What are the most important research questions about the impact of social media on political polarization and democracy? How can we support scholarly efforts to answer them? These are among the questions the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Ford Foundation discussed with 50 academics, funders, and social media representatives in January 2018. This report summarizes the discussion, outlines a potential research agenda, and elevates key infrastructure needs that can help the public, scholars, and decision makers—from policymakers to leaders of technology platforms—better understand the problem and potential solutions.
There has been much concern about the impact of digital disinformation on democracy and calls for immediate policy interventions. But many aspects of the problem are not yet fully understood, much less the interventions capable of doing more good than harm. The report summarizes the January 2018 discussion, which was structured around two main areas:
- Research questions that would enable sound decision making by platforms and policymakers. These include questions about the problem (how much disinformation exists, who creates it, and how it spreads) and questions about potential solutions (how to elevate accurate content, encourage readers to engage with diverse content, and reduce the spread of inaccurate and polarizing content).
- Core components of infrastructure needed for the research field to succeed. These include public goods such as access to large datasets, shared understanding of research currently underway, and real-time translations of research findings to policymakers.
Since the discussion took place, the Hewlett Foundation announced a $10 million commitment to support research on U.S. democracy’s digital disinformation problem. And the Hewlett Foundation together with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation, Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and Omidyar Network, announced a new partnership with Harvard, Stanford and the Social Science Research Council to provide scholars with privacy-protected data access to advance the public’s understanding of Facebook’s role in elections and democracy.