Hewlett Foundation announces $10 million commitment to support research on democracy’s digital disinformation problem

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced today that, following a yearlong exploration, it will devote $10 million over the next two years toward grappling with the growing problem that digital disinformation poses for U.S. democracy.

Focusing primarily on the role of social media, the new funding commitment will support high-quality research to help improve decisions made by leaders in the technology sector as well as government and civil society advocates. The effort is one part of the foundation’s “Madison Initiative,” founded in 2013 to strengthen the values, norms and institutions of U.S. democracy in a polarized era.

“The Hewlett Foundation’s efforts have been focused on improving the performance of democratic institutions, especially Congress. Meanwhile, a ceaseless stream of misinformation is eroding trust in those institutions and eating away at the very idea of our shared political community,” said Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer. “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.”

“Americans – from citizens to policymakers to scholars to social media executives themselves – are just beginning to understand and acknowledge how technology platforms can spread disinformation, encourage polarization and undermine civil, democratic discourse,” said Daniel Stid, director of the foundation’s Madison Initiative. “We hope that our grants will help shed light on the dark corners of the web, and lead to solutions that support a more informed democratic debate.”

“Digital disinformation is a problem that philanthropy is still getting its arms around, and tackling in different ways,” explained Hewlett Program Officer Kelly Born, who led the foundation’s strategy development 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 Our funding will focus ‘midstream’ where widely trusted gatekeepers have been replaced by a wild west of voices active on social media platforms, from experts and friends to conspiracy theorists, foreign adversaries and others who can now use bots,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 new commitment will support three lines of research:

  • Explanatory research that increases understanding of the current problem, including examining the supply of disinformation, how it spreads across different technology platforms and its effect on people’s political knowledge, beliefs and actions.
  • Experimental research that helps examine potential solutions, by testing what actions can reduce disinformation’s negative impact on individuals or how high-quality content can be elevated.
  • Ethical, legal and technical research that examines the practical and philosophical considerations in addressing digital disinformation, including how well norms around privacy and free speech are bearing up in the digital age, the incentives for voluntary regulation and the role of government including agencies such as the FEC, FTC, FCC and others.

The foundation’s decision to fund a robust, multidisciplinary research agenda focused on social media platforms and disinformation follows a yearlong exploration that engaged leading data scientists, political scientists, technology company representatives, civil society advocates, and other funders including through multiple convenings and an in-depth, independent review of the academic literature. The foundation plans to support a small number of grantees with larger grants to advance the broader field of researchers, advocates and decision-makers.

ABOUT THE HEWLETT FOUNDATION: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is a nonpartisan, private charitable foundation that advances ideas and supports institutions to promote a better world. For more than 50 years, the foundation has supported efforts to advance education for all, preserve the environment, improve lives and livelihoods in developing countries, promote the health and economic well-being of women, support vibrant performing arts, strengthen Bay Area communities and make the philanthropy sector more effective. Its Madison Initiative focuses on strengthening the values, norms and institutions of democracy – Congress, in particular – to be more effective in a polarized age. www.hewlett.org

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