By GDJ [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

March 28, 2018; Nieman Lab

Following a relatively brief period of euphoria about the possibility that social media might usher in a golden age of global democratization, there is now widespread concern in many segments of society—including the media, scholars, the philanthropic community, civil society, and even politicians themselves—that social media may instead be undermining democracy (Tucker et al. 2017). This fear extends not just to new or unstable democracies, which are often prone to democratic backsliding, but also to some of the world’s most venerable and established democracies, including the United States. Indeed, in little more than half a decade, we have gone from the Journal of Democracy featuring a seminal article on social media entitled “Liberation Technology” (Diamond 2010) to the same journal publishing a piece as part of a forum on the 2016 U.S. elections titled “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” (Persily 2017).

—From Social Media, Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation: A Review of the Scientific Literature.

Neiman Lab reports that the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation will be taking on the “fake news” problem in its own way with a set of a few large grants that fund efforts to look at the role that social media platforms play in the spread of disinformation.

“The Hewlett Foundation’s efforts have been focused on improving the performance of democratic institutions, especially Congress. Meanwhile, a ceaseless stream of misinformation is eroding trust in those institutions and eating away at the very idea of our shared political community,” said Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer. “Progress in repairing institutions will not matter if citizens are misinformed about what has been done, misled about why, and deceived about whether democracy can work at all.”

We don’t know if we would agree that it’s just misinformation that’s eroding trust in democratic institutions—sometimes, it’s the behavior of the institutions themselves—but misinformation certainly plays its part.

Kelly Born, a program officer at the Madison Initiative at Hewlett, which aims to “strengthen the values, norms and institutions of US democracy in a polarized era,” says that this is a philanthropic niche that needs to be filled. Philanthropy has generally approached this problem differently—by investing in institutions, such as improving the availability of quality journalism; providing support for now-indispensable fact checking services like PolitiFact; and investing in other forms of fact checking, such as algorithms.

However, Born sees in social media “much more leverage to intervene…because you’re not trying to change the practices of hundreds of newsrooms or millions of consumers. You’re looking at half a dozen social media platforms.”

The foundation has been preparing itself to enter this arena by doing its own research into the link between social media, political polarization, and disinformation. You can reference some of the foundation’s lines of inquiry there.

Hewlett’s grants will focus on three areas:

  • Explanatory research that increases understanding of the current problem, including examining the supply of disinformation, how it spreads across different technology platforms and its effect on people’s political knowledge, beliefs and actions.
  • Experimental research that helps examine potential solutions, by testing what actions can reduce disinformation’s negative impact on individuals or how high-quality content can be elevated.
  • Ethical, legal and technical research that examines the practical and philosophical considerations in addressing digital disinformation, including how well norms around privacy and free speech are bearing up in the digital age, the incentives for voluntary regulation and the role of government including agencies such as the FEC, FTC, FCC, and others.

While some grantees have already been chosen for this effort, the foundation is also inviting proposals from others. Born says that the foundation is also interested in building up a research infrastructure in this area.—Ruth McCambridge

Correction: This article has been altered from its initial form to reflect Kelly Born’s proper role at the Madison Initiative.