The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan, Charles Koch, John S. and James L. Knight, and Laura and John Arnold foundations; the Democracy Fund; and Omidyar Network, have announced the launch of a research initiative aimed at increasing public understanding of Facebook's role in elections and democracy.
Through the initiative, the funders will support relevant research by an independent and diverse committee of scholars whose expenses will be paid for by the consortium, with Facebook giving researchers access to proprietary data that meets the company's new, heightened focus on user privacy. The committee, whose members have yet to be announced, will define and prioritize research topics and invite the broader scholarly community to submit research proposals related to social media, elections, and democracy. While the committee will oversee publication of the research, the peer-review process and proposal selection will be managed by the Social Science Research Council, a U.S.-based independent nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing nonpartisan research in the social sciences and related disciplines.
Part of Hewlett's recently announced digital disinformation initiative, the effort is designed to fill research gaps in the academic literature on social media, political polarization, and political disinformation and, at the same time, address the need for data access. Knight's support for the effort is a key part of its $2.5 million Trust, Media and Democracy initiative, which it launched last fall and is focused on exploring causes behind the erosion of trust in democratic institutions, in particular the press.
"Social media is now where many go for news," said Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen. "We can't understand our democracy without opening the hood and taking a look. This first, serious, and independent effort to do that is an exciting opportunity to look deep inside the data and operations of the world's largest social network."
For more information on how foundations are supporting U.S. democracy, be sure to check out the Foundation Center's Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy portal.