Graduate Student Spotlight: Nika Nour’s Unique Background Fortifies Battle Against Online Misinformation

February 3, 2021

Success as a young chess player helped Nika Nour test into college at age 14 — but don’t compare her to chess prodigy Beth Harmon of the hit Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit.” “Harmon was acknowledged for her success. The men didn’t retaliate for her winning. All of a sudden, all these dudes call in to make sure she’s a champion. It’s obviously fiction!” Nour says laughing. “I grew up playing chess since I was four, and I was completely berated for loving this sport.”

Nour, the daughter of Iranian immigrants, was “one of those shapes that just didn’t fit like the others,” she says, describing her childhood in Newport Beach. So when the young teen left middle school to attend Cal State Los Angeles, she found the diverse college environment liberating. “College is a place where you can be as weird as you want and you have the authority and the autonomy of doing whatever you want.” She switched her pre-med major and graduated with a BA in communications. She went on to earn an MA in strategic public relations from George Washington University and an MS in biodefense from George Mason University. She served as an intern for the U.S. House of Representatives, later becoming the new media specialist for the Committee on Energy and Commerce. In 2012, she started work at the Internet Association as the director of communications and creative strategies. A few years later, she served as head of public affairs for the Entertainment Software Association.

In 2019, Nour’s childhood experiences, academic degrees and professional background started coming into focus with three new roles. As the executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Foundation, the chief strategy officer of Liminal Esports, and a Ph.D. student studying deepfakes in UCI’s Department of Informatics, she started tackling online toxicity and misinformation from all angles. In recognition of this work, Nour was profiled in December 2020 as part of the games category of Forbes 30 under 30, a list of those “leading a technological and artistic revolution.”

How did you first become interested in video games?
When I was younger, I would absolutely get lost in gameplay. Growing up in Orange County after 9/11 was difficult, and I didn’t really have a lot of friends. I would seek refuge from being the weird girl with the “stinky” lunch (let’s be real, Persian food is delicious!) by playing video games.

I learned the hard way about online harassment. I didn’t know about sexism or realize what was happening, but I did know that my gameplay was gendered and that I had to make sure I wasn’t using a female avatar. I was 12. But through games, through those learnings, through that refuge, I learned a lot about resiliency. A lot of who I am today is very much based on my experiences growing up. It took me years to reconcile the two, but that’s why I’m so passionate about what I do.

And what do you do as executive director of the IGDA Foundation?
We specifically focus on developing early pipelines and retention programs for underrepresented game developers in the video game industry. A key component is that games shouldn’t have systematic issues or be gendered, because it’s not like sports. Height doesn’t matter. Who you are doesn’t matter. Anybody — with the exception of accessibility needs — can pick up a controller and play. So why should it matter what you look like?

Ultimately, when you have more diverse storylines and narratives and games, it actually benefits your company’s bottom line and profit margins, because you’re tapping into households and areas where there’s purchasing powers that you’re currently not accessing. Games really are beautiful. They really are diverse. Our motto is to welcome everybody who wishes to create, make and play games. To me, it’s just the basic element of humanity.

Unfortunately, it’s often not like that in games. It’s very toxic. There’s a lot of harassment. There are a lot of trolls and a lack of moderation. It can be very scary for players. It can be very scary for makers. A great example is the harassment that the recent voice actress received for the main character in “Last of Us Part II.” When a bunch of random people on the internet can completely slander your reputation with no accountability and no remorse, and you have no ability to stop the flow of information… that’s what we’re working to end.

What about your work as chief strategy officer of Liminal Esports?
Liminal Esports is a startup game studio that works on educational games. I help advise and develop business plans and future policies. We’re also working on developing a company that is great to employees, that is sustainable and that treats its workers fairly. We want to create the gold standard of what it means to be a video game company developing an awesome and inclusive product while treating workers kindly. It’s a great mission. The studio is primarily comprised of people from the LGBTQ+ community, so it’s awesome to be a part of that and to help represent and lift them up.

What about your dissertation work?
Essentially, in my Ph.D., I’m focusing on deepfakes, and a specific priority is online misinformation. We’re seeing a communications and health crisis evolve right now with how we use the internet to facilitate the flow of information from leaders and stakeholders whom we’re supposed to trust, whom as a society we elect and empower because we need leadership at the helm to actually delegate and institute policies that are safe and sound. We’re now in a time where all of that trust is eroding. We question sources of information or we accept them without verification.

Misinformation online is really, really broad, but I love looking at things five years down the line. What’s going to happen next? That’s my approach to everything, because if you don’t shoot for the moon, if you don’t punch high, what’s the point of it all? That’s why I picked deepfakes. I definitely believe that this will be the last election we see that won’t have such a pervasive use of fake videos.

I don’t think we need to be fear-mongering, but I don’t think we’re that far from the manipulation of the likeness of us to be prevalent and out there, and from people assuming that it’s true. It’s your face. It’s your mouth. It might even be your words, but not exactly the order of what you said. I’m less worried about political leaders and celebrities — the current prime targets for deepfakes. I’m more worried about what’s going to happen to an individual who is the victim, an everyday person like you or me. I’m worried about their ability to seek recourse and resources to set their own stories and records straight, because I think we’re about to engage in the biggest “he said, she said, they said” battle of our lives in the next few years, and it’s terrifying. But I really want to study it.

What advice do you have for prospective students who similarly want to explore a particular problem?
It’s not a daunting task to get a Ph.D. if you have an idea and a narrow project focus, and an insatiable thirst and curiosity to learn about this problem in the world that you want to solve. I would like to see more people who look like me or come from backgrounds that would never expect [a doctorate] to be an option. I don’t think people realize that the Ph.D. in informatics program exists. I think there is a narrative of what a Ph.D. is, and there’s a lot of scary stories out there, but UCI has been this incredible, welcoming place. 

So I would say apply! I wouldn’t apply for the merit of the idea of what you think a Ph.D. is. I’ll admit that getting a Ph.D. is a little bit like trying to navigate an escape room, but it’s going to take you five years. You can’t expect things to be handed to you; you need to be ready to go. It’s similar to running an Ironman. Yes, it’s an individual race, but it’s one where you want every single person to win. So your colleagues are not your competition.

I probably walked in — candidly, because of my background — treating it like survivor, mostly because everybody was so damn nice! I thought they were faking it. But if you come to UCI, what you’re getting is a very welcoming environment that will foster whoever walks through those doors. It’s up to the student to choose their own adventure and build their own ambition, and it does require self-discipline, but I lucked out with my department because it’s not just well-resourced but also very hands-on and willing to lift up good students.

What’s your long-term goal with your research and work?
I’m in this because my background is a constellation of a wide variety of experiences, negotiating between private sectors, public sectors and corporate entities, and really good think tanks, and I recognize that it’s a gift. Very few people have touched every aspect and understand how all the budget lines work. So if there’s anyone who’s good at fighting like hell for those who can’t help themselves, it’s me because I’ve been there. I’ve experienced so many different aspects of it. And I’ve been fortunate to have gone through media training, swimming with the sharks, dealing with elected officials, being in the room where it happens for some of the biggest issues. So I’m kind of enjoying the research with an eye toward finding my niche in where we can expand on datasets and start looking for patterns and behaviors so that we are properly armed with knowledge to look at detection and develop solid policies to fight misinformation.

For the first time in my life, I’m content. I’m doing what I love. I’m supporting communities that I’ve never been so well positioned to support in this way. I mean, what job do you have where you just dream up programming to support the greater good, and the only barrier to executing is whether or not you can raise and find the resources for it?

Shani Murray