Google and IRC scholarships to fund Irish research into online safety

14 Dec 2021

Google’s Ryan Meade, Minister Robert Troy, UCC’s Cian O’Mahony and IRC’s Peter Brown. Image: Jason Clarke

UCC’s Cian O’Mahony and DCU’s Kanishk Verma are the first awardees of the Google Ireland and IRC scholarship.

The Irish Research Council (IRC) has teamed up with Google Ireland to provide postgraduate researchers with scholarships focused on addressing online safety.

As part of the IRC’s enterprise partnership scheme, postgrad students will be given scholarships to focus on issues such as combatting cyberbullying in teens and developing new software for tackling the spread of misinformation online. The first awardees of the scholarship were announced today (14 December).

Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation Robert Troy, TD, said the spread of misinformation online has “highlighted a greater need for more robust solutions to online content safety”.

“The world is now online and information spreads faster than any other point in history,” he added. “We must ensure that with such rapid growth, the internet remains a safe and reliable resource for all.”

‘Cutting-edge research’

The first two awardees of this scholarship are Cian O’Mahony from University College Cork (UCC) and Kanishk Verma from Dublin City University (DCU). They will both work under the mentorship of Dr Rebecca Umbach, user researcher at Google Trust and Safety.

Verma’s project will see him combine AI with social science to develop a systematic classification of teenager roles and behavioural patterns in cyberbullying. The interdisciplinary research project will see him design an intelligent system that can gather data from youth-focused organisations with the aim of tackling bullying.

He will work with Adapt, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for digital content, and the National Anti-Bullying Centre in DCU’s Institute of Education.

O’Mahony’s research will focus on combatting online misinformation through video games. He aims to equip internet users with the skills necessary to evaluate conspiracy theories through a specially designed online browser game, with a view to reducing susceptibility to misinformation.

He said the scholarship will give him “unique access” to the expertise and experience of a global technology company and the “practical knowledge and skills” to develop his research.

“Google’s ongoing commitment to combatting the spread of misinformation and conspiracy ideation online is demonstrated through its development of special units such as Jigsaw, which explores threats to open societies and builds technology that inspires scalable solutions,” O’Mahony added. “I am looking forward to exploring the potential benefits that could arise from combining my project with the work of Jigsaw and other Google initiatives.”

O’Mahony will also work with Dr Gillian Murphy and Dr Conor Linehan at UCC’s School of Applied Psychology.

Ryan Meade, government affairs and public policy manager at Google Ireland, said the company was excited to see what would emerge from the researchers. “Our partnership with the Irish Research Council builds on the opening of our first Google Safety Engineering Centre for Content Responsibility in Dublin earlier this year,” he said.

“Our European headquarters in Ireland is an important hub for the work we do to protect people from harmful content and make our products safer for everyone. We want to ensure we’re playing a part in stimulating cutting-edge research on these topics.”

Peter Brown, director of the IRC, added that the scheme would offer “a new opportunity to promote high-quality postgraduate research in an area which is of great importance to everyone who uses the internet”.

“Google Ireland are funding excellent PhD candidates to conduct doctoral research and develop expertise in this important topic,” he concluded.

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.