Creative Lab/shutterstock

Creative Lab/shutterstock

Earlier this month, Rashad Robinson, the head of the civil rights group Color of Change, laid out some of his election day fears to the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel. They included false Facebook posts from Donald Trump, claiming “tons of people are voting illegally and threatening that armed guards will show up. Or claiming discrepancies in turnout that don’t exist. Or signaling and calling on his base to do something like show up to polls and intimidate voters.”

It was precisely these kinds of scenarios that the Knight Foundation’s John Sands, director for learning and impact, and his colleagues had in mind when the funder launched a $50 million initiative to better understand how technology is transforming our democracy last July. As the program unfolded, the combination of an upcoming presidential election, a frightening pandemic, and nationwide protests have made the dangers of online misinformation even graver than the team could have imagined.

A year later, the foundation has announced $1.7 million in 20 new grants, marking the completion of the initiative. As with previous rounds, the grants “advance research on debates about the scope of powers that digital platforms have assumed as mediators of both commerce and speech,” Sands said.

Grantees include the Heritage Foundation, which is addressing content moderation concerns on digital platforms, and Howard University, which is building out a new research initiative on the impact of digital manipulation on Black communities.

“Though it seems like the world has completely changed since we announced the previous round of grants in November,” Sands told me, “those investments feel especially prescient now, as recent events have forced the issues they address to the forefront of the public conversation.”

A Momentous Six Months

Let’s briefly look at how the world has changed since Knight’s previous round of $3.5 million in grants, made at the end of 2019.

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Sands told me, “we saw platform companies tacitly acknowledge the life-and-death ramifications of misinformation and take a more aggressive stance to limit certain types of harmful or misleading health content.” Soon after, Twitter began fact-checking and labeling President Trump’s tweets. In response, the president issued an executive order that sought to limit the protections that allow platform companies to host user-generated content without fear of legal reprisal.

In May, Facebook launched its Oversight Board, the independent body that will shape the company’s content policies in the future. About a week later, Twitter flagged Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” Tweet as “glorifying violence.” Facebook did nothing, drawing the ire of boycott organizers like Robinson who argue the social media giant should do more to crack down on hate speech.

It’s within this rapidly evolving context that Knight aims to catalyze “fresh, independent thinking that can inform ongoing policy debates,” Sands told me. “Knight Foundation believes democracy thrives when communities are informed and engaged, and this research addresses how our democracy will develop new norms for an information landscape that is being continually reshaped by digital culture and technology companies.”

Success Stories

Knight’s $50 million commitment to better understand how technology is transforming society is part of its larger $300 million initiative, launched in February of 2019, to strengthen journalism and democracy. While many of Knight’s recipients are still in the early stages of their research, Sands pointed to some encouraging developments thus far.

In July of 2019, Knight gave the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington $5 million to create the UW Center for an Informed Public, whose mission is to “resist strategic misinformation, promote an informed society, and strengthen democratic discourse.”

Sands told me that the center’s researchers, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, helped to popularize the concept of “flattening the curve.” Researchers Kate Starbird and Emma Spiro “have been leaders in helping us understand how information flows during times of crisis,” while Ryan Calo testified before Congress on the use of data analytics to address the pandemic.

The University of North Carolina Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life also received $5 million in Knight support. Sands called it an organization cultivating “some of the most prescient thinkers in the space.” They include Zeynep Tufekci, who has been one of the key translators of science and technology’s role in the COVID-19 crisis, and Daniel Kreiss, whose team has published several timely reports on political ads and content moderation policies on digital platforms.

Other examples include the University of Wisconsin Center for Communication and Civic Renewal, whose online tool tracks and corrects misinformation about COVID-19; St. John’s University Law School, where researcher Kate Klonick documented the development of Facebook’s Oversight Board; and the team at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, which “has been monitoring foreign efforts to amplify misinformation, offering insights to health officials on how to better communicate during the pandemic,” Sands said.

A Deepening Commitment to Local News

In the year since Knight launched its $50 million commitment, its funding has led to the establishment of new research centers at five universities around the country, creating a well-resourced network of independent research organizations and policy think tanks focused on understanding technology’s impact on democracy and helping to inform solutions.

“We’re excited by the early promise of this growing network of scholars,” Sands said, “and we’re beginning an ongoing monitoring program to measure the reach and relevance of the work they’re producing in the coming years.”

Looking ahead, Sands told me Knight will continue to focus on building a sustainable future for local news. One grantee, the American Journalism Project, “has already invested in 11 new nonprofit organizations nationwide, with their funding earmarked to hire business-side leaders who can bring in more revenue.”

Sands cited other organizations doing promising work, including the Solutions Journalism Network; the Institute for Nonprofit News, which “helped its members raise over $1 million for COVID coverage in May,” and ProPublica, which “is bringing its hard-hitting investigative reporting to local news partnerships across the country. We also work with for-profit newsrooms on digital transformation.”

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