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Five Questions for Sumitra Badrinathan

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SIS is fortunate to have a large and accomplished faculty working at the forefront of their fields. Here’s the latest in our getting-to-know-you series with new SIS faculty: Professor Sumitra Badrinathan, who will join us at SIS next fall.

What are your areas of expertise, and why are you interested in these topics?
I study misinformation and political communication with a focus on South Asia and India, where I'm from. And within that, I have three research goals. The first is to understand the causes of vulnerability to misinformation. So, why do people believe it? Why do they fall prey to it? The second is to find credential solutions to the problems. What can we do to correct them? How can we improve people's cognitive processes? And the last one is to understand the consequences of misinformation—downstream outcomes on things like vote choice, polarization, social cohesion, violence, and equality of democracy. I'm interested in this because we know that misinformation has had pretty terrible effects on citizens throughout the world. But, it can have an even larger impact in developing countries like India because of lower rates of education, lower literacy rates, and new but unfamiliar internet users. This is my focus, and I largely used original survey data and experimental methods to study these questions.
Where were you before coming to the School of International Service?
I'm currently at the University of Oxford in England as a post-doctoral research fellow at a center called the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. I’ll be there until I move to DC in the fall, after I finish the post-doc. I'm also part of the Trust in News Project, which seeks to understand the drivers of people's trust in the media and news as well as ways to improve their trust in the right sources of news so they don’t fall prey to misinformation. And before this, last year in May 2021, I finished my PhD in political science at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
As a professor at SIS, what kinds of course topics interest you?
I'm interested in teaching courses on misinformation but specifically with a Global South focus. Because misinformation in that context can look very different from how it does in the American context. One of the reasons is that most people connected to the internet in the Global South are on WhatsApp, and with WhatsApp, the problem is you can't have the kind of intervention that Facebook does where the company takes down information or labels something as being untrue. So, a whole class of things that have worked in the West are just not applicable. You have to reinvent the wheel to think of what solutions work in the Global South, and it's not easy, so there's less scholarship on it.
From a methods point of view, since I use experiments in my work, I'm also very enthusiastic about teaching students experimental methods, focusing on field experiments and how they can run randomized controlled trials in the field to understand whether interventions work or not to aid both governments and policy makers.
What’s a fact about yourself that students might find surprising?
I really like bird watching. I started off with a pair of binoculars, and now I have one of those big lens cameras. I love hiking and identifying birds. And I'm also a fan of the American National Park System, so my goal when I was in the US—before I moved to Oxford—was to see all of them, and I'm about halfway through.
What book(s) are you currently reading?
I'm reading this book called Unthinkable by Jamie Raskin. He’s a congressman from Maryland [NOTE: Congressman Raskin also is a Professor of Law Emeritus at AU’s Washington College of Law] who lost his son to suicide a week before the American insurrection and had to deal not only with that really deep trauma and the mental health issues in his family but also then lead the impeachment trial against former president Trump. It's a book both about mental health and coming to terms with that but also about how his passion for those issues pushed him forward to work towards the strengthening of American democracy. I was deeply inspired by him whenever he was on TV in the aftermath of the insurrection, without knowing this background. So this book delves into both of those things. It's really sad and sobering, but it's also a beautiful read.