US$50m for research into technology’s impact on democracy

The John S and James L Knight Foundation in the United States has announced a commitment of nearly US$50 million in research “to better understand how technology is transforming our democracy and the way we receive and engage with information”.

“Amidst a growing debate over technology’s role in our democracy, these investments will help ensure society is equipped to make evidence-based decisions on how to govern and manage the now-digital public square,” a statement on the Knight Foundation’s website said.

The Knight Foundation’s investment will fund new, cross-disciplinary research at 11 American universities and research institutions, including the creation of five new centres of study – each reflecting different approaches to understanding the future of democracy in a digital age.

In addition, the Knight Foundation has opened a new funding opportunity for policy and legal research addressing major, ongoing debates about the rules that should govern social media and technology companies.

“We’re living the most profound change in how we communicate with each other since Gutenberg invented the printing press,” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president.

“The internet has changed our lives and is changing our democracy. We have to take a step back and a step forward. To understand what is actually happening, we need independent research and insights based on data, not emotion and invective. To go forward, citizens must be engaged, and including university communities in the debate is a step in that direction.”

The selected research centres and projects were chosen through an open request for proposals process launched last year, which elicited more than 100 applications. The institutions are both public and private, located across the US, and represent a range of academic disciplines.

According to the foundation, they all share a common goal: identifying how society can adapt to the ways in which digital technology has revolutionised the dissemination and consumption of information.

“Our democracy is at an inflection point. Technology is fundamentally changing our society, yet we are flying blind,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact.

“There is a need for innovative approaches that recognise the complexity of these challenges by joining computational sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

“These resources are intended to spark collaborations that meet the urgent demand for new insights and ideas,” he said.

The awards are intended to catalyse additional resources to support this “critical area of inquiry” and enable universities and research institutions to match Knight’s contribution, the foundation said.

Many of the centres and projects have already garnered support and commitments from additional funders: the Charles Koch Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies and Siegel Family Endowment have pledged support to the new centre at New York University, which also draws support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Omidyar Network is supporting the Thurman Arnold Project at Yale University. Hewlett and Luminate are supporting the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Hewlett is also supporting the new centre at the University of Washington.

Funding for these research centres and projects are part of an unprecedented US$300 million commitment made by the Knight Foundation in February to strengthen journalism and democracy. Knight continues to invite individual and institutional funders to join in this opportunity and support scalable organisations committed to serving communities at the local level.

The full list of investments by the Knight Foundation includes the award of US$5 million to universities to support the creation of cross-disciplinary research centres at:

  • Carnegie Mellon University: The Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cyber-Security (IDeaS): 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 policy-makers to foster an informed democratic society.

  • The George Washington University: The Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics: To help the public, journalists and policy-makers 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: To directly study the impact of social media on politics and to develop new methods and technology tools to analyse the impact of social media on democracy.

  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: The Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life: 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: To study how misinformation and disinformation flow through information systems; how information translates into values, beliefs and actions; and how researchers, educators, librarians and policy-makers can intervene in these processes to foster a more informed society.

The following existing research initiatives and projects will be supported:

  • Data & Society Research Institute (US$3 million): To provide general support to the Data & Society Research Institute’s research programme 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 (US$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 (US$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 (US$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 polarisation in society.

  • University of Wisconsin-Madison: The Center for Communication and Civic Renewal (US$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 (US$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 (US$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.

In addition to these investments in scholarly research, the Knight Foundation has dedicated US$11 million for future investments, to be announced later this year, that support policy and legal research on issues including internet governance and the implications of technology for democracy.

Some of these future investments will be made through an open funding opportunity to expand fundamental research on the norms, rights and responsibilities that govern digital services, in particular social media.

The 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.