TSHD Digital Humanities Symposium: Fact & Fiction, Trust & Distrust

On June 29 and 30 the second edition of our TSHD Digital Humanities Symposium took place, organized by representatives from all departments of our School (Giovanni Cassani, Frederic Tomas, Inge van de Ven, and Sander Verhaegh). The program consisted of four keynotes and ten paper presentations, and was financed by THSD and Netherlands Institute for Cultural Analysis (NICA).

This year’s theme was ‘Fact & Fiction, Trust and Distrust’. In our post-truth age, public opinion appears less influenced by objective facts and more by personal beliefs, and in both online and offline media, we see a blurring of the lines between factual and fictional discourse. This led us to question how we calibrate or modulate our (dis)trust when it comes to sources of information, given limited resources of time and attention. How do we decide what sources and voices to trust in our present media landscape, where an unprecedented number of resources for (mis)information and entertainment is available?

Over two days, we discussed such questions with scholars across a range of disciplines (Philosophy, Data Science, AI, Cognitive Science, Communication and Information Sciences, and Culture Studies). The broad theme allowed us to probe all kinds of interesting questions and problems, from ‘Can we really fall in love with fictional characters?’’ (Louis Rouillé, Collège de France) to ‘what can the use of ‘conditional’ words tell us about a text’s relationship to reality and confidence in the information related?’ (Henry Coburn, UC Santa Barbara).

The first day took place virtually. Our vice-dean of research Marjolijn Antheunis woke everyone up with a word of welcome and motivating opening speech. Dirk Hovy (Bocconi University) started with a keynote on word embeddings and how we can use them to assess changes in societal norms and associations. Presenting a collaborative eye-tracking study, Ties van Gemert and Aron Joosse (DFI & DCA) answered the question whether we are more inclined to accept (false) information from a person we are ‘in awe’ of (say: Elon Musk). Ini Vanwesenbeeck (DCC) talked about kidfluencers on YouTube, a fascinating phenomenon that leads to pressing questions about authenticity. Anna Mongibello (University of Naples) discussed deepfakes, the multimodal falsifications that undermine confidence in traditional media and reinforce polarization (why do people believe in them and how should they be countered?). Michal Klincewicz (DCA) examined what the trend of personalized medicine, such as health apps and social robots, means for our trust in medicine. A closing keynote was delivered by Miriam Metzger (UC Santa Barbara), who taught us about the cognitive biases that make us inclined to believe misinformation, and made suggestions on how to counter it.

The second day took place on campus and started off great, with talks by Natascha Rietveld (DFI) on gaslighting and post-truth and Mingyi Hou (DCU) on rumor management on Wechat. We discussed changes in journalism, where fact checking is often posed as an objective remedy to fake news crisis, while traditional gatekeepers have lost some of their standing. Kim Smeenk (University of Groningen) and Ruben de Boer (DCU) each highlighted a dimension of this phenomenon. Kim presented her PhD research on ‘I-journalism’, for which she analyzed a corpus of articles from three Dutch newspapers on the use of personal pronouns. Ruben conducted a multimodal analysis to show how a fake news website, De Nieuwe Media, ‘hijacks’ the rhetorical conventions of journalism to misinform its readership. After a dazzling lecture/performance by noise artist Martina Raponi (Willem de Koning Academy) who screened her short sci-fi film New Noises New Voices, our Dean Boudewijn Haverkort closed the symposium with some inspiring words about the future of our School. We thought it was a great success and hope the TSHD Digital Humanities Symposium will prove to be a lasting tradition. We thank all speakers and audience members, TSHD, NICA, Carine Zebedee and Marielle Syropoulos, and our wonderful assistant Rebecca de Jongh.