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Brigitte Seim is an assistant professor of public policy at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a CURS Faculty Fellow. Seim is a scholar of comparative politics, focusing on the political economy of development. Her research examines the relationship between citizens and political officials, with a particular emphasis on accountability in developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Seim is particularly interested in two related but distinct threads of research: one considers how accountability mechanisms can be perverted or disrupted when institutions are weak or states are developing; and the other considers the methods and data used to study accountability relationships around the world.

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Transcript from the video, Brigitte Seim: Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Revisited

I’m Brigitte Seim and I’m an assistant professor here at UNC in the department of public policy, a fellow here at CURS and also an adjunct professor in both global studies and political science.

Tell us about your ongoing research.

One aspect of my research that I think is most compelling is I’m currently involved as a project manager in the Varieties of Democracy project. The Varieties of Democracy, or V-Dem, project produces a publicly available dataset on over 300 different indicators about politics for every single country in the world going back to 1700. My role with V-Dem is to be the project manager of experiments which means that I run experiments and other tests to validate the V-Dem dataset and ensure, in particular, cross country/cross context comparability of the data. So, we implement various tools including experiments, but other things as well, to ensure that when you look at the V-Dem data you can compare countries to each other and over time.

Another aspect of this work with V-Dem has turned into another publicly available dataset. Together with three other project managers at V-Dem, we founded the Digital Society Project (DSP). The Digital Society Project uses the V-Dem infrastructure to collect data on online media freedom and the politicization of online media. So, in other words, we collect data on things like foreign government interference in domestic media, how the government shuts down certain sites on the internet or deletes certain posts on social media, and things like whether people mobilize protests online, or even worse, genocide… ethnic cleansing activities online…various things like that. And the data are all publicly available.

As part of both of those data projects, now we’ve been working with USAID to provide them with country reports that inform their work. To investigate certain research questions pertinent to their work and assist them and using the V-Dem data and the DSP data by designing online tools for them, conducting trainings, etc.

What has been most surprising about what you’ve found so far?

I think there are two things that have been particularly surprising. One is just the extent to which both practitioners and researchers are using the data from both V-Dem and the Digital Society Project and the extent to which they seem engaged and eager to use academic research to inform their work. I think there’s a misperception that practitioners and researchers don’t speak to each other and it’s great that we actually observed that they do and that practitioners are eager to dialogue with us and interested in our expertise and we in turn are hopeful about collaborating with practitioners.

The second surprising thing just relates specifically to the Digital Society Project. We actually just released the first publicly available dataset on online media freedom and the politicization of the online space and one of the most interesting things that we found as we were going through the data is that Taiwan is the country with the most foreign interference in their online media. So it’s been fascinating to see the reaction to this finding. Everyone kind of knew that was the case but this was the first time it was documented. This was the first time that someone could point to a graph, point to a data point and say, look, Taiwan is being affected by the Chinese online. The Chinese are interfering with Taiwanese media. So, I think that was both a powerful thing to be able to show and it was surprising in the sense that people were very eager to spread the word about this finding as a result of our dataset going public.

What do you hope to learn in the next stage of your research?

I think that we’re really eager to look at the Digital Society Project and how these indicators change and how our data paint various pictures in the next phase. We have two years of funding currently, so we had funding to collect the data this first year and currently the dataset goes back to the beginning of the internet effectively – 2000. And then we also have funding for next year to collect data to update it for 2019, but we’re eager to collect data for all of the years to come, as long as the internet is around, which it appears to stay. So, we’re excited about that. And then the other thing is that, as part of the Digital Society Project and our partnership with the USAID, we are currently writing a research paper on how authoritarian regimes are engaging with the online space. We’re looking at specifically whether authoritarian regimes are viewing the online space and the internet as a tool, something that they can use to suppress dissidents or to excite followers – or whether they’re looking at it more as a threat. A place where people are mobilizing uprisings against them or spreading dangerous words about organizing violence or taking down the government, that kind of thing. So, I’m excited to see what the results are of that work.

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