Galen Weld ’14: Finding A Route to Healthy Online Communities
Jonathan Shipley, Bush Class of 2021 Parent
Galen Weld ’14 might be biased, but he thinks The Bush School’s former Upper School Science Teacher Erica Lengacher is a great mentor. “She encouraged me to be curious, develop and pursue my interests. She taught me that instead of merely content dabbling in something, I should really pursue it.” And Galen is without a doubt pursuing his interests.
In addition to attending the University of Washington, where he is a Ph.D. candidate researching the factualness and biases of news sources, he is also a climber. In fact, he is the youngest climber ever to climb the tallest 100 peaks in the state of Washington. It was Erica who first encouraged him to take Wilderness First Aid classes. Most everything is like a climb to Galen: hard work, but meaningful. Take, for instance, his doctorate research project. “It is rewarding to work on this so directly today with the challenges we’re all facing—with the coronavirus and the coming presidential election.” These are polarizing topics, Galen knows, and ripe for misinformation and distortion online. He hopes his research, still in its early stages, will help close gaps, build bridges between disparate communities, and foster collaboration rather than polarization. This heady task is one he is eager to take on. His time at Bush helped him to realize this. “Bush encouraged me to constantly try and seek out ways to teach myself more and to improve myself.” Taking strides toward making oneself better makes a community better. Galen’s research has taken him to the online Reddit community. Using data from Reddit, which consists of approximately 50,000 communities called subreddits, he is looking for links to news sources and labeling those links with the bias (left, center, right) and factualness (fake news, mostly factual, rigorous peer review) of each source. Then, aggregating by community and user, he can find the communities and users who share the most misinformation and are therefore most biased. Of the project, Galen says, “I truly believe this fills a critical gap in our understanding of how people interact online.” For his project, Galen is also collecting data on moderation actions. Volunteer moderators, who can set rules and enforce them, are a commonly used form of flexible, scalable governance for online communities. “However,” Galen notes, “at the present moment society lacks data driven best practices for how to use moderation to reduce the spread of misinformation in online communities and keep them open and healthy.” It’s a mountain of a project, to be sure. “I strongly think that as internet access becomes more widespread and more strongly integrated into our society, our society will be increasingly shaped by the sorts of interactions we have online.” The interactions Galen had at Bush, both face to face and on screens, have led him to this pursuit to better understand society. “At Bush I knew I wanted to study computer science and at Bush I knew that I wanted to work on something that had a real positive impact on society.” This knowledge led him to the University of Washington. It has led him to a Ph.D. in computer science. It has led him to want to have further interactions, online or otherwise, where people can learn and grow, to be exposed to new and occasionally uncomfortable viewpoints, and to interact with diverse groups of people. The truth is, if anyone can scale the summit of this task, Galen can. Erica Lengacher would undoubtedly agree.