Information and Decision Sciences Assistant Professor Jason Chan has a strong interest in information technology. Particularly the impact it has on health and society. “We see an interlink between technology and people’s lives,” he says. “It changes the way we live.”
What got him interested in the topic was when he was deciding what to do for his PhD. “I wanted my work to be impactful and something a lay person could understand,” he says.
So, one of his first studies looked into the world of Craigslist, the well-known classified advertisement website. Craigslist has numerous sections, but what caught Chan’s eye were the personals. “People are trying to solicit casual sex,” he says. “I couldn’t help but wonder if people got STDs as well since they are hooking up and not knowing sexual histories.”
Craigslist is unique in that it opens in one city at a time, so it has a relatively slow expansion rate. As Chan began compiling data from Craigslist and tracked this expansion, he found a match to a growth rate of HIV. “It was a very strong link. No matter what I did to the data, this link was always there,” he says.
Chan then took his work deeper. There are two ways people can solicit casual sex on Craigslist—through the personals section or through erotic service ads. “Sex workers are operating in this space,” he says. “I tried to go further in which one of the sections is causing this climb in HIV. It turns out it’s coming from the personals section—that is driving the increase in HIV.”
When the owners of Craigslist heard about the study, “Internet’s Dirty Secret: Assessing the Impact of Online Intermediaries on HIV Transmission” (MIS Quarterly, 2013), they went in and made website changes. “On entry and in the personals section there is a clear warning page. It says if you are trying to hook up with someone online this is not a safe practice. Get yourself checked,” Chan says. “The website is getting more cautious about things that could happen from a user’s point of view.”
Another IT question Chan had was the relationship between the internet and hate crimes. “Compared to the offline world, people now can access different ideologies online,” he says. “In the past, such groups could only expand slowly. Now such views are no longer contained but are becoming more liberated.”
So are people getting more racist and does this convert to more racial hate crimes? Chan found a positive link between the internet and an FBI hate crime data set. “What is happening is the online medium is creating these lone wolves,” he says. “People believe such ideologies are OK and they get converted to crimes out there. Such things happen more in areas where racial segregation is higher.”
Interestingly Chan’s paper on the subject, “The Internet and Racial Hate Crime: Offline Spillovers from Online Access” (MIS Quarterly, 2016) was accepted for publication in early 2015. A few months later, a young man named Dylann Roof walked into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African Americans. “In that incident, the description of that person matched up well with our paper,” Chan says. “Tend to be a lone wolf. Visiting racially charged websites.”
Finding solutions to this issue is tougher. Should there be barriers on freedom of speech online? “There’s a lot of fake news out there and we need to do a better job of cleaning up content online,” Chan says. “We need to make sure the things we see online are correct and properly reported. There has to be some control, but not full censorship out there.”
Chan says IT is a rich field of research. “Technology is growing at a very fast speed and at the same time leaving a lot of gaps in how we function as a society,” he says. “Most of the attention is on the good things that IT can give us. There’s a lot of excitement around that and that’s natural. But technology also has this dark side to it. I’m hoping this area of research will continue with what I started.”
A Force for Innovation
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Learn more about using business as a force for good in the Carlson School Alumni Magazine, where this feature originally appeared.