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New $6 million center will investigate media and technology in society

IU’s Observatory on Social Media will unite journalists and data scientists in curbing the spread of misinformation online

Research and discovery Jul 22, 2019

(This article originally appeared in the IU Newsroom.)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana University will establish a $6 million research center to study the role of media and technology in society, with support in part from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a nonprofit focused on fostering informed and engaged communities.

Called the Observatory on Social Media, the new center will investigate how information and misinformation spread online. It will also provide students, journalists and citizens with resources, data and training to identify and counter attempts to intentionally manipulate public opinion.

Major support for the center comes from Knight Foundation, which will contribute $3 million, as well as funds from the university. The center is a collaboration between the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, The Media School and the IU Network Science Institute.

Filippo Menczer. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University.

Knight Foundation’s investment in IU is part of a $50 million commitment to build a new field of research around technology’s impact on democracy. IU is one of 11 institutions receiving support to create or expand research centers focused on better understanding the future of democracy in a digital age.

“This observatory will investigate important questions at the intersection of media and technology,” said Filippo Menczer, a professor in the IU School Informatics, Computing and Engineering, who will serve as the center’s director. “By joining together experts in journalism and data science, we will be able to not only identify the most significant questions about how information and technology can be manipulated to weaken democracy, but also design and build the sophisticated tools required to attack these questions.”

James Shanahan. Photo by Laura Pence, Indiana University.

The observatory expands upon an existing project from Menczer’s lab and the IU Network Science Institute to understand the spread of misinformation online, whose efforts have garnered significant attention from reporters, researchers and policymakers. The work has also informed such third-party efforts as shutting down 10,000 bots seeking to discourage U.S. voting and, most recently, a California law requiring the clear identification of bots online.

“This new center comes at a time when there has never been more confusion about news: its sources, its accuracy, its effect on the public,” said James Shanahan, dean of The Media School and a co-leader on the center. “Bringing journalists and students into contact with the best technology for assessing news legitimacy and accuracy will be an important step forward in the evolution of journalism in a new media environment.”

The observatory’s mission includes:

  • Laying the groundwork for a new master’s degree and certificate program in data journalism, which is expected to launch in a few years. The emerging field of data journalism combines traditional reporting skills with proficiency in statistics and computer science to draw upon the growing amount of data in the public sphere. Students will also practice their skills through the Media School’s Michael I. Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism and Indiana Environmental Reporter.
  • Advancing research on thorny topics such as the social and technological forces behind contemporary mistrust in media, the long-term impact of social media in areas without access to strong local news, and why many news consumers are increasingly unable to recognize trustworthy sources of information. The center will study how journalists can use data to craft news stories that are resilient to manipulation.
  • Creating new technologies to study the abuse of social media, including the ability to analyze and visualize how information and misinformation spread online; to identify accounts likely to be real people versus bots; and to quickly detect attempts to launch coordinated disinformation campaigns or create the illusion of grassroots political movements, a practice known as “astroturfing.”

The center will also maintain the vital technological infrastructure required to power these tools, including an existing database of over 100 billion public tweets and a growing collection of metadata from over 50 million videos on YouTube.

“The digital experience of our democracy is vast, uncharted territory,” said Sam Gill, vice president for communities and impact at Knight Foundation. “This observatory will help researchers peer into the unknown for insights that can inform the future of our democracy.”

Other co-leaders of the center are professor Betsi Grabe and professor of practice Elaine Monaghan of The Media School; professor Alessandro Flammini and associate professor John Paolillo of the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering; and Valentin Pentchev, senior director and director of IT at the IU Network Science Institute, who will serve as the center’s director of information technology.

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