Knight invests $50 million to develop new field of research around technology’s impact on democracy

July 22, 2019

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Cross-disciplinary research centers and projects will fill knowledge gaps on how society is informed in the digital age

Contact: Lauren Dickinson, Communications Officer, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 305.908.2694, [email protected]

MIAMI — July 22, 2019 — Today, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a commitment of nearly $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.

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 (see descriptions and Table A below). 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. 

“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 centers 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 country, and represent a range of academic disciplines. All share a common goal: identifying how society can adapt to the ways in which digital technology has revolutionized the dissemination and consumption of information. 

“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 recognize the complexity of these challenges by joining computational sciences, social sciences and the humanities,” said Sam Gill, Knight vice president for communities and impact. “These resources are intended to spark collaborations that meet the urgent demand for new insights and ideas."

Read: Knight's Sam Gill shares about our new investments on Medium

These awards are intended to catalyze additional resources to support this critical area of inquiry and enable universities and research institutions to match Knight’s contribution. Many of the centers 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 center 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 center at the University of Washington.

Funding for these research centers and projects are part of an unprecedented $300 million commitment made by 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 organizations committed to serving communities at the local level. 

The full list of investments by Knight includes:

 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.

Supporting policy and legal research: 

In addition to these significant investments in scholarly research, Knight has dedicated $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.


About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit kf.org.

[APPENDIX]

Table A:

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

Research institutes’ leadership and media contacts

  • Carnegie Mellon University – The Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cyber-Security (IDeaS)

    Led by: 
    • Director Kathleen M. Carley, professor, Institute for Software Research, School of Computer Science
    • Co-Director David Danks, philosophy department head and L.L. Thurstone Professor of Philosophy and Psychology
    • Co-Director Douglas Sicker, engineering and public policy department head and Lord Endowed Chair of Engineering

Media contact: Jason Maderer, [email protected], 404.276.1643

  • Data & Society Research Institute

    Led by: 
    • Data & Society Founder and President danah boyd

Media contact: Sam Hinds Garcia, Director of Communications and Creative Engagement, [email protected], 646.832.2038

  • The George Washington University

    Led by: 
    • Steven Livingston, professor of media and public affairs and international affairs
    • Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs and professor of media and public affairs and international affairs 

Media contact: Jason Shevrin, [email protected], 202.994.5631

  • Indiana University – The Observatory on Social Media

    Led by: 
    • Alessandro Flammini, professor of informatics
    • Betsi Grabe, professor of media
    • Filippo Menczer, professor of computer science and informatics
    • Elaine Monaghan, professor of practice in journalism
    • John Paolillo, associate professor of informatics
    • James Shanahan, dean of The Media School

Media contact: Kevin Fryling, senior news and media specialist, [email protected], 812.856.2988 / Nicole Wilkins, executive director of research communications, [email protected], 812.856.2119

  • New York University – The Center for Social Media and Politics

    Led by: 
    • Richard Bonneau, professor of biology and computer science
    • Jonathan Nagler, professor of politics
    • Joshua A. Tucker, professor of politics

Media contact: James Devitt, [email protected], 212.998.6808

  • Stanford University – The Project on Democracy and the Internet

    Led by: 
    • Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy professor of law
    • Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini senior fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute, and professor, by courtesy, of political science

    • Rob Reich, professor of political science

Media contact: Eloise Duvillier, [email protected], 650.497.1263

  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – The Center for Information, Technology and Public Life

    Led by: 
    • Gary Marchionini, dean and professor, School of Information and Library Science
    • Deen Freelon, associate professor, School of Media and Journalism
    • Daniel Kreiss, associate professor, School of Media and Journalism
    • Alice Marwick, assistant professor, Department of Communication, College of Arts and Sciences
    • Zeynep Tufekçi, associate professor, School of Information and Library Science

Media contact: Carly Miller, [email protected], 919.445.8555

  • University of Texas at Austin – The Center for Media Engagement

    Led by: 
    • Gina Masullo Chen, assistant director
    • Anthony Dudo, program director of science communication
    • Matt Lease, program director of algorithms and interfaces
    • Scott Stroud, program director of media ethics
    • Talia Stroud, director
    • Sam Woolley, program director of computational propaganda

Media contact: Katalina Deaven, [email protected]

  • University of Washington – Center for an Informed Public

    Led by: 
    • Jevin West, assistant professor, Information School
    • Emma Spiro, assistant professor, Information School
    • Chris Coward, senior principal research scientist, Information School
    • Kate Starbird, assistant professor, Human Centered Design & Engineering
    • Ryan Calo, associate professor, School of Law

Media contact: Jackson Holtz, UW News, [email protected], 206.543.2580 / Maggie Foote, Information School, [email protected], 206.221.6182

  • University of Wisconsin - Madison – The Center for Communication and Civic Renewal

    Led by: 
    • Lewis Friedland, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor
    • Dhavan Shah, Maier-Bascom Professor
    • Michael Wagner, Vilas Associate Professor

Co-investigators:

  • Katherine J. Cramer, Natalie C. Hilton Chair of Letters and Sciences
  • Karl Rohe, associate professor
  • William Sethares, professor
  • Chris Wells, assistant professor (at Boston University)

Media contact: Michael Wagner, [email protected], 812.340.0319

  • Yale University – The Project on Governing the Digital Public Sphere: 

    Led by: 
    • JackBalkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment and director, Information Society Project at Yale Law School

Media contact: Jan Conroy, chief communications officer, Yale Law School, [email protected], 203.432.4849

  • Yale University – The Thurman Arnold Project 

    Led by: 
    • Fiona M. Scott Morton, Theodore Nierenberg Professor of Economics at the Yale School of Management

Media contact: Nathan Williams, Managing Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Yale School of Management, [email protected], 203.432.7817