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Foundation Commits $50 Million to Study How Social Media, Tech Impacts Democracy

July 22, 2019 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced Monday it is committing $50 million for research to better understand how social media and technology are impacting democracy.

The nonprofit foundation, which focuses on journalism and fostering “informed and engaged communities,” said in a release that the research effort is a response to growing concerns about what transpires in the now-digital public square.

In the wake of the manipulation of tech giants like Facebook and Twitter during the 2016 election, the research project at 11 universities and research institutions “will help ensure society is equipped to make evidence-based decisions on how to govern and manage these platforms.

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

“The internet has changed our lives and is changing our democracy,” Ibargüen said. “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.”

In addition to delving into social media’s impact on election campaigns, the grants include projects on the spread of disinformation and how newsrooms can address polarization in society.

Eleven individual  institutions will receive grants to pursue different avenues to understanding the future of democracy in the digital age.

In addition, Knight 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.

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

“There is a need for innovative approaches that recognize 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,” Gill said.

 

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