Aaraj Vij ’23 sat down for an interview with William & Mary News recently and opened up about his experiences at the university, his aspirations and motivations. He chose his words carefully to ensure he presented himself accurately and succinctly.
Preventing and eliminating disinformation is one of his greatest missions in life, after all.
“I’ve learned how to make sure that I’m presenting the ideas that I can really stand behind,” the senior computer science and international relations double major said.
As co-director and founding technical director of DisinfoLab, a student-run research lab at W&M’s Global Research Institute that conducts scholarship to track and inform about disinformation, Vij has spent more than two years merging his expertise in technology and politics in a quest to restore trust in institutions and humanity.
Data and democracy are two key initiatives of William & Mary’s Vision 2026 strategic plan, and Vij’s interests span both. He aims to continue on this track after he graduates this week by leveraging his computer science expertise to ensure technology is being used “to achieve a better society.”
“I want to make sure that tech is being used for good,” said Vij, who plans to transition after graduation into a software engineering role at Amazon, supporting Artificial Intelligence (AI) development for the company’s virtual assistant Alexa.
‘Politics of empathy’
Vij says his inspiration comes from a “politics of empathy.” In addition to combatting disinformation, he is driven by critical issues such as climate change and affordability of education and healthcare.
“We have a boundless capacity for empathy for others. I think we ought to use it,” he said.
Vij’s passion for politics and software engineering led him from his hometown of Great Falls, Virginia, to William & Mary, where he was able to pursue his unique combination of interests. He exercised his passion for civic engagement in August of 2019 by founding a student group of 150 volunteers who conducted phone banks, campus canvasses and voter registration events for a presidential candidate.
And with his computer science background and passion for politics, Vij helped expand DisinfoLab’s research capacity by recruiting new analysts from computer science and data science backgrounds to pursue research questions that required big data collection and online network analysis.
In the summer of 2021, Vij led a team of analysts in building a machine learning model to predict the virality of tweets containing mis- and disinformation on Twitter. He also helped edit papers that evaluated the psychological underpinnings of people who believe in political conspiracy theories and the role fossil fuel companies have played in pushing climate change disinformation.
“I think that summer showed that our competitive edge at DisinfoLab certainly lies in conducting original research, and by having more technical analysts at the lab, we could take our level of research to areas that had not been met before,” said Vij, who was also a fellow for GRI’s Project for International Peace and Security (PIPS).
Vij said DisinfoLab has built up “a ton of momentum” and that its capacity to do original research has “ballooned.”
The lab published 12 op-eds and two full reports that reached more than 19,000 viewers in 26 different countries in the last year, Vij said, and the lab has also started developing software to combat online disinformation. To support these endeavors, DisinfoLab has begun exploring partnerships and collaborations with tech companies.
This past semester, DisinfoLab received grants from The Charles Center and Microsoft’s Democracy Forward team to develop a manipulated media detector. The goal is to have an online platform that uses cutting edge artificial intelligence breakthroughs to detect if an uploaded photo or video has been edited or artificially generated.
“Being able to discern between what’s real and what’s fake is incredibly important,” Vij said. “Our goal is to not only build a reliable detector for edited images but also inform users of why our model has come to that conclusion and hopefully restore trust in what we’re seeing online.”
With graduation near, Vij is prepared to take his expertise and experience working with DisinfoLab into the professional world. He is inspired to continue his technical work, and he wants to continue in the political sphere as well.
During the summer of his freshman year, in the height of the pandemic, Vij was selected by a presidential candidate’s campaign to be one of the youngest national delegates at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Moreover, he authored three amendments that were published into the national DNC platform that were focused on alleviating zip code inequality in public schools.
He also leveraged his network of delegates to organize the Virginia People’s Debates, the first Virginia Democratic Primary debates ahead of the 2021 gubernatorial election.
“I think policy is a very strong way to change the world,” said Vij, who has also partaken in citizen lobbying to increase funding for global health initiatives like tuberculosis.
Vij has stayed involved in political causes, campaigning for candidates who support policies that he supports, and he says he would consider getting more involved in the future as a policymaker. He recognizes both the potential and the potential risks of recent technological breakthroughs but is concerned that there are not enough “people with the technical expertise to craft savvy legislation.”
“I think pivoting away from tech at some point and having that background to ensure that I am effective as a policymaker would be fantastic,” he said.
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist