Strengthening democracy in the digital age: Knight’s $50 million investment in a new field of research – Knight Foundation

Strengthening democracy in the digital age: Knight’s $50 million investment in a new field of research

On July 22, 2019, Knight made a $50 million investment to develop a new field of research around technology’s impact on democracy. Sam Gill, vice president of communities and impact at Knight, shares details below. 

When Jack and Jim Knight left behind the corpus of what would grow into the modern Knight Foundation, they had built part of the wellspring of an informed democracy—a network of local newspapers that connected people to what was happening where they lived, across the country and around the world.

The attributes of that institution—the hometown paper—have been obliterated by digital technology.

We now expect information to be available where we want it and when we want it. And, in addition to seeking information out, we passively receive a continuous stream of news, sentiments, events and entertainment.

There’s no question that technology has, in many ways, made life more convenient. It’s easier to find information than at any time in history. We can access basic services, connect to friends and family, and make our voices heard with the swipe of a finger.

Yet, left unchecked and unquestioned, the digital technology revolution could threaten the future of our democracy.

The evidence is everywhere. Earlier this year, special counsel Robert Mueller concluded that a foreign power used digital means as part of a “sweeping and systematic” effort to influence a presidential election. Ongoing are congressional hearings into whether the handful of firms that dominate social media — and therefore digital information distribution — are simply too big. There are myriad daily examples of how easily and quickly basic misinformation can spread online.

“Left unchecked and unquestioned, the digital technology revolution could threaten the future of our democracy.”

Important questions are being discussed on Capitol Hill and in coffee shops: How do people access information online and assess its veracity? Are we trapped in a series of online “echo chambers,” losing our capacity to communicate across differences? What is the prevalence and influence of misinformation? How do digital marketplaces operate, where services are free at the cost of personal data? Do the algorithms that govern social media drive us toward more ever sensational content to maximize engagement?

Despite the frenetic intensity of these conversations, we’re drowning in conventional wisdom when what we need is basic knowledge about the ways in which digital communication is altering the mechanisms of our democracy and the underlying fabric of our society.

The absence of good ideas, backed by sound knowledge, is palpable. The major social media companies have offered potential reforms in fits and starts, sometimes changing course from one day to the next. Elected officials have publicly demonstrated, most significantly through last year’s hearings featuring Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, that they are at the very beginning of a steep learning curve to understand this technology and the businesses that sustain it.

Outrage married with ignorance cannot bolster our democracy. Elected officials and executives are rushing into the breach without the sound knowledge needed to inform their proposals. The questions are new, and therefore our old doctrines are not up to the task. It’s as if we’re off the map and flying by instrument.

“We’re drowning in conventional wisdom when what we need is basic knowledge about the ways in which digital communication is altering the mechanisms of our democracy…”

Solutions are needed, but they must be driven and supported by new ideas, new evidence and new knowledge. This is why Knight is announcing nearly $50 million to help support an emerging field of research around how society is informed in the digital age.  

This investment is intended to support the development of knowledge about how digital technology has transformed the conditions of an informed society, and to provide recommendations for improving our ability to produce, distribute and consume reliable, trustworthy information. It includes two distinct approaches.

The first is the creation and acceleration of significant centers of study, each anchored by leading minds already at the forefront of these issues. They will bring together a range of academic disciplines such as political science, computer science, sociology, engineering and the law. While each of these centers has a distinct focus, they all explore how the internet and digital communication change the way we are informed:

Supporting the creation of cross-disciplinary research centers:

  • Carnegie Mellon University: The Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cyber-Security (IDeaS) ($5 million): To expand the study of information manipulation through online platforms; develop approaches to counter disinformation; and build and educate a community of scholars, practitioners and policymakers to foster an informed democratic society.

  • The George Washington University: The Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics ($5 million): To help the public, journalists, and policymakers understand digital media’s influence on national dialogue and opinion, and to develop sound solutions to disinformation.  

  • New York University: The Center for Social Media and Politics ($5 million): To directly study the impact of social media on politics and to develop new methods and technology tools to analyze the impact of social media on democracy. 

  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: The Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life ($5 million): To examine the impact of the digital information environment — especially the influence of social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube — on democracy and other sociopolitical systems.

  • University of Washington: Center for an Informed Public ($5 million): To study how misinformation and disinformation flow through information systems; how information translates into values, beliefs and actions; and how researchers, educators, librarians and policymakers can intervene in these processes to foster a more informed society.

Supporting existing research initiatives and projects: 

  • Data & Society Research Institute ($3 million): To provide general support to Data & Society’s research program on digital information systems and knowledge communities, exploring both fragmentation of knowledge and ways of building resilience to socio-technical threats, and aiming to inform new approaches to the governance and design of data-centric and automated technologies with empirical findings.

  • Indiana University: The Observatory on Social Media ($3 million): To improve the study of the impact of the internet on democracy by increasing the scale, quality and availability of social media data and analytical tools to study that data. 

  • Stanford University: The Project on Democracy and the Internet ($2 million): To support the growth of Stanford’s Project on Democracy and the Internet, which houses field-leading study of the challenges that democracy faces in the digital age and what reforms are needed — in companies and through regulation — to ensure that democracy can survive the internet.

  • University of Texas at Austin: The Center for Media Engagement ($2.5 million): To support the expansion of the Center for Media Engagement as it develops the study of how newsrooms, scholars, platforms, and public policy entities can address issues of polarization in society.

  • University of Wisconsin – Madison: The Center for Communication and Civic Renewal ($1 million): To support the completion of a 10-year study on the Wisconsin information landscape and to support the development of tools to study state and regional communication systems — and their impact on democracy — in the digital age. 

  • Yale University: The Project on Governing the Digital Public Sphere ($2 million): To support the Yale Information Society Project’s work on how law should regulate and social media companies should govern the digital public sphere. 

  • Yale University: The Thurman Arnold Project ($200,000): To support the creation of the Thurman Arnold Project at the Yale School of Management to study competition and antitrust issues in digital marketplaces.

Knight’s investment will support the creation and acceleration of significant centers of study at 11 American universities and research centers

The second is the dedication of $11 million for future investments that support policy and legal research addressing major, ongoing debates about the rules that should govern social media and technology companies. A portion of these future investments will be made through an open funding opportunity to improve research on the legal and governance aspects of digital communication.

Recent research, policy debates and public controversies have highlighted the absence of uniform consensus on the norms, rights and responsibilities that should govern digital services, in particular social media. Increasingly, our application of the law and of norms seems at best incomplete, and at worst, obsolete.

This funding opportunity targets scholars focused on free expression and content moderation on digital platforms, the structure of the social media marketplace (including issues of competition and antitrust), and new paradigms for regulatory response.

The controversies and concerns about how our democracy can thrive in a digital age are immense and immediate. New knowledge and expanded inquiry can prove durable, helping us to address a transformation that has been decades in the making—and that will continue to reshape our society and democracy for decades yet to come. Our investment is intended to support people and places that can help address the challenges of today, and that can continue to anticipate those challenges that we have not yet confronted or imagined.

What is clear through the activity supported by these investments is that a burgeoning new field is already taking shape to meet the demands of the digital age. These centers bring together a variety of disciplines to tackle perennial questions in ways that are more responsive to the digital present.

Through this investment, we hope to amplify the voices of those giving life to this emergent field, one we are confident will be of enduring and essential value for years to come.

Sam Gill is VP/Communities and Impact and Senior Adviser to the President at Knight Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter at @thesamgill.

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