Digital Democracy: accelerating a new field of knowledge

Published

The events of the last year have laid to rest any doubt that we now live in an information environment inexorably remade by technology. The Covid-19 pandemic, the burgeoning movement for racial justice, and the 2020 election all fed what the World Health Organization has called an infodemic of mis- and disinformation, spread largely online, that put at risk the wellbeing of many Americans and threatened to disenfranchise many more. Fueled by conspiracy theories and organized primarily on digital platforms, the recent mob scene at the U.S. Capitol underscored how high the stakes are for our democracy. 

Countering the existential threat posed by disinformation and conspiracies on distributed networks has proven elusive. These challenges are thorny, and understanding them implicates different kinds of knowledge — including computer, data and information sciences, the social sciences, as well as expertise in the legal and policy realm. But a new field of research has begun coalescing around a vanguard of scholars that is starting to replace conventional wisdom and quick fixes with independent scholarship and informed policy remedies. 

In 2019, Knight Foundation announced a $50 million investment in new research on the ways networked technologies are impacting our information systems and our democracy. This led to the establishment of new research centers at five universities around the country, as well as a range of ongoing basic and policy research initiatives at a growing network of institutions of higher learning, independent research organizations and think tanks. Amid the tumult of 2020, many scholars who make up the Knight Research Network gave us a glimpse of how this new field can help our society begin to take a more proactive posture toward addressing threats to our democracy.

Knight asked John Wihbey, a journalism and media innovation professor at Northeastern University, to examine the impact of the research produced by scholars in the Knight Research Network. His assessment included extensive surveys, interviews with grantees and independent experts, and network and data analysis. 

The report finds that Knight’s early bets on this new field of research were prescient, and that the resulting research is driving a more informed public dialogue around solutions. The report identified key central considerations for researchers, allies and potential new entrants, both funders and researchers, who could help efforts to build this nascent field. These include the urgent need to ensure data access for researchers as well as the desire among scholars in the Knight Research Network to expand and diversify the network to preserve and grow the integrity and reputation of this emerging field.


Image (top) by Markus Spiske on Unsplash