Adriana Iamnitchi likes to be challenged

Adriana Iamnitchi’s career appeared like a bed of roses. She served as a full professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of South Florida. Nonetheless, she sought out new challenges and moved to Maastricht, where she focused her research on social media.

Iamnitchi grew up in then-communist Romania. "When choosing my studies, I felt I had roughly three options: medicine, the highly politicised social sciences, or sciences. Because I was good at mathematics and physics, I chose sciences. More specifically, I chose the field of computer sciences only because it was the hardest to get into. I had no idea where my choice would lead me.”

Online gift

The professor's career began when the internet was in its infancy. Textbooks from the US, at the time worth roughly half of a Romanian's monthly salary, were still printed on paper. "It was a tremendous gift when Ian Foster of the University of Chicago published a freely available textbook on parallel programming online. I decided to include the University of Chicago among the universities to which I applied, and before I knew it, he became my PhD supervisor.”

In the United States, Iamnitchi rose through the academic ranks, eventually becoming a full professor at the University of South Florida. "At some point, I was looking for new professional challenges. Furthermore, my husband and I intended to raise our children in Europe." In 2021, the family decided to relocate to Maastricht.

Computational Social Science

Her research at Maastricht University focuses on a new field of science called computational social sciences. "We investigate how people interact with digital platforms, like social media, and how they interact with each other through such a platform." She uses a relatively benign example: "We looked at how cheating behaviour spreads among video gamers online." Yet, her field of work is not always so innocent. She also studies how governments use social media to influence users and their opinions. “Thanks to the internet and social media, online manipulation at all levels (for political and commercial purposes) is a relatively simple and inexpensive task that allows for reaching out to a large number of people at once.”

Access to data is a tricky topic. Western social media companies, with former Twitter as the best example, used to provide researchers with access to some data they required. Last year, things changed dramatically. "X abruptly decided to begin selling their data for a high price, rendering them inaccessible to most researchers. Unfortunately, other social media companies followed X's lead. We manage to hang on by creating and testing models and algorithms using old and synthetic data, so they are ready as soon as we get our hands on real data."

European challenges

Some of the recent problems Iamnitchi works on are specific to the European situation. Since last year, social media companies must register in the Digital Service Act Transparency Database whenever and why they remove content. They accomplish this at a rate of two million records per hour. One could argue that this is more than enough data. Unfortunately, companies only provide very general explanations for why they remove content, such as 'scope of platform service', without registering the disputed content itself. “Is this real transparency, then, true to the spirit of the Digital Services Act?” She currently investigates this question in collaboration with law scholars from Utrecht University.

Iamnitchi is astounded by the habit of European researchers to work with American data; she hopes to change this. “Whenever I attend a European conference, I listen to European scientists discuss their research on the role of social media during, say, the American elections. As if there have been no recent elections in Europe, such as in Poland or the Netherlands, and as if there are no disinformation campaigns around European elections."

On February 2, Iamnitchi will deliver her inaugural lecture titled "Cheats and gossips in cyber-social processes." She will demonstrates that her work extends far beyond cheating video games, gossip, and backstabbing on social media.