The civil war in Syria has been described by scholars as the “most socially mediated civil conflict in history.”1 The decade-long ongoing war has killed hundreds of thousands and forced more than half the country’s population to flee their homes—and Syrians have taken to social media to share, via videos, posts, and tweets, their accounts of the violence.
Erin Walk, a doctoral student in the Social and Engineering Systems (SES) program at MIT and recipient of a 2019–20 Hammer Fellowship, is researching how Syrians use social media to share information about the conflict. By analyzing millions of messages and images posted to Facebook, Twitter, and the Telegram messaging app, she and colleagues hope to identify ways of tapping the internet to assist hard-to-reach groups of people displaced by the conflict who seek to return home.
“Such insights may help in creating new policies to better support returning refugees,” says Walk. “It’s very fulfilling to feel as though my research can lead to immediate humanitarian benefits, which is one of the reasons I chose this field and the SES program.
Walk is one of several Hammer Fellows currently pursuing research into the use of social networks and online media to inform—as well as to disinform.
Supporting their work is a fellowship program in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) that honors the legacy of the late MIT computer science professor and business leader Michael Hammer ’68, SM ’70, PhD ’73, whose best-selling book Reengineering the Corporation influenced many companies to redesign their organizations and cultures.
Shedding light on social networks, advancing positive change
Established in 2017, the distinguished fellowship supports postdoctoral researchers and students in the doctoral program in SES who are addressing significant societal challenges. Twenty-two Hammer Fellows have been named to date.
Among them, Jessy Xinyi Han, a PhD student and 2020–21 Hammer Fellow, is analyzing racial disparities in police use of force in many major cities across the United States using different computational tools. “We are interested in how a person would be treated differently by the law enforcement system and criminal justice system had he or she been of a different race,” Han says. “Ultimately, based on the results of our analysis, we plan to propose pragmatic changes to advocate a more fair and respectful service.”
Han is the first in her family to go to college and now graduate school. “My personal background sparked my passion to contribute to social welfare and reduce social disparities through my expertise in computer science and engineering,” she says. “The potential social impact of my research always excites me.”
Arnab Sarker, a PhD student and 2019–20 Hammer Fellow, pursues research at the intersection of social networks and statistics, focusing recently on social inequality and on Covid-19 forecasting. “I’m mainly motivated by the opportunity to work on problems that are both impactful and interesting,” he says. “At the same time, the underlying math and theory involved in this work is fascinating to me.”
Manon Revel, a PhD student and 2019–20 Hammer Fellow, has research interests in electoral systems and political behavior, and has investigated how clickbait advertising in online publications affects trust in journalism. “I believe that rethinking the ways we make decisions deemed legitimate in our modern information environment is key to democratic stability, currently at risk,” she says.
Harnessing big data to fight discrimination, extremism
Zachary Schutzman and Chris Hays are active in the Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism, an interdisciplinary research effort that draws on big data and computational tools to identify and overcome racially discriminatory processes across a range of American institutions and policy domains.
Schutzman, a postdoctoral Hammer Fellow for 2021–22, works on problems that arise from the application of computing to electoral redistricting, and is building new algorithmic tools to help in drawing and understanding the impacts of districting plans.
“I think of my research as helping to describe some of the limits of what computation can and can’t do,” Schutzman says. “With the redistricting work, it’s very cool to see the broad range of people, from concerned citizens to Supreme Court justices, who engage with something I’ve contributed to, even in a small way. I’m excited to do work that helps people think about hard social problems in new ways.”
Hays is a doctoral student and 2021–22 Hammer Fellow whose research focuses on social media’s effect on society, specifically the ways social media sites are connected to the proliferation of online extremism. “Researchers have no robust way to probe how or why extremism emerges and the role that algorithms play in its development,” Hays says. “I am working to build new tools that will allow greater insight into the way people and social media algorithms interact, especially as it relates to radicalization online.”
Hays adds: “One of the very exciting aspects of the project is that there are students and faculty from a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds that are contributing to the research. Different members of the group contribute different areas of expertise, and collectively we are making progress that no one of us could achieve alone.”
Enabling scholars to focus on research without funding worry
Recipients say the Hammer Fellowship has provided the freedom to discover new avenues of research and the needed support to pursue them.
Elijah Pivo, a doctoral student and 2020–21 Hammer Fellow, noted he ended up being paired with a mentor, Dimitris Bertsimas SM ’87, PhD ’88, the Boeing Leaders for Global Operations Professor of Management, who had not previously collaborated with an IDSS student. “Being supported by the Hammer Fellowship gave me time to find where I think I fit best,” Pivo says. “I absolutely would not have found such a good fit without it.”
Pivo is working with Bertsimas on strengthening the medical record data sets that doctors use in making decisions on patient care. “I see opportunities to greatly improve health care and feel like I’m part of a team that can actually do it,” Pivo says.
Walk is working on her cross-disciplinary Syria project with Fotini Christia, SES chair and Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences, and Kiran Garimella, a 2018–19 Hammer postdoctoral fellow at MIT who is now an assistant professor of library and information science at Rutgers.
Their paper, “Social Media Narratives on Conflict from Northern Syria,” coauthored with Elizabeth Parker-Magyar, a doctoral student in comparative politics and political methodology at MIT, and Ahmet Akbiyik, a doctoral student at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is under review for publication.
Garimella, whose research uses large-scale social media data to understand and engage societal problems such as political polarization, misinformation, and hate speech, credits the Hammer Fellowship for helping him to make the most of his MIT postdoc experience. “The fellowship provided an opportunity to focus on real, impactful research without worrying about acquiring funding,” he says. “This enabled me to work on truly interdisciplinary problems and to take risks.”