New research center will study the impact of the internet and social media on people and politics
For the first time, social media surpassed newspapers as a news source for Americans last year. Nine in 10 Americans say they get at least some of their news digitally, and U.S. consumers are expected to spend more time looking at their mobile devices than at their televisions by the end of the year.
What does that mean for the way we make sense of the world? A new center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill intends to find out.
With $5 million in support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Carolina has established the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP). Drawing on some of the world’s leading experts in information science, media and journalism, communication, and law, CITAP will answer defining questions about the changing nature of society and politics in the digital age.
The new funding is part of a broader Knight Foundation initiative that is investing nearly $50 million for research around technology’s impact on democracy. The center’s charge to produce empirical research on these topics for the first time is a critical step forward for democracy in the digital age, Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen said in a press release.
“The internet has changed our lives and is changing our democracy. We have to take a step back and a step forward,” said Ibargüen. “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.”
An additional $750,000 contribution from Luminate and $600,000 from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation will expand the center’s impact.
“We’re in a time where anyone can create information and put it out on the internet. Conspiracy theories, hoaxes, rumors, fake news — these things are all rampant,” said Alice Marwick, Assistant Professor of Communication in the College of Arts & Sciences.
Marwick, Deen Freelon and Daniel Kreiss from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and Zeynep Tufekci from the UNC School of Information and Library Science will lead research at the center. Additional faculty members, post-doctoral scholars, and research assistants will join CITAP in the coming months. The center will be physically housed in Manning Hall following renovations to a space adjacent to the SILS Library.
CITAP will combine a variety of disciplines and research methods to understand digital media’s impact on people, communities and social systems.
“These are complicated problems,” said Gary Marchionini, Dean of the UNC School of Information and Library Science and principal investigator for CITAP, “so if we’re not looking at it through the lenses of sociology and psychology and technology, then we’re going to miss things.”
CITAP faculty members will share their research with policymakers, journalists, tech companies and citizens, allowing Carolina to act as a leading hub for information on emerging technologies and artificial intelligence.
“We have one of the most prominent groups of scholars who have been working on digital media and politics issues over the last decade, all together at one university,” said Kreiss. “We want to make research-informed recommendations for what platforms can do differently, for how government should approach regulation and ultimately what citizens can do.”
The center will also give students valuable insights into emerging fields and prepare them to critically analyze information as technology evolves.
“We need new technological and political solutions,” said Tufekci. “We can definitely keep most of the conveniences and possibilities of the digital world and keep our privacy, but there has to be regulation, innovation and effort to get there.”
Adapted from a story by Emilie Poplett, University Communications.
Kevin M. Guskiewicz, Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and SILS Associate Professor Zeynep Tufekci both penned columns for the Knight Foundation supporting the establishment of CITAP and other research centers across the country. Read what they said at go.unc.edu/Guskiewicz-Knight and go.unc.edu/Zeynep-Knight.