HCC project ‘Digital Wildfire’ has won a University of Oxford Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Award. These awards recognise high-quality research-led innovation across the University. Our project received a Highly Commended in the category of Policy Engagement.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter are a hugely popular feature of modern life as they enable users to share content, news and ideas with many others around the world. Unfortunately, these same capabilities allow the spread of ‘digital wildfires’ in which harmful content spreads rapidly online and damages individuals, groups and even entire communities. Digital wildfire events are becoming more and more common; for instance, we are all familiar with malicious campaigns against individuals, hate speech against demographic groups, and worries over the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories online.

Our Digital Wildfire project was a collaboration between Oxford and the Universities of Warwick, Cardiff and De Montfort. It was led by Professor Marina Jirotka and involved HCC member Helena Webb. We conducted various activities to investigate how digital wildfires spread on social media, what kinds of harm they cause, and what actions can be taken to limit or even prevent their damage.

We used our findings to support academic knowledge and have created a wider public legacy through the preparation of education and reflection materials to help users and groups of all kinds to consider issues around responsibility and social media. We also contributed to a government inquiry into children and the Internet. This led to the publication of the report ‘Growing up with the Internet’, which was debated in the House of Lords, and which has also contributed to current government inquiries into the development of an age appropriate design code for online platforms. The research has also shaped debates in the academic community and research ethics boards – in particular about appropriate methods through which to conduct research about social media and to publish findings in an ethical manner. The project achieved many positive outcomes and we are delighted to see this recognised in the VC’s Innovation Award.

(The images above are taken from our project video animation Take Care of your Digital Self)