NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Knight grant to help tackle social media ills

Social media has become a breeding ground for misinformation. It is an all too easy tool to broadcast and amplify outlandish claims and bogus stories.

That’s why we applaud the Knight Foundation for committing nearly $50 million in research to better understand how technology is transforming our democracy and the way we receive and engage with information. Indiana University is among several other universities and research institutions that are recipients of the foundation’s grants.

The Knight Foundation is a national nonprofit focused on fostering informed and engaged communities and investing in journalism, the arts and the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. The grants announced Monday are meant to respond in part to the manipulation of tech giants like Facebook and Twitter during the 2016 election. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller laid bare in his testimony before Congress on Wednesday, Russia’s coordinated effort to interfere in elections is a serious threat to our democracy that “deserves the attention of every American.”

One of the primary ways the Russians interfered was to create thousands of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts and use those accounts to push out fake news stories designed specifically to influence election results.

Mueller warned Congressman Will Hurd that Russian interference in the election “wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here and they expect to do it in the next campaign.”

That makes the research funded by the Knight Foundation all the more critical.

Besides looking at social media’s impact on election campaigns, projects funded by the grants will focus on the spread of disinformation and how newsrooms can address polarization in society. The foundation says it is time for society to understand the issues through data and not emotion.

IU says its $3 million grant will help establish a $6 million research center to study the role of media and technology in society. The new center will be called the Observatory on Social Media, and IU says it will investigate how information and misinformation spread online. “It will also provide students, journalists and citizens with resources, data and training to identify and counter attempts to intentionally manipulate public opinion,” writes Kevin Fryling, senior news and media specialist for IU.

The Observatory on Social Media, says James Shanahan, dean of The Media School and a co-leader at the center at IU, “comes at a time when there has never been more confusion about news: its sources, its accuracy, its effect on the public. Bringing journalists and students into contact with the best technology for assessing news legitimacy and accuracy will be an important step forward in the evolution of journalism in a new media environment.”

“We’re living the most profound change in how we communicate with each other since Gutenberg invented the printing press,” Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen said in a story on its website. “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.”

Social media can be a powerful tool for engaging and informing citizens. But as we’ve learned, it also can be used to spread misinformation and sow confusion and mistrust. The Knight Foundation research is needed and welcomed.

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