A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Researcher Spotlight: Sean Doody

Senior Researcher Sean Doody first discovered START in the spring of 2019, when he crossed paths with START’s Geospatial Research Unit (GRU) Director Marcus Boyd after being introduced to him by an alum of his doctoral program, Dr. Melissa Cidade.

At the time, Doody was early on in his dissertation research into online political and epistemic communities, and Boyd expressed an interest in his work. He invited Doody out to START to discuss his dissertation, meet START researchers, and learn more about the sort of work START does and how it intersected with the work he was doing. A few years later, Doody was hired onto START’s Counterterrorism and Near-Peer Competition portfolio.

Where did you grow up?

My family roots are in New York, but with two caveats: first, I am the only member of my family born outside of New York state lines (and I never hear the end of it); and second, my family moved up and down the mid-Atlantic during my childhood, though we were constantly in New York. I spent the longest stint in Richmond, VA before moving to the Washington, DC area in 2016.

How did you become interested in your field of study?

I come from a deeply theoretical sociological and political economy background, and prior to my dissertation research, most of my focus was on work and labor, economic inequality, and the rise of precarious and contingent employment relationships in recent years. I began focusing more intensively on digital politics and online (sub)cultures after the 2016 presidential election when the alt-right burst onto the scene.

Learning about the alt-right led me to other online subcultures, particularly “intellectual” epistemic communities like the intellectual dark web (IDW), which I focused on in my dissertation. My interest in this area is driven by my concern with how changing political economic relations, rooted in the platform economy, affect how we communicate, engage in contentious politics, and struggle over issues related to truth, fact, and social cohesion – especially against a backdrop of social inequality, epistemic fragmentation, and social mistrust.

What’s been one of the more interesting projects you’ve worked on?

One very cool project I have gotten to work on at START is the production of synthetic social media content with deep neural language models. The goal is to train a model on known information operations (IO) social media content so that the model can mimic that content when presented with a prompt in order to generate synthetic data to use in simulation studies of influence campaigns. We used content from known IO social media accounts to fine-tune a 2.7 billion parameter language model (Eleuther AI’s GPT Neo model).

What is your favorite part about your job?

I really love programming – writing code is truly one of my favorite things. Playing with data, setting up data ingestion pipelines, creating dashboards and visualizations, and programming models is always the most exciting and creative part of the research process. There is something so satisfying about the technical side of research projects that just ticks all the right boxes for me.

Outside of work, what do you do for fun?

Outside of work, I try to spend as much time as possible with my daughter and wife. We love being outside, exploring new areas and activities, and finding new delicious vegetarian eats! Besides that, I powerlift recreationally and am a huge New York Giants fan. I used to drum in a touring post-rock band for many years before I began my dissertation research. Now that I am finished with my doctorate, I am planning to reignite the musical side of my life.