Center to Explore Issues at Heart of Digital Era

The Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life aims to answer defining questions about the changing nature of society and politics in the digital age. (File photo)

For the first time, social media last year surpassed newspapers as a news source in the U.S. Nine in 10 Americans say they get at least some of their news digitally, and by the end of the year, U.S. consumers are expected to spend more time looking at their mobile devices than at their televisions.

What does that mean for the way we make sense of the world? A new center at UNC wants to find out.

With $5 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Carolina is establishing the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life. Drawing on the work of experts in information science, media and journalism, communication and law, the center aims to answer defining questions about the changing nature of society and politics in the digital age.

The funding is part of a broader Knight Foundation initiative that is investing nearly $50 million for research around technology’s impact on democracy. Other institutions receiving funding include Carnegie Mellon, George Washington and New York universities and the University of Washington.

The UNC center’s charge to produce empirical research on these topics for the first time represents a key step for democracy in the digital age, Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen said in a news release about the organization’s investment.

“The internet has changed our lives and is changing our democracy. We have to take a step back and a step forward,” Ibargüen said. “To understand what is actually happening, we need independent research and insights based on data, not emotion and invective. To go forward, citizens must be engaged, and including university communities in the debate is a step in that direction.”

An additional $750,000 contribution from Luminate and $600,000 from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation will expand the UNC center’s impact, with the aim of better positioning students and society to be discerning information consumers.

“We’re in a time where anyone can create information and put it out on the internet. Conspiracy theories, hoaxes, rumors, fake news — these things are all rampant,” said Alice Marwick, assistant professor of communication in the College of Arts and Sciences and one of four faculty members leading the center.

Researchers will explore how social media readers decide whether content is credible, how reactions of others to articles can sway opinion on a topic and how users’ digital activity can trigger the advertising messages that they see.

“These are complicated problems,” said Gary Marchionini, dean of UNC’s School of Information and Library Science and principal investigator for the new center, “so if we’re not looking at it through the lenses of sociology and psychology and technology, then we’re going to miss things.”

The center plans to combine a variety of disciplines and research methods to understand digital media’s impact on people, communities and social systems.

“We have one of the most prominent groups of scholars who have been working on digital media and politics issues over the last decade, all together at one university,” said Daniel Kreiss, an associate professor in UNC’s School of Media and Journalism. “We want to make research-informed recommendations for what platforms can do differently, for how government should approach regulation and ultimately what citizens can do.”

Faculty members associated with the center plan to share their research with policymakers, journalists, tech companies and citizens, allowing Carolina to act as a hub for information on emerging technologies and artificial intelligence.

The center also will work to give students insights into emerging fields and prepare them to critically analyze information as technology evolves.

“We need new technological and political solutions,” said Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor in UNC’s School of Information and Library Science. “We can definitely keep most of the conveniences and possibilities of the digital world and keep our privacy, but there has to be regulation, innovation and effort to get there.”


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