COLLABORATION

New research centres to investigate how tech transforms democracy

SOURCE: Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock


By Emma Richards 

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You can’t watch the news these days without hearing something about interference in elections. Whether it’s Trump 2016 win or the Brexit referendum, how targetted social media campaigns are impacting the way the public vote.

The way that we receive and engage with information is changing fast. Gone are the days of the half-hour nightly news programmes. Now, everything is on-demand, sitting on the device in your back pocket, running on 24-hour cycles, and now dominated by social media.

A report for regulator Ofcom, released Wednesday, found half of all adults in the United Kingdom now use social media to keep up to date on the latest news. This is only showing signs of increasing as social media becomes more pervasive in our daily lives.

Donald Trump
The US intelligence community has concluded Russia interfered in the 2016 US election through the use of social media.

While social media is the prevalent tech in the news space now, it doesn’t mean it will be forever. The rise of social media, and the reliance on the platforms for news, took many people by surprise. The influence it has been able to wield on democracy in such a short space was even more surprising and worthy of everyone’s attention.

But what is tomorrow’s social media? Rather than just understand how platforms like Facebook are impacting our democracy now, we need to be prepared for what comes next.

That’s why American non-profit John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has invested US$50 million in new research that will investigate how the growth of technology has impacted our democracy and how we can prepare society to minimise the negative effects.

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

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

“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.”

How big of a role did tech play in the Brexit referendum?

Among the recipients is the University of Washington that is using the US$5 million investment to create the UW Center for an Informed Public, which will house an interdisciplinary group with a focus on resisting strategic misinformation.

New York University will also be taking a focused look at social media with its new US$5 million Center for Social Media and Politics, where they will study the impact of social media on politics and develop new methods and technology tools to analyse the impact of social media on democracy.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carnegie Mellon University, and The George Washington University will also be getting brand new research centres dedicated to the field.

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The fund will also support ongoing research, such as Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media which provides students, journalists and citizens with resources, data and training to identify and counter attempts to intentionally manipulate public opinion.

“Our democracy is at an inflection point. Technology is fundamentally changing our society, yet we are flying blind. There is a need for innovative approaches that recognise the complexity of these challenges by joining computational sciences, social sciences and the humanities,” said Knight vice president for communities and impact, Sam Gill.

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