Assembly: Disinformation takes up disinformation in the digital public sphere from a cybersecurity perspective, exploring the challenges and prospective upside of potential public and private sector responses to disinformation and related problems of foreign interference.
The program combines disinformation and cybersecurity expertise, innovative approaches to cross-sectoral partnerships, and thoughtful interdisciplinary programming with the Berkman Klein Center's history as a convener and long view on the problems and promise of the internet.
The Assembly: Disinformation Program
Assembly: Disinformation brings together cohorts of experts, professionals, and students to better understand -- and make progress on -- the complex issues of disinformation and foreign interference. To do this, the program is organized around three tracks:
THE ASSEMBLY FORUMis a discussion forum for senior leadership from industry, the U.S. national security community, the academic field, and civil society. The Forum hosts high-level briefings and conversations, covering the unique challenges that government and industry must address in the domain of disinformation and cybersecurity.
THE ASSEMBLY STUDENT FELLOWSHIP convenes a cohort of Harvard students from a range of disciplines and schools. Student fellows participate in problem-oriented seminars led by Harvard faculty and collaborate on student-led projects aimed at tackling real-world disinformation problems. The Assembly Student Fellowship is an evolution of the Techtopia program, which ran during the 2018-2019 academic year.
THE ASSEMBLY FELLOWSHIP is an intensive non-residential four-month fellowship for technologists, managers, and policymakers. Assembly Fellows confront problems related to disinformation by creating collaborative provocations or prototypes aimed at better understanding, drawing attention to, and countering disinformation campaigns. Over the course of the fellowship, Assembly Fellows learn and build together with the support of our community. The Assembly Fellowship was first piloted in 2017 and was co-developed with the MIT Media Lab. This year, it is hosted by the Berkman Klein Center.
These three tracks build on existing work, including three programs at the Center which were formerly known as the Berklett Cybersecurity project, Techtopia, and the Assembly program, a joint initiative with the MIT Media Lab.
Foreign interference in the 2016 US general election made “fake news” and “disinformation” household terms overnight. The anxiety and uproar in the wake of the election was soon followed by significant civil society and academic efforts around disinformation. Assembly: Disinformation is situated within a growing field of scholars and practitioners tackling problems related to disinformation and our information ecosystem. Assembly is collaborative by design and builds on existing research.
The Berkman Klein Center has itself contributed significantly to this growing field. Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris, and Hal Roberts’s essential work on Network Propaganda, has been hailed by many in the research community and beyond as one of the most rigorous studies of our information ecosystem published to this point. Our colleagues at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media are building tools aimed at reconfiguring our relationship with social media at the expense of would-be propagandists. At the Shorenstein Center, Joan Donovan leads the Technology and Social Change Research Project, which combats media manipulation through knowledge and action.
The range and urgency of activity is heartening. It reflects the fact that disinformation is being treated as a truly interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral problem, and there’s clearly no shortage of talent to be engaged. Yet, it’s not entirely clear that a unified operational agenda is emerging from a sea of disparate efforts, not by any fault of those working in the field.
The lack of unified agenda in part reflects the complexity of disinformation and the vibrancy of debate around the topic. Several scholars have contributed significant insights; yet different researchers and disciplines have competing conceptualizations of the problems of disinformation, and significantly varying proposals about what to do and who should do it.
We’re jumping in now because when we take the long view on the internet’s growth and development, the digital realm’s inability to cope with disinformation starts to look less like a niche problem and more like symptoms of long-deferred reckonings around intermediary responsibility and the connections between cybersecurity and our information ecosystem. Disinformation has the potential to serve as a forcing function for a conversation – and some resolution – that will be as uncomfortable as it is important.