and news agencies across four continents. Through these conversations, she not only gained a global perspective on prevailing fact-checking practices but also identified the challenges faced by these organizations. This groundwork laid a solid foundation for her subsequent efforts to combat misinformation effectively and highlighted the importance of studying misinformation beyond the U.S.
“Misinformation is a global problem and solutions that work in the U.S. may not necessarily be applicable elsewhere,” said Juneja. "The problems and challenges associated with misinformation vary due to all the different factors at play, such as politics, policies, culture and information infrastructure.”
In collaboration with PesaCheck, the largest Indigenous fact-checking organization in Africa, Juneja designed a tool to combat misinformation specifically tailored to address the challenges in the Global South. This tool has been successfully deployed and utilized to monitor and identify misinformation on YouTube, focusing on topics such as Kenyan elections, COVID-19, politics and ebola.
“The feedback we have received on the tool has been really encouraging. Collaborating with people who are actually going to use the tool is essential to designing effective solutions and technology,” said Juneja. A technology or tool should not be built in isolation. It's really important that you actually involve the people who are actually going to use it.”
Juneja has already shared her findings with Congress and remains committed to further understanding the narratives surrounding misinformation in the Global South. She aims to continue working closely with fact-checking organizations to enhance technological defenses against misinformation.
"As technology continues to progress, it is vital to constantly improve our tools and explore additional solutions," said Juneja.
She acknowledged that the deployed tool is not a complete solution to the problem and emphasized the importance of iterative development. “It must be a continuous work in progress,” said Juneja. She underscored the need for continued dialogue between different stakeholder groups, including platforms, policymakers, fact-checking organizations, news agencies, and users of technology, to ensure the effectiveness of technological solutions in the fight against online misinformation.