New Data & Democracy Research Initiative launched at University of Chicago

Initiative aims to study polarization, online discourse, misinformation

Democracy faces increasingly worrisome threats in today’s digital and online world: The Internet and social media amplify the spread of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and extremist political rhetoric, intensifying political polarization and bias. Online spaces have profound impacts on offline political activity, from voting to civil unrest, and online platforms’ data security, information flow, and moderation policies are increasingly under scrutiny.

Understanding and addressing these challenges and their effect on governments and society requires new inquiry and expertise at the intersection of democracy, public policy, technology, and data science.

A new research initiative at the University of Chicago called the Data & Democracy Initiative aims to ignite interdisciplinary research on the digital challenges facing democracies around the world.

A joint collaboration of the UChicago Data Science Institute and the Center for Effective Government at the Harris School of Public Policy, the initiative will seed new collaborations across the social and computational sciences, producing research-driven reports, tools, and software that bolster the work of policymakers, social impact organizations, and communities working to strengthen democracy.

“The most pressing questions facing political scientists today are intertwined with an ever-evolving online ecosystem and near-infinite amounts of data. Understanding and strengthening democracy in service of a more effective government requires bridging divides between the online and offline worlds—and the methods used to study them,” said William Howell, director of the Center for Effective Government and Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at UChicago. “The Data & Democracy Initiative will do just that, leveraging world-class faculty with expertise across disciplines alongside skilled practitioners and leaders to bring into sharp relief the unique challenges facing democracy in the digital age, and their potential solutions.”

Policy, politics, and platforms

The initiative’s first activity is an inaugural round of research funding, seeding four new interdisciplinary collaborations addressing questions on political participation and freedom of expression in the digital age. These projects bring together experts in policy, politics, law, computer science and data science to create new approaches for analyzing social media content moderation, neurological signals of political bias, the relationship between political polarization and dysfunction, and the effect of messaging on online information consumption and behavior.

The initiative will ultimately build a community of scholars and students at the intersection of democracy and data science, establishing new opportunities and expanding upon existing activities at both the Center for Effective Government and the Data Science Institute. Additionally, several recipients of the initiative’s initial round of research funding will serve as mentors in the Data Science Institute’s Summer Lab—an immersive 10-week paid summer research program for high school, undergraduate, and masters students—working with students specifically on Data & Democracy projects.

In addition to stimulating original research, the Data & Democracy Initiative will also hold public events and build new partnerships with academic, non-profit, and private organizations and practitioners focused on fighting disinformation and other digital threats to democracy. These outreach efforts will help disseminate research findings to the entities engaged in strengthening democracy, providing them with conclusions and interventions supported by scientific evidence.

“The Data & Democracy initiative builds on the research vision of the UChicago Data Science Institute to tackle interdisciplinary, data-driven problems that have real-world, societal impact,” said Nick Feamster, Neubauer Professor of Computer Science and faculty director of research at the Data Science Institute.

“The threats to free and open communication online have profound effects on our political systems, and on the flip side, our governments play a huge role in our ability to find and exchange information,” he said. “Data-driven methods at the intersection of computer science, law, and policy can play a valuable role in understanding, and ultimately developing solutions for, the challenges we face in this realm.” 

The inaugural Data & Democracy Initiative grants include four projects. One will probe the relationship between political polarization and dysfunction; does polarization produce government dysfunction, or do impediments to lawmaking propagate political extremism?

Another project will combine computer science and law approaches to conduct an empirical study of the moderation policies and practices of platforms such as YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, and Etsy, creating the first public corpus of these policies and auditing how these systems are applied in real situations.

The third project combines methods from neuroscience, linguistics, and computer science to refine existing approaches for measuring political bias.

Another program intends to develop a new Facebook Messenger chatbot that can be used for a variety of research uses, such as canvassing on a broad range of topics, measuring information consumption, or studying the effect of messaging interventions on political participation and behavior.

—Adapted from an announcement first published by the Data Science Institute and the Center for Effective Government.