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Most Influential, Education: Kate Starbird

Kate Starbird spends her career studying and combating falsehoods

By Heidi Mills February 16, 2023

kate starbird

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Kate Starbird is one of Seattle’s 25 most influential people reshaping our region. #mostinfluential  

Kate Starbird sometimes wishes her research focused on happier topics.

If she didn’t spend her days devoted to tracking disinformation [false information deliberately spread to deceive people], she wouldn’t witness attempts to unravel democratic elections. She and her colleagues at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public wouldn’t be attacked and threatened online. She wouldn’t spend days and nights worrying about the deliberate lies spreading on social media, and what they mean for the future of our country.

“Sometimes I wish I was studying anything else,” Starbird says. “This content is depressing. It leads to harassment.”

And yet, Starbird continues to devote all of her professional time to the study of disinformation, the intentional spread of falsehoods. Despite the stressful nature of the work, she believes it’s one of the most important things she can do as an academic and professor.

“The erosion of democracy is one of the core challenges of our time,” says Starbird, who is an associate professor of human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington.

Starbird and her UW team have grown increasingly sought after in the media due to current events. The recent election brought organized disinformation campaigns, from both within the country and from foreign nations. Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and subsequent staff upheaval created new questions about how false claims would be dealt with on the social media platform. 

The Center for an Informed Public’s research appeared in a statement to the January 6th committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol. When Starbird talked to Seattle magazine during election season in early November, she was juggling one interview after another. 

Starbird’s journey to study disinformation began in her second career, in academia. Her first job was as a professional basketball player with the American Basketball League and WNBA. She’d been a star on the court for both Lakes High School in Lakewood and Stanford University, and went on to play professionally for the Seattle Reign, Sacramento Monarchs, Utah Starzz, Seattle Storm and Indiana Fever. 

When her basketball career ended, Starbird decided to get her Ph.D. at the University of Colorado Boulder. It was there that she first became interested in social media during crisis events. She and her lab colleagues began by studying the positive ways people interacted online after a major event, such as volunteering aid after Hurricane Sandy. 

Soon, however, they shifted the lab’s focus to investigating how rumors spread on social media after disasters. They looked at the Boston Marathon bombings, which brought many false accusations as people engaged in digital vigilantism. 

Starbird’s research shifted once again around 2015, when she realized that she wasn’t only seeing accidental rumors, but also intentional disinformation campaigns. Social media could now be manipulated for political gain, with algorithms determining who saw content. Starbird and her fellow researchers began tracking the spread of disinformation in both the U.S. and across the world. 

They watched the rise of alternative online media and looked at state sponsored sites in places such as Russia and Iran. In 2019, she and her colleagues used a grant from the Knight Foundation to establish the Center for an Informed Public. Their mission is to resist strategic disinformation, promote an informed society and strengthen democratic discourse.

Writing about disinformation makes Starbird a target for trolls, rumor mongers and political extremists. Due in part to the Center’s work on the 2020 election and testimony to the January 6th Committee, Starbird has experienced a new level of attention in recent months.

“I’ve experienced the most harassment of my career right now,” Starbird says.

Starbird is loath to talk in specifics about the online attacks, figuring that she doesn’t want to provide more fuel for those behind the keyboard. When they mock petty details like her haircut, Starbird brushes it off. She jokes that those comments might make her hairdresser more sad than she is. She does her best to ignore the threats as well. After all, she reasons, their goal is to silence people telling the truth.

“Some critics are trying to make sure folks like us can’t do this work,” Starbird says. “We have a big organization doing great work, and that work goes on regardless of harassment. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger.”  

She also simply draws the line at how far she’s willing to go for research. Though she inevitably dives into some dark places on the internet, there are some areas she avoids when working with her students. The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre occurred when she was at the University of Colorado, and her adviser had a rule that they don’t study social media around school shootings. It was simply too awful.

“I think she was trying to protect us,” Starbird says. “I carried that over to my own students.” 

Working with students is one of Starbird’s favorite parts of the job, and they remain a bright spot in a field that is often weighty. She recalled a few Ballard High School students who visited the Center, and then on their own developed presentations and posters to teach their parents and grandparents how to deal with disinformation online. Starbird also finds inspiration daily from the University of Washington students on her team.

“They care so much about democracy,” Starbird says. “That makes me hopeful for the future.”

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