The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced Wednesday that it was awarding $5.5 million in new grants to study a variety of issues involving the intersection of technology, media misinformation and democracy. According to Knight’s press release, the funding will be used to “advance research of issues such as online content moderation, mis- and disinformation online, freedom of expression across digital platforms and liability for content posted online.”

The funding involves four different tranches, including:

A $1.5 million competitive call for research proposals that will inform effective interventions to combat disinformation campaigns aimed at communities of color. Because these communities have been targeted for what Knight terms “racialized disinformation,” it’s seeking to fund research that explores ways to counteract such online manipulation.

Up to $175,000 will be awarded for selected research projects, which are expected to be completed within 18-24 months. The deadline for applications is Sept. 15. Knight is casting a broad net by seeking submissions from universities, research institutions, think tanks, community nonprofits and news organizations. It specifically encouraged applications from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, Asian-American and Pacific Islander-serving institutions, ethnic media organizations and early career scholars. Projects selected for funding will be announced in early 2022.

Knight is also committing $2 million to create a new, three-year “Rebooting Social Media” institute at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, an interdisciplinary unit that examines various cyberspace topics. It will study new ways of addressing disinformation, radicalization, and harassment occurring on social media. The new institute will be led by two Harvard faculty members: Professor Jonathan Zittrain, George Bemis Professor of International Law and Professor of Computer Science, and James Mickens, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science. 

Knight will award $1 million to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. Sometimes referred to as “America’s Black think tank,” the center focuses on policies that can improve the socioeconomic status and civic engagement of African Americans.

Knight’s funding will be used to support a new Technology Policy Program that will examine and develop policy solutions to “ensure that Black communities are not harmed by—and have an opportunity to benefit from—emerging technologies.”

The Lincoln Network, a conservative policy center will also receive $1 million from Knight. According to its mission statement, “the Lincoln Network is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 2014 with a mission to help bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and DC. We believe in a world of free markets and free people, and that fostering a robust but responsible innovation ecosystem is crucial to creating a better, freer, and more abundant future.”

Knight’s funding will support Lincoln Network’s via three components:

  • Hosting convenings on key topics in tech hubs like the Bay Area, Austin, and Miami;
  • Growing the Network’s Policy Hackers fellowship that informs technology professionals on various polity issues;
  • Building a new policy research initiative at the intersection of media, technology, and the creator economy.

Like the Berkman Klein Center and the Joint Center, the Lincoln Network has been a previous recipient of Knight funding. Based on the outcomes of that prior support, the new grants help scale up the potential impact of the three organizations.

“Demand is only growing for fresh thinking about our democracy’s digital information challenges,” said John Sands, Knight’s Director of Learning and Impact. “As more of our lives are lived online, independent research is increasingly needed to drive actionable insights and equitable solutions.”

In a phone interview with me, Sands added, “Solutions to the digital information challenges facing our democracy will only come through an informed and inclusive public debate. We are confident that those answers will not inhere in any one ideology or institution. Rather than claiming to know the answers, Knight’s approach has been to resource fresh normative thinking and a robust dialogue informed by sound, independent research.”

These latest grants extend the Knight Foundation’s investment in understanding the impact of technology and digital media on democratic governance. Since 2019, Knight has provided $50 million for research and scholarship to explore several of the information challenges society faces today— from misinformation and the rapid and unfiltered distribution of content, to the proliferation of hate speech and politically motivated propaganda.



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