Power Players

10 of Seattle's Most Influential Thinkers

The academics, authors, and activists who shift our ideas.

By Benjamin Cassidy and Sophie Grossman December 9, 2021

Kate Starbird. Photograph by Carlton Canary.

Kate Starbird Tweets Responsibly

The cofounder of UW’s Center for an Informed Public sniffs out conspiracy theories.

Believe it or not, Kate Starbird initially scoured the internet for good or, in the parlance of academia, “pro-social” behavior. As a PhD student at the University of Colorado in 2009, she explored how people used social media to help each other in the aftermath of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Heartwarming stuff, basically, before heart emojis were a thing.

Not so much anymore. As a cofounder of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, the former Storm hooper spends her days going down darker internet rabbit holes, combing through conspiracy theories and examining how they spread online in the Misinformation Age. Which, no matter how many times it’s said, isn’t just a Trump-supporting uncle’s problem. “Everyone’s vulnerable to misinformation,” says Starbird.

Take Covid, for instance. The pandemic was an “absolute perfect storm” for the spread of false info, intentional or otherwise. With an extended period of uncertainty and shifting scientific data, people were left to their own devices—quite literally—to make sense of the findings. Contrary to popular belief, though, the people sharing misinformation on masks and vaccines weren’t necessarily neglecting the science, Starbird says. Anti-vaxxers could find studies outside the all-important scientific consensus. “They often share and pick the science they like, to support the ideas that they want to believe.” Goosebumps, in other words, but with scarier ramifications.

It’s this nuanced analysis of digital epistemology that distinguishes Starbird’s work from run-of-the-mill lamentations about a dearth of facts on social media (hasty fact-checks, it turns out, can amplify conspiracy theories). Often her inquiries have centered on elections. By 2016, networks of fake foreign accounts were repeatedly spreading disinformation, or intentionally false info. In 2020, Starbird and other researchers found something more troubling: Voter fraud narratives stemmed from everyday people, from blue checks to local news outlets. Some unwittingly advanced this false narrative by reporting that ballots had been stolen from mailboxes. The stories lacked context; mail gets lifted regardless of whether an election is going on.

With midterms coming up, the center will lean on a $2.25 million grant to continue its “rapid response” to disinformation. Starbird will direct the center for the next two years, playing an integral role in sniffing out these nefarious networks and swiftly communicating their inaccuracies to leaders in government and media, as well as the broader public.

Now those are posts worth hearting too.—Benjamin Cassidy

Deaunte Damper

For all the progress it had wrought, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) could never claim an LGBTQ chair. Until 2019, that is, when this Seattle resident assumed the role at the organization’s local chapter. He’s advocated for gay rights and HIV awareness while supporting the struggle for racial equity as a Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County board member.

Robin DiAngelo

The University of Washington professor is emblematic of the anti-racism self-help genre, having coined the term “white fragility” in 2011 prior to publishing her best seller by the same name. She’s built a career as a diversity and equity consultant and attracted much opprobrium, both legitimate and otherwise, since becoming a critical race theory talisman.

Cecile Hansen

Nearly half a century of fighting for the Duwamish Tribe’s federal recognition hasn’t yielded the justice its chairwoman has fitfully sought. But the Chief Seattle descendant’s struggle has undoubtedly helped embed acknowledgment, and more tangible measures of appreciation, of her people into the city’s culture. Almost 20,000 people now pay the tribe monthly rent.

Brandi Kruse

Non-woke. Boss. Bootlicker. An old media counterpoint to citizen streamers, the former Fox 13 correspondent lit up Twitter as host of The Divide. The show strived to “find common ground” in our splintered political climate, giving air to centrist beliefs and drawing ire from liberal partisans accustomed to less magnanimous coverage of, say, the police. Now she’ll share that perspective via Patreon.

Nikkita Oliver

Even before they ran for city council this year as a police abolitionist, this community organizer and Seattle University law prof had radically shifted conversations about the criminal legal system. The co-executive director of Creative Justice has shepherded a nonprofit, county-backed arts alternative to jail time for youth facing nonviolent charges.

Ijeoma Oluo

Feeling alienated from the Seattle community and its values as a Black woman, she started writing after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Her 2018 book, So You Want to Talk About Race, became a fixture on bookstore shelves and anti-bias reading lists following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, peaking at No. 2 on The New York Times nonfiction best sellers list.

Omari Salisbury

A Cronkite for a stream-of-consciousness media age, his live feeds from the front lines of Black Lives Matter protests kept our Very Online city more apprised than traditional news packages. That reportage has drawn eyeballs to The Morning Update Show on Converge Media. On his nascent company’s program, he delves into topics relevant to the Pacific Northwest’s Black community with local leaders.

Dan Savage

Originator of the term pegging (the world can breathe easier now), the sex and relationship guru is one of the tone-setting voices at The Stranger. His podcast has listeners in the hundreds of thousands, and his nonprofit, the It Gets Better Project, connects and uplifts the voices of LGBTQ youth in over 20 countries.

Lindy West

The writer got her start as film editor for The Stranger, where she delivered distressingly funny takes on pop culture and the arts. A prominent, insistent voice in the fat acceptance movement, and a searing beacon of feminist provocation in the comedy world, the brains behind Shrill (a memoir-turned-Hulu show) currently delivers hot takes for The New York Times.

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