Sophomores Take On Simmons World Challenge

This January, a select group of the Simmons sophomore class explored the way media informs or influences our civic discourse through this year’s Simmons World Challenge, “Would I Lie to You? Democracy and Civic Engagment” led by Professors Nanette Veilleux, Ellen Grabiner and Laura Saunders.

Over the course of two weeks, students attended classes, welcomed guest speakers, went on a field trip to CCTV, and worked in groups to present an actionable solution to some of the problems that the class explored.

One of Maggie Belfi ‘18’s favorite assignments during the course was an analysis of a popular men’s magazine using a code book – an excel spreadsheet that tracked the number of times different items appeared in an image or not.

“We went through a brief history of a popular men's magazine to see what the pictures were trying to suggest. It was so cool to see different patterns and to use what we found to figure out who the magazine is geared towards, what’s happening politically, and what other influences are [involved in] the creation of the cover photo.”

Belfi says that she now takes a closer look at where she gets her information, asking questions like, “[W]ho wrote this article? What news source is it coming from? What am I seeing in the pictures? Is the article still relevant to current events?”

Belfi’s group project, Publicize the Truth, was designed to encourage readers to ask similar questions about where they get their news and to push them out of what Eli Pariser calls an “online ‘filter bubble.’”

Pariser’s TED talk highlights the way search engines and social media – including Google and Facebook - tailor what the user sees based on signals and past behavior (e.g. what the user has clicked in the past, where they are located and what browser they’re on). This customization, he argues, reinforces someone’s current view of the world and limits their ability to see information that challenges it.

The group project Belfi worked on aims to fight these ‘filter bubbles’ by providing users with randomized content that is independent of their previous searches.

"We decided to do two things: build a website and create a social media campaign. On our website, users are [encouraged] to read a randomized news article about different weekly [topics]. After reading the article, we want users to go back to our site and discuss what they have read,” Belfi said.

“[O]ur social media campaign was focused on driving various types of users back to our website and also getting them to learn more about the ways in which 'filtering' is affecting what we see online. We used social media because of the grassroots feel that it can have online, and having this connectivity with our users was essential to a successful website.”

Participating in Simmons World Challenge has given Maggie Belfi more confidence in her future. She is currently pursuing a Political Science degree with a minor in Economics.

“After I graduate, I will most definitely be going on to get my Master’s Degree in Public Policy and SWC has helped me realize that that is exactly where I want to go and what I am passionate about,” Belfi said.

To first year students considering the program for next year, Belfi says, “Do it! Take a chance and apply! This program is a great way to spend your break because you get to hang out in Boston [and] create something that you may not have time to do in a typical lecture class.”

Presentations from this year’s Simmons World Challenge will be held on February 10, 2016 from 3:00 – 6:00 pm in SOM M222.

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