The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has announced that it will award $10 million over two years in support of efforts to address the problem that digital disinformation poses for U.S. democracy.
Part of the foundation's Madison Initiative — an effort launched in 2014 to strengthen democratic values, norms, and institutions in the U.S. — and based on a yearlong exploration of the issue, the commitment will support research that informs decision making by government and tech industry leaders as well as civil society advocates, with a focus on the role of social media. To that end, the commitment will support explanatory research to better understand the problem, including how disinformation spreads across technology platforms and how it affects people's political beliefs, actions, and knowledge; experimental research into potential solutions that can reduce the negative impact of disinformation and elevate high-quality content; and ethical, legal, and technical research around the practical and philosophical considerations involved in addressing digital disinformation, including norms around privacy and free speech, incentives for voluntary regulation, and the role of government.
"Digital disinformation is a problem that philanthropy is still getting its arms around, and tackling in different ways," said Hewlett program officer Kelly Born, who led the development of the foundation's strategy and will oversee grantmaking in this area. "Some philanthropies are intervening 'upstream' to improve journalism and create high-quality content, while others are working 'downstream' on citizen-facing efforts like fact-checking and news literacy. Our funding will focus 'midstream' where widely trusted gatekeepers have been replaced by a 'Wild West' of voices active on social media platforms, from experts and friends to conspiracy theorists, foreign adversaries, and others who can now use bots, micro-targeting, and other techniques to amplify polarizing, distorted content."
"The Hewlett Foundation's efforts have been focused on improving the performance of democratic institutions, especially Congress," said Hewlett Foundation president Larry Kramer. "Meanwhile, a ceaseless stream of misinformation is eroding trust in those institutions and eating away at the very idea of our shared political community. 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."