DH Spotlight: Crystal Lee

Crystal Lee headshot
Posted May 5, 2021

DH Spotlight: Crystal Lee

How might data visualization allow researchers to track the development of discourses surrounding topics of public interest in today’s social media world? Such questions animate the dynamic and powerful work of Crystal Lee, who is a PhD candidate in MIT’s History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) Program and MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), as well as a Fellow in the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. This past summer, the DH Lab had the opportunity to support Lee in her work, and we are delighted to feature both that project and her wider research.

Lee works on topics related to social and political dimensions of computing—what she calls the “social life of data”—as well as data visualization and disability. Her interest in disability emerged from her work with data visualization, which is inherently inaccessible to people who can’t see. It seemed to her that while significant discussion was taking place about multi-sensory engagements with data and about the limitations, possibilities, and affordances of certain technologies, disability was not yet considered its own subject area. Perceiving this gap prompted her to focus on a larger context: “the intersection between disability and technology.” This connection is something everyone should think about, she notes, due to the assistive nature of technology.

Within this context, Lee’s work transitioned unexpectedly just over a year ago. While she had previously explored issues surrounding governance of social media and internet platforms, the rise of online misinformation about COVID-19 suddenly brought this subject to the forefront of public thought. These developments led Lee to the work that has become Viral Visualizations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use Orthodox Data Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online, a collaborative project begun in Spring 2020 with a team of seven undergraduate researchers and multiple further members of the MIT Visualization Group.

Broadly speaking, says Lee, the project “is trying to understand the social life of data revolving around COVID.” Her growing awareness of online misinformation surrounding COVID sparked a desire to “understand the landscape of what [existing] visualizations, and...discussions around data, really looked like.” She found that, in order to convey their messages, anti-mask social media users often invoke rhetorical tropes that closely resemble conventional critical thinking or data literacy. As a result, she says, these methods prove less effective in combatting misinformation. (To learn more about her findings, watch her recent talk as part of the MIT Programs in Digital Humanities Speaker Series here.)

Lee observes that MIT offers a unique atmosphere in which to study this phenomenon, as it allows for the integration of computational, ethnographic, and qualitative approaches. In reflecting on the DH Lab’s support of her work, Lee says she is grateful for “having a space on campus that really values the convergence of computation and humanistic work,” not only for her project, but for similar digital humanities to come.